Information, language, code

Joshua Swamidass, in dispute with staunch ID apologist “Deliberateresult” (Joe Palcsak) over at BioLogos, denies (like a surprising number of TEs) that DNA is anything more than “analogically” a code, or a language, in the wider context of his being uncomfortable with considering people as biological machines:

Honestly it sounds like you are seeing people as machines, even in this quote. Of course we make analogies between living systems and machines, language, technology, etc. That is how humans work. We reason about often this way. You, however, seem to think the there is not analogy, that this is actually describing the reality.

You say, DNA is actually a language, no metaphor, right? The only differences between humans and machines are because we are much more brilliantly engineered. Right?

I’m fine with using the metaphors, but you seem to be taking them very literally. I am not comfortable with that. It leads to very poor thinking, and in the case of calling humans and example of technology, it makes me ethically and theologically squeemish [sic].

I’ll come to “machines” shortly, but my major interest here is to examine the “DNA is not really a code” idea. It seems to me as if amongst TEs this idea has followed a growth-path something like this. Gamow’s RNA tie club in the 1950s worked out how DNA operates, and it was Gamow’s use of maths in a “cryptographic” manner that predicted a triplet code for the 20 amino acids, for the deciphering of which Nirenberg, Khorana and Holley were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1968 “for their interpretation of the genetic code and its function in protein synthesis”. Both the Nobel Committee and Khorana in his Nobel lecture were happy to leave scare-quotes off the word “code.”

Even in the the early days, Hubert Yockey showed the application of the new information theory to DNA, and has always insisted that it is not analogically, but literally, a code. He certainly denied that it is identical to “language”, though its Shannon information content (see below) is mathematically equivalent.

The similarity between the code and computer algorithms has not only been used to model evolution, but has even been analysed in research like this fascinating paper, which compares the E. coli genome to the Linux operating system, saying in its discussion:

We have presented a comparative analysis between the transcriptional regulatory network of E. coli and the call graph of the Linux operating system and explored their similarities and differences in hierarchical structure, modularity of organization, and persistence of nodes. A summary of the comparison can be found in Table 2. The two networks are shaped by different underlying design principles, which are deeply connected to the interplay between the systems and their environments.

There is no allusion to “analogy” in the paper – if there were, it would hardly be any more useful a comparison than a scientific paper on some evolutionary psychology story as compared to The Elephant’s Child… though in some other context that comparison might be worthwhile.

Francis Collins called DNA “the language of God” in establishing BioLogos, and whether or not he meant it analogically (of which there is no hint in the book), that kind of description would trigger alarm bells in the predominantly atheist evolutionary science guild. I suggest that, ignoring half a century of information theory insights, they began to push the historically dubious message that everybody has always really meant the code as a mere analogy. That has become the consensus (ie “good”) science. TEs naturally want to follow good science (witness the general antagonism to Third Way approaches to evolution), so they endorse this conclusion.

But is the reasoning actually valid? And more fundamentally, how can a science of efficient material causes make any legitimate judgement on a question of a code, which is an inherently teleological and informational concept, strongly implying a purposeful codemaker? One must surely employ the methods of fields in which more than material efficient casuation is methodologically permitted. Philosophy and theology are such fields, but also information technology and linguistics: biology cannot claim to trump these using methodological naturalism, for it is to argue in a circle.


But let us, from outside that methodology, look at the ways in which the DNA code is directly comparable to language.

Firstly, the methods of Shannon’s information theory deal very successfully with the information content of DNA, in terms of things like noise, error correction and so on. Yockey in his book deals with this in great detail. On the basis that what walks like a duck and quacks like a duck is a duck, DNA contains Shannon information. Or rather, as far as it is “code-like”, it is Shannon information.

Likewise, like human languages of all sorts (including codes and computer algorithms), DNA exhibits Kolmogorov complexity, which sharply distinguishes it from the ordered complexity of non-living chemical or physical systems. The classic example of the latter is the snowflake, hugely variable but completely prescribable from simple mathematical principles and a few variable parameters. And yet astonishingly one still hears TEs (and skeptics – why do they agree on so much, I wonder?) using the snowflake as an analogy for living things only apparently being designed. Yarus’s work suggests primaeval affinities between some amino acids and RNA. To the extent that this is so, it reflects the ordered complexity of the snowflake, not the organised complexity of life and language.

Thirdly, as Gamow predicted, DNA contains symbolism, in which something (a DNA triplet) stands for another entity not in any way directly related (an amino acid). Once again, the work of Yarus barely addresses this fundamental feature of today’s DNA code.

Now fourthly, language (as I have already said) is innately teleological, and science cannot address meaning as such, either to discern it or dismiss it. To quote Yockey (paradoxically attacking the use of his work by Intelligent Design people):

Information theory treats information and meaning as entirely separate (cite Shannon). Information, as defined in information theory, is measurable, and therefore is a suitable subject for science and mathematics (cite Socrates). However, meaning is not measurable and thus falls in the realms of faith, belief, religion and philosophy.

In other words, he implies methodological naturalism can have no opinion about meaning. He omits, of course, that far-from-religious empirical fields like linguistics cannot function without addressing meaning, and neither, in practice, can those who need to apply information theory in practice.

But “function” is a simpler use of language than human discourse: to say, “Quick march!” or “First pluck your chicken” does not exhaust the capabilities of human language, but does employ its main principles. So does the concept of computer language, in which symbolism is made mathematical rather than alphabetic and function is achieved algorithmically. And biologists would have very little to talk about if they did not speak teleologically of DNA in relation to function: calling such talk mere analogy is specious when there is simply no other way to discuss the subject.


Inasmuch, then, as science can compare the DNA code to language, the evidence is that it is more than an analogy. On the other hand the differences one can state between language and DNA seem to have more to do with detail than disanalogy. So, to begin with, the information in DNA is always transmitted chemically, whereas in human language it is neurochemical and aural, or visual, or many other modalities. In computer code it is always electronic, but needn’t be – a mechanical abacus or Babbage machine will do the same job, if inefficiently, because information is immaterial.

Likewise one could assemble a protein synthetically from a written script derived from the gene, and it would function in the cell, or synthesize bastardised tRNAs that would happily form proteins with all the wrong amino acids, that failed to function. Chemistry cannot be mistranslated – only codes.

