This recent article in the New Scientist revives a long-established idea that the origin of life on Earth could derive from a quantum process. The first to suggest this appears to have been Schrodinger in his 1944 book, ‘What is Life? The idea has been relaunched by Jonjoe McFadden of the University of Surrey UK, who has also proposed the idea of an electromagnetic field as a quantum substrata of consciousness.
The proposal is in many ways the mirror image of the proposals for quantum consciousness. The quantum process is suggested to provide an explanation for something that macroscopic science has failed to explain, and the main argument against the quantum is the same as in the case of consciousness, that is that decoherence in the conditions of the primordial Earth would be far too quick for quantum coherence to be relevant. As with the quantum consciousness idea, proponents of the quantum view have argued for possible shielding of the quantum process.
The origin of life is not as hard a problem as consciousness, but it has certainly proved difficult. The idea that life arose from some primordial soup of molecules is inherently plausible. The difficulty arises in getting the molecules to combine in the right order. The simplest self-replicating structure is estimated to require 165 base-pair molecules placed in the right order and the odds against getting the right structure is 4^165, a number said to be greater than the number of electrons in the universe. Of course, if Nature made enough tries for long enough it should get there eventually. However, life on Earth appeared quite soon after the planet became at all suitable for life, making the 4^165 chance a bit improbable.
McFadden proposes that a form of quantum computing arose in the primordial conditions allowing a ‘search’ of all the possible ordering of the molecules, and leading to the discovery of the sequence that self-replicated. Some support is given to his idea by the suggestion that the speed at which nucleotide bases are matched up when cells split also requires quantum processes.
As with quantum consciousness, the main problem for the proposal is the speed at which quantum decoherence would be expected to occur in the type of conditions that would permit the origin of life. However, two other researchers, Asoke Mitra and Garge Mitra-Delmotte have suggested how quantum processes could have been shielded, in a manner rather akin to Hameroff’s idea of quantum processes being shielded within the microtubule.
The Mitras focus on sub-sea vents that have been seen as a favourite location for the origin of life in recent years. Another scientist, Michael Russell at the University of Glasgow had already shown that the necessary molecules could react with iron sulphide found close to the vents. The Mitras argue that chambers found near sub-sea vents could shield quantum processes. Magnetic fields generated by the iron sulphide are suggested to protect the quantum states of the necessary molecules. The Mitras point out that magnetic fields are used in an analogous manner in proto-type quantum computers in order to maintain the entanglement of particles used as qubits. The idea is claimed to be testable by means of existing technology.
Substantiation of the idea would not in itself appear to prove that consciousness is explained at the quantum level. However, if quantum processes were seen to have been involved in the origin of life, that would seem to be an inherent plausibility that the adaptive advantages of the speed of quantum search processes would have been incoroporated into living organisms.