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Friday, August 21, 2015


A review of Life on the Edge: the Coming of Age of Quantum Biology by Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden (2014)


This review is dedicated to my late father-in-law, Brian McCabe who bought the book just prior to his heart-attack which lead to his death some three months later in July 2015, aged 86. He had taken the book as reading material with him to hospital. I instead started reading the book when visiting him in hospital. He never got to read a single page. There is an obvious and somewhat tragic if not ironic correlation between the book’s title and his own falling off the edge of life, as it were. My father-in-law was not a scientist but worked for many years as a lab technician in the chemistry department of the University of Auckland. He had an interest in popular science but I never really asked him about him about his motivation to buy this particular book. I wonder how he would have responded - on his deathbed - to the quote on p.316:

Perhaps death represents the severing of the living organism’s connection with the orderly quantum realm, leaving it powerless to resist the randomizing forces of thermodynamics.

Given his sense of humour, he might have responded with something like ‘so that’s what it is’.

I am not a quantum scientist either but a linguist with an interest in biolinguistics, hence always interested in discoveries that might explain language and thought – and life in general – and after finishing reading the book I have a similar response. While the depth of explanation of biological organisms is truly amazing, the authors concede, as they must, that we are nowhere near a scientific explanation of how life started, based on Feynstein’s quoted adage that ‘if I cannot make it, I cannot understand it’. Another limiting factor, also acknowledged, is Gödel’s dictum that no logical system can explain itself. This is particularly pertinent when the authors tackle the question of the human mind and its attendant qualities of ‘ideas’ and thought and language. Even if we can now explain olfaction, navigation and vision as quantum based phenomena and therefore assume that all sensory input is thus transported to the brain, the next step to the formation of an ‘idea’ in the human brain is highly speculative and indeed very nebulous when the authors propose a ‘binding’ force in terms of electromagnetic fields. How this electromagnetic ‘idea’ is then further manipulated into an action is equally unclear. Of course the action of painting a cave picture – as used by analogy by the authors – can then be reversed as quantum-mechanical output. If I add the qualification that ‘ideas’ equal thought and thought equals language, then we have a lot of explaining to do, as to how electromagnetic fields generated by quantum-based electric inputs can in turn generate language. How did the cave woman, how did the authors, how do I generate the ideas that in turn generate the picture or the words used in these instances? Is it just a matter of further research needed to get to the crux of this matter or is it a matter – excuse the pun – of Gödel’s dictum that by extension would claim that life cannot explain itself, and neither can language explain language. These very ideas of self-reference and self-replication are explainable to a certain degree at the level of the (quantum-)mechanics involved but they cannot be explained (or ‘made’ to use Feynstein’s word) from scratch, i.e. their evolution remains a mystery and must remain so until an alien meta-intelligence will figure it out (and which will be unintelligible to us anyway). There are of course many human alternatives to the scientific explanation, however religiously incoherent they may be. This is something lacking in the book: speculation on how bad ideas are generated. The example of the cute cave woman painting a bison needs to be counterbalanced by the mad cave man, maybe someone like Donald Trump or Adolf Hitler, who seem to make up the majority population in terms of generating the worst possible outputs. What kind of electromagnetic de-coherence and thermonuclear white noise generate such minds? If our minds operate on the level of quantum computers, there is of course so much that can go wrong and will go wrong. As pointed out by the authors, man-made quantum computers are very difficult to maintain their coherence, hence natural mind-quantum-computers (i.e. the human brain) are subject to malfunction although without any detrimental effect on the brain itself. In other words, brilliant scientific minds can be subservient to the most horrible genius. One of the more speculative ideas generated by the authors is of course of great interest to biolinguists: quantum computation as opposed to classical computation allows for linguistic theory to make a great leap from binary ‘merge’ models (à la Chomsky) to ‘superpositional’ states, quantum entanglement and other ‘spooky’ phenomena. If we accept that human language must be the most complex biological system in the whole of the universe (or at least on earth) then language must also be at the level of quantum mechanics or even at a level as yet not discovered. Eventually we might be able to pin down the metaphorical language incoherence with quantum states that have reverted to classical decoherence. We may also be able to explain the phenomenon of having different languages that are all based on a universal system of logical coherence but differ according to multitudinous quantum states. For example ergative languages (which are rare) could be ‘tautomers’ in relation to accusative languages (which are common). Another quantum concept that might be useful for linguistics is ‘entanglement’ phenomenon in terms of explaining anaphoric interpretation. Reflexives in particular seem to be able to jump local binding (as stipulated by minimalist syntax) but remain ‘entangled’ as distant binding anaphors.
Al-Khalili and McFadden, as modern-day scientist, certainly spin a good yarn that is fascinating in many aspects but equally lacks explanatory power (and elegance) when it comes to human life on the edge. I am enamoured by the tales of the robins that navigate by the earth’s magnetic field and I am sort of enamoured by the scientists that figured out how the robins do it. Suppose these cute little flying quantum machines go through various stages of adaptive mutation and develop sufficient brain power to generate something akin to human language, would they turn into little monsters? Would they turn their musical sing-song into intellectual property rights? Would they dream, as Al-Khalili and McFadden do, of robin life to be supplemented by artificial life forms so that they could avoid strenuous travel from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean? Al-Khalili and McFadden suffer from a serious dose of decoherence when they propose at the end of their book that ‘the fantastic features of quantum biology … could all be harvested to potentially build a brave new world of quantum synthetic living organisms that could free their natural-born relatives from the drudgery of providing humanity with most of its needs’. What kind of a crazy idea is this? Will the current gap between the 99% of human drudges and the 1% of human elites be solved by little robots doing all our washing up and building nice houses with swimming pools for all? Will the little robots fight proxy wars in Syria? Will they print enough money to go round? Will the little robots induce love and happiness amongst all the people who hitherto live on greed and hate? No Sir, what we really need is a reliable device that maintains quantum coherence in the natural-born brains! It amounts to what Engels called the leap from quantity to quality. Since Al-Khalili and McFadden enjoy quite a few literary references from Shakespeare to McCarthy, one should point to the literary allusion of a ‘brave new world’ as also envisaged by Aldous Huxley, albeit in a rightfully dystopic frame of mind, and BTW much better done than The Road by McCarthy.