Secondly, speech always in practice carries sophisticated levels of meaning (including metaphors and analogies!) and ultimately entire experiences of the world. Understood as linear code, DNA does not. And yet we should not assume too much from our limited knowledge of DNA, which may be akin to the first understanding of a foreign language, in which we may soon find how “!ktoh” means “dog”, but will need many years of study to see how the dog functions as a totem animal. Only recently we have found the importance of DNA’s 3-dimensional configuration, and its multi-level control functions. Who knows what “meaning” may not be hidden in what remains undiscovered? The point is that what difference we find has not to do with analogy, but divergence of purpose (and weakness of scientific methodology): where they can be compared, language and DNA match at essential points.

To explain this further, consider Joshua Swamidass’s objection to the machine metaphor for the body, an objection which is valid at some levels, but not at others – and notably not at the level of science. I remember being shocked in 1st year school physics when Mr Spencer described a simple lever as a machine. To the eleven-year old me a “machine” had a hundred moving parts and a spring, but physics takes a simpler view.

Now, it is simply a fact (on which I’d stake my medical reputation, if I still had one) that the musculo-skeletal system consists of (virtually) nothing but a system of levers. Palaeontologists can determine the shape of dinosaurs from calculating the muscle-bulk necessary to work a particular limb. These levers are not analogies – they are true machines, in the same sense that physics defines them.

Of course, as any Aristotelian will quickly tell you, they are not artifacts, and in formal terms comprise integral parts of a unified “substance” that is far more than a machine, in all kinds of ways. Nevertheless, when you design an artifical limb, you start by modelling the (natural) machinery it has to replace. And when Joshua speaks as a scientist, rather than an Aristotelian metaphysician, his objection lacks weight. Theologically, many people are also “squeamish” if they think of human beings, created in God’s image, as “animals” – and yet Scripture itself is clear that though we are more than animals, our “animality” is real, not analogy.

Therefore one needs to demonstrate, not simply assert, the differences between DNA and a true code, and saying (as one BioLogos poster did last week) that DNA is not a code because it is “all chemistry” is as crass as saying that language is “nothing but neurochemistry”. Why do so many people find it so hard to see why the discovery of a medium does not preclude a message?


Another aspect of this has arisen only very recently, in a Scientific American article on human language. This describes the increasing abandonment of Noam Chomsky’s longstanding linguistic paradigm (not to exaggerate its influence) that the human brain has a hard-wired “grammar” which underlies the structure of every human language, making apparently diverse tongues actually variations on a rather mechanistic template. The article says:

Instead the new research shows that young children use various types of thinking that may not be specific to language at all—such as the ability to classify the world into categories (people or objects, for instance) and to understand the relations among things. These capabilities, coupled with a unique human ability to grasp what others intend to communicate, allow language to happen.

In the new usage-based approach (which includes ideas from functional linguistics, cognitive linguistics and construction grammar), children are not born with a universal, dedicated tool for learning grammar. Instead they inherit the mental equivalent of a Swiss Army knife: a set of general-purpose tools—such as categorization, the reading of communicative intentions, and analogy making, with which children build grammatical categories and rules from the language they hear around them.

What this appears to mean, in the comparison of “language” with “DNA code”, is that if language is not fixed by a mechanism, but only by its function, it becomes a lot less secure to speak of “analogy” between human language and DNA. One might as well speak of Xhosa or some other rare tribal tongue as only analogically comparable to English, being constructed entirely differently and, perhaps, even using different pathways of the brain. But significant elements of what is common to such disparate human languages is, as far as one can tell, common also to the genetic code.

That is emphasised if one compares DNA to the disanalogy of animal communication. When I did social psychology at Cambridge, the first book I read was by Margaret Mead, though I can’t remember the title. In it, she pointed out the difference between the limited vocalised signals of an animal, which communicate by “calling out” a fixed direct response (such as the alarm call that signifies “run” and uniformly evokes running), and human language, which combines symbolic elements to communicate any number of complex messages.

On this comparison, clearly the chemical affinities noted by Yarus resemble far more the animal than the human model. The fact of such communication in animals has no direct analogy with human language. In fact, it is only when language breaks down under strong stimuli that laughter, screams or wailing occur at the expense of language. It would seem to me that chemical affinities similarly work against the development of a flexible code, rather than forming a foundation for it.


One more thing, regarding the approach of Christians in this matter. Remember that science, operating under methodoloical naturalism, has no authority to comment either way on “meaning”, or lack of it, in DNA even at the relatively simple level of teleological function. But as Christians, if we believe that Christ the Logos is the source of the creation of all things, including living entities, what do we mean by excluding the existence of a true information function within the mechanisms we know to be involved in the evolution and development of life? What basis do we have for such an assertion?

New Scientist article speaks of “a unique human ability to grasp what others intend to communicate”. That certainly applies across the 6,000 languages of mankind, and it extends to a large extent to our relationship with animals too, which is why we can tame or train them (not to mention the more subtle communications of crops or even cakes, according to one TV baker recently, who said her success comes from “listening to her cakes”!). Is it really that outlandish to suppose that God should want us to understand his communication in nature, and might equip us, since we are made in his image, to do so more or less reliably?

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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30 Responses to Information, language, code

  1. Jay313 says:

    Very thought-provoking, Jon. I’ll cross-post this to BioLogos for the benefit of the conversants over there. Overall, I am sympathetic to what you are saying, but I think it is not necessary to your argument (and by extension, the ID argument) to push the analogy of code, whether computer or DNA, so far that it becomes identical to human language. Philosophy has relied from the beginning on analogy to reason about and clarify concepts. The fact that computer code, a human design, and DNA, a “natural design,” share remarkable similarities certainly raises questions with teleological implications. However, I fail to see how the teleological argument is strengthened in any way by insisting that either code (computer or DNA) is identical to human language. The analogy is a strong case on its own. Why insist that it is more than analogy? Actually, I think such identification weakens the argument by opening it up to a wide range of criticisms that distract from the main question: Do the similarities between computer code and DNA code imply design?

    In any case, I would also question whether language is a correct analogy in the first place. To my understanding, both computer code and DNA code are more analogous as algorithms, a set of instructions to achieve a desired (intentional!) result. In fact, if both are algorithms by definition, this is where the human invention and its natural analog are most nearly identical and should be compared, not in their resemblance to language. Perhaps the problem stems from the fact that many ID theorists want to characterize their arguments as “science” rather than philosophy? I don’t know. Maybe you have a different take.

