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A project by Stephen L. Talbott

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


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 what it might mean to say that a computer executes instructions to grow the instruments for executing its instructions?

It’s also impossible to imagine how anything like hybridization — or, for that matter, sexual reproduction — is possible in a computer-like organism. You can’t take parts of two different and exceedingly complex programs, throw them together in a tiny bit of new hardware, and expect them to function harmoniously together as they grow a massively larger hardware “body”.

Finally and most fundamentally, the whole idea that DNA consists of an arbitrary digital sequence capable of harboring computer-like instructions is badly misconceived. Current researches overwhelmingly demonstrate that shape and structure, sculptural dynamism, changing arrangements in space and time, the mutual embrace of molecular complexes that mutually adapt to and transform each other — all this and much more is part of what each “letter” in the DNA sequence means for the organism.

This is why one researcher has referred to the chromosome as “a plastic polymorphic dynamic elastic resilient flexible nucleoprotein complex”. There is no single-minded code in the genome. The organism is an embodied creature, and the intricate, ever-changing forms of its interactions define its life. This is wholly unlike the computer, whose uniform electronic pulses were intended to abstract as far away as possible from embodied existence.

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Selected excerpts from the chapter
bullet The “athletics” of protein-DNA binding
bullet A military march or a dance?
bullet How the organism “plays” its chromosomes
bullet How biologists were seduced by the model of the computer
bullet The noncomputational life of organisms (1)
bullet The noncomputational life of organisms (2)
bullet The noncomputational life of organisms (3)
bullet Are the yak and orangutan computable?
bullet Who is supposed to have programmed the organism?
bullet The organism remains as untamed as Jacob’s “wanton woman”
bullet The molecules in our cells know their tasks