What Do Organisms Mean? > The Poverty of the Instructed Organism > Summary
A project by Stephen L. Talbott

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The Poverty of the Instructed Organism: Are You and Your Cells Programmed?

Summary

THE IDEA THAT OUR CELLS are somehow like computers and that DNA, as an informational molecule, is a bearer of program instructions, has transformed biology. It apparently enables biologists to reconcile immediate appearances with longstanding philosophical prejudice: they can accept the testimony of their own observation to the effect that the organism is a purposeful (teleological), agent-like, communicative, and perceptive being whose wise know-how extends all the way down to the molecular level, while at the same time they can continue viewing this organism as nothing but a mindless machine.

The remarkable thing is how readily this view has conquered biology despite being untenable both at first glance and upon sustained analysis. Computers and their programs depend upon a precise fixity of electronic communication channels repeatably traversed, absolutely isolated from one another, and with all traffic along them coordinated in lock-step by the ticking of a clock.

By contrast, the organism — whose cytoplasm has been described as a “heaving and churning” sea — has no pathways that are perfectly insulated in this way from what is going on around them. In fact, unpredictable “cross-talk” between different processes is now being found central to all cellular activities. Furthermore, nothing remotely like the programmed activity of a computer is possible within the spatiotemporal dynamism that researchers are now uncovering in the cell nucleus — and particularly when they examine chromosomes.

There’s also the fact that the organism grows. It’s hard to fathom how eminent figures such as François Jacob and Ernst Mayr could have blithely declared that the DNA “program” has the power to build the computational “hardware” that executes the program — and claimed that this has become a routinely acceptable truth in the age of computers. How do we even conceive w