    Getting back to your article, I see frequent conflation of the ideas of code and language. For instance:

    “denies (like a surprising number of TEs) that DNA is anything more than ‘analogically’ a code, or a language” (Me: You redefine code as language here.)

    “my major interest here is to examine the ‘DNA is not really a code’ idea.” (Me: Aren’t you examining the “DNA is not really a language” idea?)

    “a code, which is an inherently teleological and informational concept, strongly implying a purposeful codemaker?” … “On the basis that what walks like a duck and quacks like a duck is a duck, DNA contains Shannon information. Or rather, as far as it is ‘code-like'” … “like human languages of all sorts (including codes and computer algorithms), DNA exhibits Kolmogorov complexity” … (Me: In these examples, you convincingly argue for what I was saying above, which is that the similarities between DNA code and computer code (algorithms) have teleological and informational implications. But, again, I fail to see how the teleological argument is strengthened by taking another step to bring human language into the equation, confusing the issue.)

    “Secondly, speech always in practice carries sophisticated levels of meaning (including metaphors and analogies!) and ultimately entire experiences of the world. Understood as linear code, DNA does not.” (Me: If they are not identical, they are not identical. Thus, they are analogies.)

    “Remember that science, operating under methodoloical naturalism, has no authority to comment either way on “meaning”, or lack of it, in DNA even at the relatively simple level of teleological function. But as Christians, if we believe that Christ the Logos is the source of the creation of all things, including living entities, what do we mean by excluding the existence of a true information function within the mechanisms we know to be involved in the evolution and development of life? What basis do we have for such an assertion?”

    The heart of your question involves “excluding the existence of a true information function.” If computer code contains true information function, and computer code is a direct analogy to DNA code, doesn’t that demonstrate the existence of a true information function in DNA? Why make the unnecessary leap from computer code to language?

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Jay, and welcome to The Hump.

      My primary aim here is to refute the claim that DNA is not a medium of “real” information at all, which is where the focus of denial has usually rested. The sticking point is “information” rather than “language” strictly defined. So it’s the legitimacy of the comparison of DNA with symbolic/semantic codes, including computer codes, that’s been contested, and the core of that is the idea of information-directed-at-an-end.

      I don’t think anybody has ever been trying to suggest that DNA is a full-blown human language, with all the layers of human meaning experienced in daily conversation. My allusions to the hidden functions of DNA were partly provocative, but partly to remind us that DNA can probably no longer be viewed as strictly algorithmic (cf James Shapiro’s description of it as a read-write database).

      But the richness of most human language is specific to one variety of language: some human language is stripped of those wonderful ambiguities for specific purposes. I cited recipes and military orders, but could extend that to the constrained language of academic papers, operational flow charts, shipping forecasts etc. Yet that does not make it cease to be “language”: no animal compiles lists of assembly instructions, any more than they write poetry.

      The core teleological idea of “meaningful information” (a concept that is, of course, opaque to science as my linked post discusses) is something that is unique to language more generally defined – a term that is correctly, I think, habitually applied to all forms of human communication including codes, computer algorithms (which are written in computer languages, expressly so-called), and mathematics. To quote Galileo:

      [The universe] cannot be read until we have learnt the language and become familiar with the characters in which it is written. It is written in mathematical language, and the letters are triangles, circles and other geometrical figures, without which means it is humanly impossible to comprehend a single word.

      As per a recent BioLogos conversation, one could dispute whether the language is spoken by the universe, or just by the humans modelling it, but it is still a language.

      To summarise, I am not trying to elevate DNA to the level of Shakespeare’s, or the Bible’s, use of language: but I do suggest that algorithms, like mathematics itself, are a sub-division of the global concept of language anyway. The real issue is, as you conclude, “true information function”, because that implies a truly teleological system, which is the essence of what language is – it contains real meaning, even if that meaning were limited to algorithmic function.

      The distinction is from the mere appearance of meaning, which I dealt with here a couple of years ago.

      To me it seems absurd that one should believe that God creates all things by his word, and that we interpret his work by an analogous (in this case!) use of language, but that where there appears to be a comparable pattern demonstrable in creation, we should regard it (in effect) as an example of pareidolia.

      A more prosaic reason for the piece is that, regardless of any question of divine involvement, I believe DNA actually is a true symbolic code, just as language is, from the evidence. That alone makes it worth discussing.

  2. swamidass says:

    Very interesting article Jon. Thanks!

    I do agree with you that DNA certainly conveys information, and is not exactly a language. I would point out that some ID advocates disagree with this distinction, and call DNA “literally” a language, “no analogy.” So that really is a thing going on.

    I am okay with calling DNA a symbolic code too, but it is very difficult to think meaningfully about DNA with these abstractions. This concepts, even though it is correct, seems misleading at times because DNA works very differently than any other symbolic code of which we know.

    In the end DNA is DNA, and we have to understand it on its own terms first, using analogies only to the extent the help us and clearly clarifying where their usefulness ends.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Joshua – I may be wrong, but I think this is your first comment here, so if so, welcome!

      I have to say that apart from Joe Palcsak’s somewhat casual use of the word, and my own mischievous extrapolation to the hidden depths of DNA, I’m not aware of an ID writer pushing the idea of DNA as non-analogical language, but only as non-analogical “code”. Offhand I can only think of Francis Collins pushing the language to a book title.

      They are, after all, seeking to show teleology, not mythology or poetry, in the cell.

      Indeed, if you chased the links here to my two previous posts, you’ll see that I criticised “information rich” IDists like Dembski for appearing to treat the logos as too algorithmic, rather than DNA as too linguistic, by shortchanging the concept of meaning in the latter (which is why I tried to address it there, and why it leaked into this post).

      In fact, as far as the “code” issue goes, you seem to be conceding in your second paragraph that “symbolic code” is indeed a correct concept rather than an analogy – but that to use this correct concept is misleading because of the differences. That’s a rather different argument from that of failure of an analogy.

      To draw distinctions between how two varieties of a category function is to leave their actual similarities as a unifying principle. In the case of the musculo-skeletal system, to use the existing example, one will not neglect the principles of mechanical levers, whilst taking into account the differences that being part of a unified organism makes.

