Quantum Evolution: The New Science of Life.

Johnjoe McFadden. HarperCollins, London. 2000. Pp. 338. Price £16.99, hardback. ISBN 0 00 255948 X.

Quantum Evolution: The New Science of Life simply does not work. The author has a central idea regarding how Darwinian natural selection may be complemented by another evolutionary force, which he refers to as quantum evolution. However, this idea is hidden in the shortest chapter, near the end of the book, after more than 200 pages of wide-ranging material covering a miscellany of rather tenuously linked subjects — biospheric extremes, reproduction, the origin of life, muscle action, enzyme action and quantum mechanics. This results in the reader becoming progressively frustrated as the book does not get to the point and when one eventually gets there one is in no mood to take on board speculative and badly explained new mechanisms, which is how I viewed the core ideas when I finally reached them.

So, what is McFadden’s ‘Quantum Evolution’, which he describes in his sub-title as ‘The New Science of Life’? Firstly, it bears no relation to G. G. Simpson’s ‘quantum evolution’ that we are all familiar with — indeed, and bizarrely, McFadden seems entirely unaware of this standard usage of his key term. There are no references to Simpson’s work anywhere in the book. Instead, McFadden’s ‘quantum evolution’ emerges as an application of quantum mechanics to mechanisms of mutation and it becomes, among other things, a proposed way in which the controversial ‘adaptive mutations’ described in E. coli by Cairns et al. (1988) might come about. As I have never believed that environmental conditions systematically cause mutations that are adaptive in those conditions, I was not particularly interested in a possible mechanism for the production of such mutations. Perhaps other readers with different preconceptions may take a more positive view.

Regrettably, the recurrent errors throughout the book lead to the feeling of not being in a safe pair of hands. Some of these are trivial, yet add to the general sense of insecurity — for example, a tendency to get names wrong. So, for example, Margulis becomes Margolis, Eldredge becomes Eldridge and Galilei becomes Galiliei. More importantly, there are other parts of the book that are just plain wrong. For example, McFadden says (p. 133) that the second law of thermodynamics ‘states that everything in the universe is accompanied by an increase in entropy’. Even the author himself realises that this is not so, because he states on the following page that the second law ‘does not forbid processes that decrease entropy’, so the first statement represents careless writing rather than misconception. The lesser of two evils, to be sure, but disconcerting nonetheless.

As will be clear by now, I did not like the central idea or the book as a whole. However, I was left asking myself whether I might have been prepared to consider the central idea more sympathetically if McFadden had written a much shorter book with quantum evolution up front and with greater attention to detail. I suspect the answer is no.