Monarch Butterflies and Quantum Computers by George Wolfe
Last August while staying at the poet’s house in New Harmony, Indiana, I caught a glimpse of a Monarch Butterfly while sauntering through the meadow near the Wabash River. New Harmony happens to be on the edge of the Monarch’s flyway as it migrates northward each summer. This creature’s life journey is truly one of the marvels of nature.
I became fascinated with the Monarch’s lifecycle a few years ago after attending a presentation on the Monarch Butterfly at Muncie’s annual Living Lightly Fair. For my readers who are unfamiliar with its yearly journey, most individual Monarchs begin life in Mexico where, after emerging from it’s chrysalis, flies northward into the United States. It then mates and lays eggs, from which it enters the larva or caterpillar stage. The caterpillar eventually forms another chrysalis during which it undergoes metamorphosis, transforming itself into the majestic orange-winged butterfly that then flies further north. This goes on until the fourth generation at which time the fourth generation Monarch, which lives about two months longer than the previous three generations, knows somehow to fly south and return to its native birthing ground in Mexico.
As I observed the Monarch I saw in that New Harmony meadow, I marveled at how all that information and guidance apparatus could be contained in it’s ultra-small brain. We humans pride ourselves with how computers have become increasingly smaller over the past 70 years. The computing power contained in a modern cell phone used to require hardware that filled an entire room. When it comes to shrinking things in size however, the Monarch Butterfly has us beat by a long shot.
Imagine building a robot with a program in it to emulate the behavior of this specie of Butterfly. It addition to a guidance system and having the ability to reproduce itself, the robot, which would be the size of the Monarch, would have to know to go through its individual lifecycle four times. The fourth generation would then know to fly back to it’s southern home in Mexico where it’s great, great grandparents began their multigenerational lifecycle journey. This algorithm would have to be contained in a computer the size of the Monarch’s brain, which is smaller than the head of a pin.
This would undoubtedly require something on the level of a “quantum computer” and an advanced form of artificial intelligence far beyond what we have developed today. Perhaps there is even awareness on the subatomic level which some risk-taking scientists are referring to as a “quantum consciousness.” According to an article by Steve Volk in the March 2018 issue of Discover Magazine, quantum physics may play a role in plant photosynthesis and in birds that migrate using the Earth’s magnetic field. It may also help explain how one-celled animals like paramecium know how to navigate their environment and find food without having a brain or nervous system.
In addition to the multigenerational lifecycle of the Monarch Butterfly, the possibility of awareness at the quantum level could explain how electrons and other subatomic particles behave differently when being observed, as if they know when they are being watched.
Indeed, quantum consciousness may be the metaphysical “light” of the universe, the first expressed manifestation from what theologian Paul Tillich called the “Ground of Being.” In our ambitious search for life beyond our world, perhaps we will soon discover that the infinitely subtle universe knows that we are here!
George Wolfe is the Green Party candidate for the office of Secretary of State in Indiana, and the former Director of the Ball State University Center for Peace and Conflict Studies. He is also a trained mediator and the author of Meditations on Mystery: Science, Paradox and Contemplative Spirituality.