      Philosophically and theologically, it seems to me, if you retain the concept of “true information” at all, you can’t treat teleology as an analogy. There is “information” and there is “pareidolia”, and they are not to be compared even analogically.

  3. swamidass says:

    Also Kolmogorov complexity is a totally abused concept in this context. Any random sequence of numbers (including random base pairs) exhibits very high Kolmogorov complexity, and therefore low compressibility. A lot of hay is made of this by ID advocates, but this is one of the easiest properties to produce by pure random processes.

  4. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Once again, Joshua, every discussion I’ve ever read of Kolmogorov complexity in ID literature starts from the formal indistinguishability of meaningful information from random strings.

    The whole of Dembski’s specified information argument (which really means everything he’s written for the last twenty years) depends on distinguishing the random from the specified by its function, not by the pattern of the information. The contrast is always drawn with the algorithmic reducibility of order, as in crystals or chemistry, and the Kolmogorov complexity of organisation.

    The frustration I have is that it’s always their opponents who don’t appear to notice the difference and then claim the intellectual high ground, as if they’ve never even read a page of Dembski. They’ll cite snowflakes as evidence that natural processes produce order, as if they’ve never read a page of Kolmogorov, either.

    It’s also their opponents who ignore the formal similarity between random strings and purposeful “messages” to suggest that there’s no problem with undirected random processes producing organised complexity like biological function.

    At the very least (and I think I’m being over-generous here) ECs exhibit at least the same confusion over information theory as you attribute to IDists, so it would be better for to get the beams to get sorted before the motes (or if one prefers Eric Clapton to the Sermon on the Mount, “‘Fore y’accuse me, take a look at yourself.”)

    • swamidass says:

      You write…

      >Once again, Joshua, every discussion I’ve ever read of Kolmogorov complexity in ID literature starts from the formal indistinguishability of meaningful information from random strings.

      That is a nice thought. I have read them claiming this too. It turns out to be wrong. They did not invent the concept of Kolmogorov complexity, and it has a meaning independent of their usage, that unfortunately is exactly opposite of what they think it means.

      Remarkably, it just takes a few lines of python code to demonstrate the fallacy at play here. Some people call it the “white-noise” paradox, that random noise is the most difficult thing of all to compress and therefore has the highest Kolmogorov complexity.

      What are we supposed to do about this confusion? I do not know, but why should I pretend they are right.

      And I also agree that a lot of ECs are confused over information theory. A lot of atheists are too. This is my area of research though, so I’d hope that at least I could keep it straight.

      • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

        Joshua

        OK, so if information theory is misunderstood by all sides on the origins question, somebody needs to do a clear and applied primer for all concerned.

        Yet I’m not sure what you mean here: you started off in the previous post by saying that IDists were wrong to bring Kolmogorov complexity into discussions on intelligence, saying that even random strings could easily produce it too.

        When I pointed out that they do draw attention to the high K complexity of both meaningful and random strings, as compared to ordered complexity, you now say they are wrong to make the comparison at all.

        (I should, of course, have qualified my own rather absolute statement both on my and their behalf – clearly, meaningful language is somewhat more compressible than a purely random string is likely to be – that’s the basis of cryptography, the stop codon etc in DNA, and Bill Dembski’s discussion of the signature patterns of letter frequencies in various languages. But I don’t think lack of precision was what you had in mind – or if it was, it seems a little picky.)

        OK – let me reiterate my original claim that ID people say there is high Kolmogorov complexity in both random strings and “meaningful”, intelligently constructed, strings. Is that what is in error? If so the error goes back to the atheist, anti-ID information theorist Hubert Yockey, who wrote:

        Thus, both random sequences and highly organised ones are complex [in the Kolmogorov sense] because a long algorithm is needed to describe each one (Wolfram, 2002). Information theory shows that it is fundamentally undecidable whether a given sequence has been generated by a stochastic process or by a highly organised one. This is in contrast with the classical law of the excluded middle (tertium non datur, the doctrine that a statement or theorem must be either true or false). Algorithmic information theory shows that truth or validity may also be indeterminate or fundamentally undecidable. [Information Theory, Evolution and the Origin of Life, p.168 – emphasis Yockey’s]

        That seems to make exactly my point, and every bit as strongly. So is he just wrong? And even if he is, are interested parties not justified in citing as an authority the man who organised the very first symposium on information theory in biology back in 1956 after working for Robert Oppenheimer on the Manhattan Project, and was publishing in the field from 1974 onwards?

  5. Sy Garte Sy Garte says:

    Jon

    This is a very important post. The first time I ever heard someone say that DNA is not really a code, was some years back on a NOVA program. I dont remember who said it, but it was a fairly well known biologist, who was arguing against Steve Meyer’s book Signature in the Cell. When I heard it, I just about jumped up and screamed WHAT??? Later I even used this in a talk to demonstrate how one must not resort to scientific deception when trying to amass arguments against non-scientifically sound arguments. To my horror, I then found that the idea of the genetic code not being “really” a code began to spread among some atheist circles (I dont believe Dawkins ever succumbed to this nonsense), and even worse, as you point out, to some TEs.

    I have not seen the Biologos post you mention, (I am not there very often these days), but I am distressed if this terrible idea has spread to that center of generally reasonable scientific discussion. There is only one reason to deny that the genetic code is a code, and that reason has nothing to do with science, but with theology. And very bad theology in my view. Your brilliant post makes it very clear that the genetic code is and always has been a code. The fact that it is based on chemistry, means (as you say) nothing more than the words in a book are written with ink.

    I am pleased that Joshua is “OK with calling DNA a symbolic code” since that is exactly what it is. But I am puzzled by the assertion that “it is very difficult to think meaningfully about DNA with these abstractions”. I am not sure where the difficulty lies. Perhaps you mean that DNA is more than just the embodiment of the genetic code, which is certainly true. But I think we all know that calling DNA a code is simply shorthand for stating that all possible nucleotide triplets code for something in protein synthesis. Other aspects of DNA function, such as gene regulation, may or may not be thought of in the same way, but the genetic code is a code.

    I also wonder at your phrase “DNA works very differently than any other symbolic code of which we know.” Well, yes, in fact it should do so, since it is the first code we know of in the history of the universe. All other codes are derived from living entities which themselves are products of the primeval genetic code. I know that information can be found in lots of places, but symbolic codes do not seem to exist in nature outside of life.

