The protein folds as platonic forms: new support for the pre-Darwinian conception of evolution by natural law

J Theor Biol. 2002 Dec 7;219(3):325-42. doi: 10.1006/jtbi.2002.3128.


Before the Darwinian revolution many biologists considered organic forms to be determined by natural law like atoms or crystals and therefore necessary, intrinsic and immutable features of the world order, which will occur throughout the cosmos wherever there is life. The search for the natural determinants of organic form-the celebrated "Laws of Form"-was seen as one of the major tasks of biology. After Darwin, this Platonic conception of form was abandoned and natural selection, not natural law, was increasingly seen to be the main, if not the exclusive, determinant of organic form. However, in the case of one class of very important organic forms-the basic protein folds-advances in protein chemistry since the early 1970s have revealed that they represent a finite set of natural forms, determined by a number of generative constructional rules, like those which govern the formation of atoms or crystals, in which functional adaptations are clearly secondary modifications of primary "givens of physics." The folds are evidently determined by natural law, not natural selection, and are "lawful forms" in the Platonic and pre-Darwinian sense of the word, which are bound to occur everywhere in the universe where the same 20 amino acids are used for their construction. We argue that this is a major discovery which has many important implications regarding the origin of proteins, the origin of life and the fundamental nature of organic form. We speculate that it is unlikely that the folds will prove to be the only case in nature where a set of complex organic forms is determined by natural law, and suggest that natural law may have played a far greater role in the origin and evolution of life than is currently assumed.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Metaphysics
  • Origin of Life
  • Protein Conformation
  • Protein Folding*