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In Context #10 (Fall, 2003, pp. 3-4); copyright 2003 by The Nature Institute

Words, Mechanisms, and Life
Stephen L. Talbott

One of the most striking—and, at first glance, puzzling—features of the contemporary scientific landscape is the juxtaposition of mechanistic thinking with the once-forbidden but now flourishing vocabulary of information, meaning, and design. Why, one wonders, do so many mechanistically minded scientists not only tolerate the use of explanatory concepts relating to mind and language, but positively encourage it?

To see the shape of the problem, it is enough to look at one field—genetics. The drumbeat here has been so insistent that no one can have missed it: the human genome is a text composed of nucleotide letters; genes are messages; DNA is a script or a string of code; genetics is a science of information (leading to the new discipline of bio-informatics); the Human Genome Project has been deciphering the Book of Life. Consistent with this broad appeal to the language metaphor, molecular biologists routinely employ the terminology of word processing. And so the genomic text is transcribed, edited, spell-checked, translated, copied, read, labeled, indexed, stored in memory, and accessed with information retrieval procedures.

Such terminology is ubiquitous. Two examples will suffice.

To be fluent in a language, one needs to be able to read, to write, to copy, and to edit in that language. The functional equivalents of each of those aspects of fluency have now been embodied in technologies to deal with the language of DNA. (David Jackson, quoted in Kay 2000, p. 1. Emphasis in original.)

It is the order of [nucleotide] bases along the chain of a DNA molecule that spells out the biological message carried by the DNA, in a four-letter code....This is precisely equivalent to the way the words you are reading convey information spelled out in a 26-letter alphabetic "code". (Gribbin 2000, p. 240)

Precisely equivalent? This is an odd claim to make given that, as science historian Lily Kay has pointed out, DNA is in no sense like any language we know: "it lacks phonemic features, semantics [meaning], punctuation marks and inter-symbol restrictions." Analyses of its "letter" frequencies yield only random distributions. Furthermore, "no natural language consists solely of three-letter words," as the genetic code supposedly does. In sum, the genome is "an authorless book of life written in a speechless DNA language" (Kay 2000, p. 2; Kay 1998).

The appeal to technical notions of information does not save all the loose scientific talk. In the first place, the technical theory of information excludes any reference to meaning, so it robs the language metaphor of its entire substance. Citing DNA "messages" that don't mean anything hardly furthers our understanding. And even if the technical theory could somehow help, no one has ever figured out how to map the functioning of DNA to the central concepts of the theory—concepts such as "signal," "noise," "message channel," and so on.

You'd think scientists would insist upon reasonably precise terminology. Yet the misleading and obscure resort to the vocabulary of information, text, and meaning has reached a crescendo during these past few years of the Human Genome Project—this despite the fact that for several decades thoughtful scientists have been pointing out the absurdities in the usage. As a result of the prevailing terminological abuse, the larger public has been convinced that genetic engineers actually know what they're doing when they juggle and splice snippets of genetic "code." After all, the code is being "deciphered," yielding its precise content of "information"—isn't it? And aren't we already experts at information processing, moving bits around in sensible fashion?

Redeeming the Textual View

The confusion about information and genes does not require the geneticist to avoid language about language. The problem arises only when the attempt is made to get the word-like from mere mechanism. Because these mechanisms, in good Cartesian fashion, are conceived as having nothing meaningful, qualitative, or expressive about them—that is, nothing language-like about them, it is no wonder that explicating them in terms of language lands us in a hopeless muddle. The fault lies, not with the language-based explanation, but with the Cartesian mechanisms.

If, on the one hand, we take language seriously in all its expressive fullness, and if, on the other hand, we take the organism seriously in all its expressive fullness, then the necessity of conjoining the two domains becomes obvious. We need the language of expression—that is, the language pertaining to the word—in order to grasp the expressiveness of the organism. Kay seems to hint at this when she says, "once the genetic, cellular, organismic, and environmental complexities of DNA's context-dependence are taken into account," we might find that genetic messages "read less like an instruction manual and more like poetry, in all their exquisite polysemy [multiplicity of meaning], ambiguity, and biological nuances" (2000, pp. xviii-xix). Craig Holdrege was getting at the truth of the matter when he wrote:

We gain a knowledge of genes—as opposed to a mere assertion of their material existence—only through knowledge of the organism as a whole. The more knowledge we have of the organism as a whole, the more information we have. This information is not in the genes; it is the conceptual thread that weaves together the various details into a meaningful whole. (Holdrege 1996, p. 80. Emphasis in original)
In other words, it is legitimate for the geneticist to liken the organism's functioning to text or speech, but only if the full expressive potentials of both language and organism are acknowledged. Meaningful speech is inseparable from the qualities of things, so that the effort to hear the organism speak must at the same time be an effort to establish a qualitative science. It is through the interpenetrating qualities of the organism's morphological, physiological, developmental, and behavioral gestures that we can read the coherent unity of its "statements."

A primary motive underlying mechanistic science has been the elimination of qualities and meaning. This is why DNA, viewed as a mere mechanism, cannot send messages or otherwise speak in any meaningful sense. All of which raises the question why there is nevertheless such an intense preoccupation with the genetic "text" today.

I believe we can recognize in this preoccupation the fateful collision of two opposing movements. On the one hand, there is an increasing awareness that we cannot grasp the living organism without appealing to the language of life, thought, meaning, and quality. The attempt to restrict science to the traditional, reduced language of mechanism simply no longer satisfies many researchers. This is a positive development that creates a wonderful opening for the practitioners of a qualitative, or Goethean, science.

But, on the other hand, the resort to "text," "information," and all the rest reflects a widespread conviction that now we can reduce and mechanize even the concept of the word—which is also to say, even the concept of the concept. It is an impossible goal, and the nonsensical metaphors we noted above are one symptom of the impossibility. But we should not underestimate the negative potential in the current usage. To the extent scientists are willing simply to forget their own capacity for speech and to substitute for it the notion of mechanical interactions, they will not be bothered by nonsense. And meanwhile nothing is to prevent a kind of practical reductionism from taking hold, whereby organisms are treated more and more as mechanisms and therefore come more and more to resemble mechanisms in our understanding and practice.

So there is a grave double potential in the ongoing convergence of the language of mechanism and the language of life. We could see a resuscitation of the dead language of mechanism, so that it is no longer merely mechanistic, or else the final expiration of the language of life, so that it is no longer living.

The language of life, as I indicated, is necessarily a qualitative language. Many of the articles in past issues of In Context have aimed to illustrate a scientific approach to the natural world that reckons with qualities. In this current issue, one of the features attempts to look at qualities in a more direct way.


Kay, Lily E. (1998). "A Book of Life? How the Genome Became an Information System and DNA a Language", Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, vol. 41, no. 4 (summer), pp. 504-28

Kay, Lily E. (2000). Who Wrote the Book of Life? A History of the Genetic Code. Stanford CA: Stanford University Press.

Gribbin, John (2000). Q is for Quantum: An Encyclopedia of Particle Physics. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Holdrege, Craig (1996). Genetics and the Manipulation of Life: The Forgotten Factor of Context. Hudson NY: Lindisfarne.

Original source: In Context #10 (Fall, 2003, pp. 3-4); copyright 2003 by The Nature Institute

Steve Talbott :: Words, Mechanisms, and Life

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