    What is quite marvelous about the genetic code is that among other things, it is what makes evolution possible. Without a very tight chemical linkage between genotype and phenotype, evolution is not possible. The genetic code and the translation machinery enable that linkage to exist, and is therefore the very biochemical heart of evolution. I wish everyone would grasp this fairly basic point, because it might help both ID and TE folks to see that evolution, the genetic code, and a clear teleological drive are all connected with each other. For which, I believe, we can thank God.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Thanks for this Sy.

      But are you sure that it’s not just that you don’t understand evolution properly? 🙂

    • GD GD says:

      Hi Sy,

      I find this statement from you difficult to comprehend: ”

      Without a very tight chemical linkage between genotype and phenotype, evolution is not possible. The genetic code and the translation machinery enable that linkage to exist, and is therefore the very biochemical heart of evolution.”

      From memory, papers from biological evolutionists say they cannot provide a direct link between genotype and phenotype.

      On a general note, treating DNA as a genetic code may be reasonable, but I am not sure that you chaps have decoded it to the extent that you can discuss all of the information provided by this genetic code. Am I missing something?

  6. Sy Garte Sy Garte says:

    Jon

    I probably dont, but I keep trying.

    GD

    The problem as usual, is semantic. When people say that the genotype cannot be easily used to infer phenotype, what is mean is that just by knowing the entire genomic sequence, we cannot predict the exact phenotype of a creature. This is because the genome is extremely complex, and we do not yet understand how it works in entirety. What I am talking about in my comment is not the entire genome (the complete DNA sequence) but a limited stretch that we call a gene. Genes, made of DNA, can replicate their sequences, which is chemically not too hard to imagine. But genes replicating themselves dont really have much significance for a biological cell. What really counts is that genes code for proteins, and it is the proteins that make life work. The right proteins that is. And so there needs to be a way for the replicated information in the DNA (the genotype) to get translated into the set of cellular proteins (the phenotype). This allows the phenotype to be the target of natural selection, and allows for the best phenotypes to be carried forward in the next generation via replication of the genotype. Only genotypes can be chemically replicated, and only phenotypes can be selected for. So the linkage I am talking about is required for Darwinian evolution.

    The reason RNA world is popular is that since RNA can also act like an enzyme, the genotype and phenotype are on the same molecule, so they are clearly linked. I wont get into why DNA and proteins are better evolvers that RNA here, but what all life has now, a common genetic code and a common translation system works extremely well to allow for very efficient evolution.

    Yes, the genetic code, meaning the knowledge of which codons (three base sequences, like ATC) code for which amino acids, and start and stop signals, has been solved many decades ago. There is a common error in the popular press to confuse genetic code with genetic sequence. There is only one genetic code that never changes. Mutations affect the genomic sequence, they have no impact on the genetic code. This is why it is not strictly accurate to say that “DNA is a code”. DNA provides information in its sequence (like the letters in this sentence) which is translated into a phenotype by the genetic code (like the English dictionary translates the letters into meaning).

    • GD GD says:

      Hi Sy,

      Thanks for the detailed response. I want to examine this:

      “The right proteins that is. And so there needs to be a way for the replicated information in the DNA (the genotype) to get translated into the set of cellular proteins (the phenotype). This allows the phenotype to be the target of natural selection, and allows for the best phenotypes to be carried forward in the next generation via replication of the genotype. ”

      Getting the right proteins makes sense, but mutations and evolution are intrinsically linked by ToE, and this surely means the “wrong” (or perhaps not the right) proteins must be present also, and your NS mechanism should (at least it makes sense to me) display the capability to choose which is selected. So (as a non-biologist) I am inclined to look for (a) additional mechanistic details in your scheme that would display/demonstrate this selection, or (2) implications from survival/non-survival of specific aspects of your mechanism(s) that at least, would infer a selection process within your mechanism.

      The closest that I have come to on this matter is an error that some authors attribute to this mechanism, and the numbers put forward seem ‘hair raising’ as I cannot see how anyone can make such measurements with the required accuracy, reproducibility, and specificity, for such a complex system.

      I will not comment on the genetic code and genetic sequence for now, as mutations may be equated with the ‘error’ outlook – and in any event, details are the domain of evolutionists (and I am not this).

  7. Jay313 says:

    Hello, Sy. I think that I was the one whose post you mention here:

    “I have not seen the Biologos post you mention, (I am not there very often these days), but I am distressed if this terrible idea has spread to that center of generally reasonable scientific discussion. There is only one reason to deny that the genetic code is a code, and that reason has nothing to do with science, but with theology. And very bad theology in my view.”

    To catch you up, I did not challenge the analogy between computer code and DNA code; what I challenged was the statement that language was not just an analogy for code, but that the two were equivalent. Jon sees certain similarities, mainly when language is used to issue a set of instructions, although it seems to me that he concedes that computer code and DNA code are not literal (or functional) equivalents to human language (correct me if I have misinterpreted, Jon).

    Language serves to communicate a thought from one mind to another. There is no “mind” to interpret the message on the receiving end of either computer or DNA code. In language, the “sender” chooses words and forms sentences to communicate his thought to the “receiver,” who then must interpret the meaning of the message and decide what action, if any, to take in response. Even in “animal language,” there is a mind on the receiving end that must interpret the message. For example, if my dog is running and barking at a pedestrian and I yell “No!” — the simplest command in the English language — the dog, even though he is “just a dog,” must interpret the meaning of the message and decide exactly what it is that I want him to stop doing, and then choose whether to obey or not. It seems pretty clear that language is not equivalent to code. I hope we can all agree on that.

    Now, let me point out just one problem with taking the analogy too far. If we are comparing DNA code to computer code, the analogy is very close, and the reasoning based on the analogy is more likely to be correct. But if we compare DNA code to language, the analogy begins to break down, and we must be much more careful not to draw wrong conclusions. For example, when Collins says DNA is the “language of God,” our human instinct is to look for meaning in the message. What is God saying, and is he saying it to us? Many wrong conclusions are drawn based on poor analogies.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Jay

      I had you less in mind than Joshua in the OP, since you as a biological layman seemed to be qualifying the parallel, and Josh seemed as a professional to be turning it into a mere analogy.

      To refine my comparison a little further, I would say that language is to code as Fermat’s theorem is to multiplication tables. Both are truly, not analogically, maths, but there are clear differences in scope.

