Zoology as a probe of the nature of reality

Back in 2009, I went to see Leonard Susskind talk in Bristol about the parallels between evolution and string theory. After the talk finished, a question was asked along these lines, Given that we live in a universe of more than three spatial dimensions [as implied by string theory], would it be outlandish to suppose that creatures have evolved to take advantage of these? This is quite an interesting thought - many examples of relatively contemporary and exotic physics have been observed in plant and animals. For example birds may use quantum effects to navigate, geckos' feet take advantage of microstructures to stick to things and butterfly wings gain their iridescent shimmer from optical interference of nanostructures.

Susskind's response to paraphrase, was something like the size of these proposed extra dimensions limits the complexity of the organism probably to the point where they could not be complex enough to take advantage of the extra dimensions. This is quite a cautious response, possibly to avoid fuelling speculation on ghosts, angels and other paranormal phenomena, however like the birds taking advantage of quantum mechanical effects, it may simply be a part of the organism that operates at this small scale - not the entire organism.

Evolution has already been performing millions of concurrent experiments over millions of years and it remains that there has not been any evidence for extra dimensions (that we know of) that have been discovered in biology/zoology. Clearly, we have not excavated every fossil and studied every species in detail but at the very least this provides some evidence that tentatively puts the theory of evolution at loggerheads with that of string theory.

It could be that the extra dimensions are somehow not accessible to biologically evolved species of the scales we have on earth - much like there has been no evidence of general (or special) relativity being exploited by animals or plants since nothing travels fast enough - but if that is the case then this places some potentially useful limits on the theories e.g. maybe dimensions on the macro scale can be ruled out (of course it cannot be ruled out definitively since evolution is still a stochastic process which has to provide the organism with an evolutionary advantage and so it simply might not be evolutionarily favourable for an organism to take advantage of some exotic phenomenum - but it could still provide evidence against a particular theory).

A second, more interesting, possibility is that there does exist organisms that have evolved to take advantage of e.g. string theory but we just have not realised that they do or we have not found them yet. Nature then may be replete with living experiments that could confirm the validity of exotic new theories of physics.

In either of these two cases, there could be an interesting new research strategy, with crossover between physics and biology/zoology, where there is a catalogue of features on organisms whose purpose and/or mechanisms are unknown. These unknown features could provide the starting points for the search for applications of and evidence for exotic theories as well as novel applications of existing theories. In essence, it could change the search for real-world applications of exotic theories into a question of effectively data-mining a zoological catalogue.

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