Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Evolutionary theory: the coming quantum jump?

After decades of being constrained by a neo-Darwinist ultra-reductionist mindset it is refreshing to see signs of new horizons opening up. Here are five developments that I, as a layman, have observed recently:

Kin selection under attack

Edward Wilson has rejected kin selection and the associated ‘selfish gene’ hypothesis as an explanation of evolution and instead proposes group selection in his latest book The Social Conquest of Earth. Formerly, Wilson was a supporter of kin selection and it is not surprising he should incur the wrath of Richard Dawkins and a hundred or so other evolutionary biologists. I suspect that Wilson’s group selection theory, while a significant improvement, will leave many unanswered questions about the extraordinary evolution of life on this planet: but what matters to me most is that we may at last be getting some fresh thinking and deeper worldview in a blinkered biological establishment. See also

The five-fold threat to science.
 Virus-driven evolution

Darwin’s original view was that evolution occurred by a gradual accumulation of beneficial traits culminating in new species as the best traits were preferred by natural selection, since only the fittest would survive. Darwin himself, and more so Wallace, the co-discoverer of evolution, had strong doubts about this. The fossil record soon showed it to be wrong – new species arrive suddenly, not gradually. Moreover, the whole body plan and life system of a new species is totally different from any existing species, and cannot be explained by the occurrence of random mutations, since random mutations add nothing to the information content of a genome. All they can do is switch on or off a few genes which are already in the genome.

There is now a wealth of evidence to show that it is viruses, not random mutations, which drive evolution and that these transfer beneficial traits from one species to another by incorporating themselves in the germ-line, i.e. egg or sperm cells, of a different species. Moreover, new species do not arise by modified descent in a tree of life. The whole process is, of course, barely understood but we at least know that evolution is best portrayed graphically as being more a web than a tree.

Viral-type DNA has recently been found to account for a substantial proportion of an organism’s genome – much more than the genes which code for protein expression (1.5%). This is at least partially derived from outside the organism and from its ancestors.


What primarily alters the characteristics of an organism is which genes are switched on, in which way and at what time. They don’t do this switching on and off themselves. It is determined and initiated by proteins and enzymes active within the cell and these are in turn affected by the environment, both within the organism and outside it, as well as food and drugs taken in by the organism and by previous generations.  The study of these extra-genetic processes is called epigenetics and it is a burgeoning field. It will, I suspect, have major implications for the mechanism of evolution and since much of the activity involved occurs within the brain there is no telling where the research could lead.

It is conceivable that our body-mind system and behaviour could all be affected by previous generations or have an effect on future ones. The epigenetics revolution by Nessa Carey points out that this could have major implications for drug R&D if the potential effects on future generations have to be taken into account.


The number of bacteria, fungi and other micro-organisms in your body is 10x greater than the number of body cells (i.e. hundreds rather than tens of trillions) and the importance of this in the functioning of the body is becoming increasingly recognised.  Could bacteria, too, have implications for evolution, given that our current understanding of the process is barely scraping the surface?

Communication between organisms

There is increasing evidence of chemicals and information being meaningfully transferred between trees in a forest, even between different species, via their root networks. Transfers of this type may well happen for other forms of plant life and also between mobile life forms in ways we cannot envisage.

Quantum biology

The incredible degree of organisation and purpose in the microscopic processes of life (e.g. editing and transfer of protein molecules between DNA segments) could originate from outside the measurable world, i.e. at the quantum level, and I seem to have seen suggestions of this somewhere, although this may just be  speculation on my part. I know definitely that quantum phenomena are being invoked in attempts to explain bird migration. There is also the fact of quantum entanglement which shows interaction of quantum systems independently of distance: where this could lead in evolutionary theory is beyond imagination.

I am looking at these developments as an outsider ignorant of all the eddies, cross currents  and fine points of discovery but I am hoping that science magazines, popular books and documentaries on biology will become more interesting, exciting and inspiring as the paradigm changes from attributing every miracle of nature, including human beings, to an evolutionary accident and facing up  to the strangeness and wonder of our existence.


author, 2077 AD (being revised)