      I agree that Collins’ title, whilst catchy, is rather woolly (like much in the book, it seems to me) – but I honestly haven’t ever come across anyone who looks for “the Bible Code” in DNA – though there’s bound to be one crop up commenting on BioLogos some day, I suppose!

      However, to take up Sy’s correct distinction between the originally described DNA code as a protein coding “cypher”, and the other functions of the genome, it appears increasingly as if there are very many more functions, if not meanings, associated with it than are dreamed of in our philosophy – to which GD alludes.

      If one takes the fact that the genome is selectively accessed or suppressed according to all kinds of unknown mechanisms (it’s even unknown how much of this is interactions with other parts of the genome, and how much may be some other process in the cell – Sy’s researching the first, I think), then we have something akin to the intelligence of your dog, at least, interpreting the information it gets from your “coded” commands compared to the environment to make “decisions”.

      How what’s going on compares to intelligence, and therefore “language” remains to be researched, but there’s some interesting internal teleology going on. If you’ve not read anything by Jim Shapiro, it makes thought-provoking reading. Over to Sy.

  8. Sy Garte Sy Garte says:

    Jay and Jon

    Yes, you might notice that in my original, somewhat ranting comment, I did not mention the word language at all. I agree with Jay, Joshua, and also Jon that there is a difference between a code and a language. I was focusing on the genetic code, since that was what I got from Jon’s post. But actually, Joshua never actually used code, but talked about language. I have already asked Joshua to elaborate a bit on some of his uncertainties about DNA code as a code.

    Yes, I am looking at the issue of how gene regulatory networks do their thing. In a word, with incredible complexity. Does this help to raise the status of the genome to that of a language? I think it does to some degree. But (being married to a linguist, and having done some reading in the area) I am careful to not say much about the parallel between DNA and language in a literal sense (which I dont believe was how Collins meant to use it in his title), because human language, at least, is so rich in mysterious and sometimes unfathomable qualities. The more we learn about genomes, the more such complexity we find.

    But what I think is very important is to recognize that the development of the genetic code, however that happened, as the key engine of biological teleology. In a paper I have recently submitted, (not likely to be published, but its worth a try) I wrote “The translation system (and the genetic code) provides the non-conscious will to survive in all of terrestrial life through evolution. That is its purpose.”

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      “The translation system (and the genetic code) provides the non-conscious will to survive in all of terrestrial life through evolution. That is its purpose.”

      Sy, Wow! If we’re talking about important articles, that will be one! I’d love to read it sometime: to put a specific basis to internal teleology is very intriguing… even if the implied external teleology in the title gets it excluded from the literature!

      By the way, after I replied to Jay shifting the “blame” for this piece from him to Joshua, I remembered that the real antagonism to “code” talk came from a strident Fruitfly.

  9. Jay313 says:

    Morning, Gentlemen. (Morning here, anyway.) Sorry, Jon, but I have to quibble with a few things.

    “I had you less in mind than Joshua in the OP, since you as a biological layman seemed to be qualifying the parallel, and Josh seemed as a professional to be turning it into a mere analogy.”

    This is part of the problem that kicked off this whole discussion. I don’t understand the thinking that wants to push “mere” analogy beyond that into a category that implies equivalence. Even comparing DNA code and computer code is by analogy. They are not identical things, unless you want to claim that DNA code could substituted for computer code with identical results, and vice versa. The analogy may be very close, but fuzzy thinking starts to intrude when you forget the analogy and think about them as equivalent.

    Here is an example: “we have something akin to the intelligence of your dog, at least, interpreting the information it gets from your “coded” commands compared to the environment to make “decisions”.

    Simply by thinking about DNA as if it is comparable to language, which we all agree it is not, you are inspired to speak of DNA as if it was capable of interpreting things and making decisions, qualities that belong only to a thinking, independent mind. This is quite a leap, no?

    Not trying to be a jerk or dispute just for the sake of disputation. Just throwing up a caution flag about pushing analogies too far, and the kinds of mistakes that can cause. Wittgenstein addressed this quite a bit.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Jay

      This is part of the problem that kicked off this whole discussion. I don’t understand the thinking that wants to push “mere” analogy beyond that into a category that implies equivalence. Even comparing DNA code and computer code is by analogy. They are not identical things, unless you want to claim that DNA code could substituted for computer code with identical results, and vice versa.

      Notwithstanding various caveats we’ve already made between code and language, and importantly the distinction that both Sy and Eddie have correctly pointed out between DNA as a molecule and the DNA code… my post set out to demonstrate, with evidence, that as Watson and Crick originally discovered, and Yockey spelled out via information theory, the genetic code is actually, and NOT analogically, a code. It has semiotics, Shannon information, Kolmogorov complexity, and teleological algorithmic function – all the things that define a code.

      To put down the undoubted differences from some specific human code to “mere analogy to a code” is to misrepresent the situation – unless you can demonstrate that it is not formally a code, by showing that the points of definitional contact (the semiotics etc) are invalid.

      Your specific quoted point is answered by the fact that it has been proposed that one could theoretically use DNA as an extremely compact microcomputer, harnessed rightly. Conversely, the coding content of DNA can indeed, be represented in computer code, or even by letters on paper.

      The obstacle to the computer doing the job of DNA is only a technical one, concerning the medium of translation: the ribosome apparatus cannot read electronic code, and that’s no more to do with “analogy” than is the fact that a computer can’t read Braille: get a suitable translation device and it could.

      Now the implications of that are that (as I wrote in a previous post) information carrying “meaning”, even at the lowly level of “prescriptive information”, cannot be defined scientifically because it is inherently teleological, and inherently implies an agent to “inform”, ultimately.

      If such information actually arises by stochastic means (that is, in theological terms, independently of the directing will of God, or at least a determining purpose in the organism), then and only then is it actually inappropriate to call it “information”, and one actually is dealing with an analogy to a code. This would be the equivalent of the difference between a picture and a face in the clouds – the latter isn’t actually a face at all, but a wishful interpretation.

      So to say that information in DNA can arise “without intelligent cause” is simply to say that it is only analogically information at all – and to make a statement that is not scientific, but metaphysical (by taking material efficient causes as exclusive of final causes).

