Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Quantum biology?: the vitalism of Bohr, Schrodinger and Wigner

Ernst Mayr was one of the leading evolutionary biologists in the twentieth century and was influential in the development of the modern philosophy of biology. He particularly emphasised the importance of emergence and the limitations of reductionism. In his book, This is Biology: the Science of the Living World Mayr has the following paragraphs that are embarrassing to physicists.
Before turning to the organicist paradigm which replaced both vitalism and physicalism, we might note in passing a rather peculiar twentieth-century phenomenon-the development of vitalistic beliefs among physicists. Niels Bohr was apparently the first to suggest that special laws not found in inanimate nature might operate in organisms. He thought of these laws as analogous to the laws of physics except for their being restricted to organisms. Erwin Schrodinger and other physicists supported similar ideas. Francis Crick (1966) devoted a whole book to refuting the vitalistic ideas of the physicists Walter Elsasser and Eugene Wigner. It is curious that a form of vitalism survived in the minds of some reputable physicists long after it had become extinct in the minds of reputable biologists. 
A further irony, however, is that many biologists in the post-1925 period believed that the newly discovered principles of physics, such as the relativity theory, Bohr's complementarity principle, quantum mechanics, and Heisenberg's indeterminacy principle, would offer new insight into biological processes. In fact, so far as I can judge, none of these principles of physics applies to biology. In spite of Bohr's searching in biology for evidence of complementarity, and some desperate analogies to establish this, there really is no such thing in biology as that principle. The indeterminacy of Heisenberg is something quite different from any kind of indeterminacy encountered in biology.
Bohr's speculative foray into biology was not isolated. He made many highly speculative statements about the implications of quantum theory to other disciplines (including politics and religion) that were accepted uncritically and used inappropriately by some postmodernists. Mara Beller, has chronicled these excesses in a provocative Physics Today article "The Sokal Hoax: At Whom Are We Laughing?", and a book, Quantum Dialogue: the making of a revolution.

The hubris of physicists does not diminish with time. Earlier I posted about how (not) to break into a new field.


  1. Physicists can also help to tame the hubris of some biologists/biophysicists too : http://arxiv.org/abs/1502.07316 is a good exemple of a critical review of not well supported claims of coherence and nonclassicality in ultra weak light emission by biological samples.

  2. If you want someone to blame why quantum biology started as pseudoscience in the West don't blame scientists, blame Deepak Chopra. Alexander Gurwitsch, a Russian-Jewish-Atheist scientist laid the framework for quantum biology but it could not have bee verified at the time due to technology and was not plausible by mid 20th century. Then it was challenging life as chemistry paradigm and continued being rejected. At the same time New Age movement and occult (in Russia) began to push for quantum biology which made it appear a pseudoscience in the eyes of respected scientists

  3. And philosopher later. Then the idea than quantum processes deco here too quickly to play role in biological functions. Only in the 21st century it became to be introduced to science when they started to study photosynthesis and originally the quantum theories in biology were regarded fringe in science until recent few years due to evidence supporting them. If not for Deepak Chopra quantum biology would go from Gurwitsch to normal science without being branded pseudoscience in late 20th century

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