      But in that case, one has the difficult job of explaining why the “pseudocode” obeys all the constraints and characters of genuine codes – perhaps like the pareidolic face winking at you and mouthing the words, “Nice view from up here.”

      Thus for codes: now to language.

      Simply by thinking about DNA as if it is comparable to language, which we all agree it is not, you are inspired to speak of DNA as if it was capable of interpreting things and making decisions, qualities that belong only to a thinking, independent mind.

      I see what you mean, though it’s my turn to get pedantic – the interpretation and decisions are not made by DNA – at the very least, the decision-making is a global genomic emergent function (but then so is thought a global neurological emergent function!), but more likely the control lies holistically in the cell. But the point is, as Sy rightly says as a significant researcher in the field, that the information-role of DNA is now being shown to lie far beyond the basic protein-building DNA code discovered in the fifties.

      Much of that function appears to be algorithmic, albeit it inordinately complex, but much seems to go as far beyond that in complexity as language goes beyond computer code. And it does involve interpretation of the genomic information in the light of the environment, and the making of decisions based thereupon.

      Now I’d be the first to restrict free-will to the morally accountable rational mind (against the “free process theology” of much theistic evolution). And yet we also accept, unless we go with Descartes and his automaton theory, that animals make decisions at a level of sentience, at least, which philosophers and animal behaviourists deal with in terms of “animal consciousness”, however that is compared and contrasted with the human.

      Even lowly protozoons make “decisions” at a level that even Lamarck saw as minimal, and yet the first step on a ladder of consciousness. James Shapiro, seeing how even bacteria take an active role in their own variation, uses the word “intelligent” of them.

      Sy will answer for himself, but though his “non-conscious will” phrase is clunky and philosophically questionable (and almost certainly intended analogically), it does capture the increasing evidence that living things are involved in interpretation and decision meaning, and that pretty well definitionally implies attributing meaning to information (as I pointed out in my earlier post on “meaning”, it is characteristically generated by the receiver of information, as distinct from the sender who creates the information).

      All this is very important and developing stuff, and in my view much more is to be lost (mainly to materialistic naturalism) by accepting “analogy” where only “equivalence” will formally do.

      One last thought. Classical theism suggests that any comparison between God’s ways and human ways can only be analogical, since God’s being is fundamentally different from ours. Yet when God speaks a word, such as “I will be your God, and you will be my people,” it is the direct equivalence of the human language he employs that concerns us, though there are numerous differences: he speaks through a prophet, his word arises eternally in his unchanging will, etc etc. If we do not accept as true in linguistic or information theory terms that “God has spoken”, then we cannot understand, interpret the meaning and make decisions thereon.

  10. Jay313 says:

    Sy does the same thing here:
    “The translation system (and the genetic code) provides the non-conscious will to survive in all of terrestrial life through evolution. That is its purpose.”

    What is a “non-conscious will”? Doesn’t “will,” in the sense that you use it here, mean the ability to choose? So, how can the will be non-conscious? This is nit-picking, I admit, but why not choose a phrase like “non-conscious drive to survive”?

  11. Edward Robinson Edward Robinson says:

    Hi, Jay. Glad to see you here on the Hump. You are one of the most interesting commenters over at BioLogos, and I’m sure that you will enliven the discussions here, if we can persuade you to stick around.

    I will let Jon and Sy answer your specific questions regarding their precise words; they know what they mean better than I do.

    For myself, I’ll say that I don’t think DNA itself (the molecule) is a “language” (though it contains the “words” of a language within it), and I don’t think DNA itself (the molecule) is a “code” (though the triplet codon system by which DNA produces amino acids *is*, I think, a “coded” system in a legitimate sense). So if by “the language of God” Francis Collins has in mind “the information in the DNA molecule plus the system of translation of that information into the parts of living organisms”, corresponding to “our stock of words plus our syntactical rules for assembling words into meaningful sentences”, I have no objection to that use of the word “language”; indeed, if Collins means that usage seriously, then he sees the DNA-protein system much as ID people see it. (The main difference, it seems, is that Collins’s neo-Darwinism commits him to the belief that given enough time, sheer accidents occurring in the word storehouse will produce meaningful sentences, paragraphs, chapters, and entire books, whereas ID folks deny this.)

  12. Edward Robinson Edward Robinson says:

    Joshua:

    I look forward to your evidence that Dembski etc. have misdefined or misused concepts such as Shannon information, Kolmogorov information, etc. I hope that in your demonstration you will give precise page references to the writings of Dembski, Marks, Ewert, and not rest on general assertions about what “ID people” do.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Yes Eddie – it’s a shame that Joshua hasn’t yet replied to my question, since from appearances he’s speaking confidently in ignorance of what Dembski et al (including the non-partisan Hubert Yockey) have actually argued, within his own sphere of expertise.

      So far it doesn’t amount to more than “They’re wrong – take it from me, I’m an expert”. It takes more than that to do the diplomacy thing.

  13. Robert Byers says:

    Much has been said.
    I would add only wHY NOT see DNA is simply the function of memory. or our human memories a minor expression of DNA!!
    So this way language/information is just united as it is in our memory operation.
    So DNA should/could be seen as memory pieces. The same equation throughout biology.
    Our mind/memory is just a special case of the memory institution in biology.
    This is why when God/Jesus came to earth he had to learn everything. or grow in wisdom as a kid. tHis because he was put into the memory machine of biology and the brain. he couldn’t remember what he knew as God. Part of his becoming like man but still God in the soul.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      DNA is simply the function of memory.

      That’s well oversimplified, Robert. But I’ve seen it seriously suggested recently that the informational (call it “linguistic” if you want to go there) in DNA is something that appears in life from the start, and in some way is expressed “in spades” in human language and memory. That was described in terms of an evolutionary setting, but it’s equally true in any version of Creation.

      On that understanding we’re not comparing apples with oranges at all when we compare DNA and human “codes”, but two expressions of a single informational creation principle.

      In Christian terms that principle has to be related to the creative Word of God, which of course is the Logos by whom and in whose image we were made.

      • Robert Byers says:

        I;m only speculating. However if right its not simple but would be a accurate analysis. I find in nature all things can be brought to simple equations.Dumb it down. not be too involved.
        So DNA might just be another manifestation of memory operation or our memory is just another manifestation of dna memory operation.
        In all these things it always seems to be coded or fixed. Or rather memorized. Our own memory is just coding/fixing new data.
        Possibly its just one simple equation.
        I do think science misunderstands that memory is everything in thought or deed in biology except the soul/spirit of creatures.

  14. Jay313 says:

    Thanks, Eddie, for the compliment. I do check in here once in a while, though I hadn’t posted any comments previously. Jon always has interesting thoughts, and I usually find myself in agreement with him. Just an FYI, but I’ll be participating on a lesser scale on the BioLogos forums. I’ll still be around. Just more selective.

    Trying to wrap up my minimal contribution here, Jon said:

    “my post set out to demonstrate, with evidence, that as Watson and Crick originally discovered, and Yockey spelled out via information theory, the genetic code is actually, and NOT analogically, a code.”

    Again, I think you did this pretty well. Genetic code is code, not just an analogy of code, and DNA code is code. The only caveat I offered is that, while both are codes, we still should recognize that they are different things, not identical. We are both men, but I am not you and you are not me. When you assert complete equivalence, you run the risk of falling into errors. My only point here is to raise a caution flag. That’s all.

    You also said:
    “The obstacle to the computer doing the job of DNA is only a technical one, concerning the medium of translation: the ribosome apparatus cannot read electronic code, and that’s no more to do with “analogy” than is the fact that a computer can’t read Braille: get a suitable translation device and it could.”

    This is interesting! So, we may one day have computers generating living creatures on a 3D printer. Hope I don’t live to see it! Haha

    You said:
    “Even lowly protozoons make “decisions” at a level that even Lamarck saw as minimal, and yet the first step on a ladder of consciousness. James Shapiro, seeing how even bacteria take an active role in their own variation, uses the word “intelligent” of them.”

    This is also interesting, and it points out the problem with those who try to identify consciousness with the soul/spirit of man. We cannot rule out that science will one day “explain” consciousness, although it currently cannot.

    In any case, the problem is that Lamarck and Shapiro are making the same mistake that scientists have made throughout history, e.g. speaking of things that are purely material (or, in this case, single cell organisms) as if they had purpose, intentions, desires, etc., all of which belong only to minds. “Nature abhors a vacuum,” when, in fact, nature cannot abhor anything. If you really want to point out the inconsistency in evolutionary thinking, force them to speak of non-guided processes without using language that implies a “Mind” (capital M) behind it all. Good luck with that! Haha

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      This is also interesting, and it points out the problem with those who try to identify consciousness with the soul/spirit of man. We cannot rule out that science will one day “explain” consciousness, although it currently cannot.

      I lean towards the Aristotelian view that the soul is hylemorphic – ie, unlike Descartes’ formulation, it is not separate from matter, but the particular form of matter. Aquinas modified this to account for human immortality, which I tend to see as a gift from God rather than a natural endowment… even so, Scripture implies some kind of continued human existence prior to re-embodiment.

      But I think we can rule out science explaining consciousness, because it’s conceptually impossible to get an on objective understanding of something that is, by definition, subjective. Science can no more deal with consciousness than it can meaning – if you’ve not read Thomas Nagel’s “What it is like to be a bat” then it should be on your to do list!

      None of that speaks to the continuity or discontinuity with the animals, except that it places the question more at the level of “abilities” than “soul”, for animals have a hylemorphic soul as well, but of a different sort – how much cognition makes up a mind?

      If you really want to point out the inconsistency in evolutionary thinking, force them to speak of non-guided processes without using language that implies a “Mind” (capital M) behind it all.

      As regards Lamarck and Shapiro, I’ll grant them the use of analogy with the scientist’s lack of precision with philosophical ideas. Lamarck is, I think, pretty clear in his distinctions, though his whole scheme is so hindered by the primitiveness of his science that they don’t mean anything very precise.

      But as to evolutionary science’s inability to cope without teleology, Amen – many posts here have been on that theme. I’ve waxed most indignant against theistic evolutionists who go round in circles to make God the author of an unguided process, by making evolution autonomous – and then denying it’s more than a metaphor, but using the usual evolutionary final-cause speech anyway. A less internally consistent scheme I’ve seldom come across. We’re trying to do better here!

  15. chrisfalter says:

    Hi Jon,

    What a great, thought-provoking article! And the comments are very instructive as well.

    Not being well-schooled in information theory, what I’m about to present might be off-base. But perhaps it is useful.

    I think of a code as a highly complex algorithm that can map an arbitrary representation in one form to another. Say “no” to a German dog and she won’t understand; you have to say “nein.” There are thousands of ways to communicate the negation in language, really, but each representation maps to the same concept. Another example of code, this time from computer science: the bubble sort algorithm can be expressed quite strictly via a mathematical language, but in computing languages there are a million ways to write a bubble sort. (And all of them are slow! But that’s a different issue.)

    When a biologist says that DNA is not really a code, I think what he or she is saying is that, unlike the coding of a negation or a bubble sort, the coding of amino acids permits almost no arbitrary representations. 64 codons map to 20 amino acids and that’s that.

    Your thoughts?

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Chris – welcome to the Hump!

      I had to read the article again to remember what I’d said – it’s long, isn’t it! If you’re challenged on information theory, I’m challenged on computing code, though my brother is a Wizz on sorts in Applescript (and being a professional musician, delights to send me videos like this nonsense to help me understand!).

      But my first reaction to your point is to consider the linguistic levels involved. It’s true that, at least in protein coding (and DNA does more than that, of course), the codons strictly represent specific amino acids.

      But in your dog example, though “nein” and “no” are different versions of the same concept, “n” always represents the same sound, and thus for the other letters. The lowest level of symbolic code is very specific, with the possibilities increasing exponentially at the level of word, sentence, paragraph, book and finally language.

      Similarly, whatever high level computer language you’re using will have a rigid syntax, even if it can perform the same function using different combinations of instructions. And each deeper level of computer language is the same, until at the lowest level, all your high level instructions are simply being rigidly translated into “0s” and”1s”.

      As soon as you get above codons to gene level you’re entering the same kind of redundancy you describe, with variable ways to make a similar protein work, but in more realistic terms, many different high-level pathways that can perform functions, especially complex control functions.

      In any case, the system still depends on there being a symbolic, rather than a physical, correlation between DNA and amino acid, just as the flexibility of the alphabet depends on “n” arbitrarily representing a mere sound, rather than being a magic dog-stopper, and nothing else.

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