Genes – the language of God 4: Why genes aren’t a language

If we are to ask whether genes are God’s (or anyone else’s) language, we better first ask what is a language. Languages are divided into natural and formal languages. Human language is a natural language because it evolved haphazardly, and its utility is the result of a process not unlike natural selection in biology. So the word “dog” in English applies to canines more or less (does it cover coyotes? African wild dogs? Jackals?) because of a long association between the word and dogs in the minds of English speakers and listeners. The word “dog” is about dogs (philosophers say, it “refers to” dogs; and in philosophy, when a word has quote marks, it is being mentioned as a term; when it does not it is being used to refer to the things it refers to).

Now, natural languages have grammars, but they also have exceptions; they are messy and inconsistent. Formal languages (like a well-defined programming language, or mathematics) are consistent and not messy (though they can be complex). We might ask then whether genes are a natural language or a formal language. The genetic code evolved, and it evolved so that each triplet code results in a particular amino acid residue, so it might be a natural language. On the other hand, it is highly structured and insistent, so perhaps it is a formal language.

Arguments against the naturalness of DNA as a language sometimes rely upon the fact that common aspects of natural languages are not found in DNA:proteins relations. Here are two:

All known human languages exhibit something known as “Zipf’s Law”. This is a statistical feature of many kinds of large data sets (i.e., of measurements of populations), which, when mapped on a log-log graph, display an inverse linear distribution:

The relationship between linguistic sequences of a certain length and their frequency should be this sort of inverse linear kind. However, when DNA sequences are analysed, they do not exhibit this sort of relation (Tsonis et al. 1997). That doesn’t mean DNA isn’t a language, but it does undercut the claim out of the box.

Another argument is the problem of displacement: human languages involve reference to things that are not present, such as an absent friend. But DNA does not “refer” to anything; instead, it produces the RNA products.

Now there is a kind of language act that makes things happen: it is called a “performative” act. An example is the sentence: “You are under arrest”, by a policeman, which makes the person be under arrest, or “I now pronounce you husband and wife” when said in the right circumstances by a marriage celebrant. The act of saying it makes it so. But performative acts are not the whole, or even a large part, of language. We tend, at least in the western tradition, to make words have power. Consider the opening of the Gospel of John:

In the beginning was the Word (logos) and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.

In the older Jewish tradition, such a role was played by Wisdom, a kind of causal instrument of God. And God’s own words had power, as the opening of Genesis that John’s gospel paralleled indicated. So the temptation is to think that in science, words (here, the “words” of genes) also have power.

I think this is a mistake caused by a false transference of human (and potentially divine) powers to the non-human world, which is usually referred to as “anthropomorphism” or projecting human properties to nonhuman phenomena in the world. It generally has been regarded as an error in science for four centuries (but not always by philosophers or religious believers).

In science, causation is about physical interactions, not semantic interactions (except when a semantic processor such as the one between the ears of any normal human being over the age of 4 is processing words as received sounds, etc.). DNA acts as a template because it forms weak bonds between the nucleotide sequences and the RNA monomers in the polymerase.

So perhaps what we mean by “X is a language God uses to do Y” is that God uses regular causes to achieve some or all of his aims. This is not inconsistent with any science, of course, since science works by positing and testing regularities of phenomena, and calling them causes. However, it has an unwanted side effect: any regular cause of any kind at all becomes “the language God uses to do Y”. So chemical bonds are a language of God, as are the laws of physics, and so on. This may be acceptable to many, but it seems to me that in the end the idea of it being a language becomes unnecessary: it is enough to talk about causes (and we will in the next post, do precisely that). In the event that DNA is a language because it is a regularity in the world, there would seem to be an indefinitely large number of such languages in the universe. [And this might encourage those who see God as a geometer or mathematician to suggest that the language of God is numbers, not genes. This is a widely held view.]

So on balance, I think that referring to DNA as a language is generally fairly harmless (unlike the use of “information”, which is a much more abstract property, and more misleading), but that it is not something that makes any claims with content. It is an analogy only, and doesn’t illuminate things to any real degree. One has to ask, what is gained by calling DNA a language?

One advantage, shared also in calling genes information, is that it sets up a “problem” that can be “solved” by divine action or intention. For example, one of the main kinds of advocates for genes as linguistic things is the intelligent design movement. If genes are meaningful, or the result of some intent, then that implies that one needs to have a deity (or something very like it) to give that meaning. If genes are not informational or linguistic things, though, but at best only something that can be analogised to language, then that “solution” is no solution at all.

I do not wish to suggest that everyone who uses this analogy intends for there to be a Designer or Speaker of genes; obviously many do not (including Dawkins). But it seems to me that we give away too much territory to the Intelligent Design folk by accepting in the first instance that genes are informational or linguistic. In the next post I will argue (in dialogue with Stephen Ames) that even theists need not make this analogy carry too much weight, and that they can as easily accept unintentional processes as they can any other kind of scientifically investigable process.

References

Tsonis, A., Elsner, J., & Tsonis, P. (1997). Is DNA a language? J Theor Biol, 184, 25–29.

27 thoughts on “Genes – the language of God 4: Why genes aren’t a language

  1. I have a problem understanding the sentence beginning, “One advantage, also of called genes information, is that …”.

  2. “But it seems to me that we give away too much territory to the Intelligent Design folk by accepting in the first instance that genes are informational or linguistic.”

    When Dawkins or any other scientist is enthusing about what DNA does, they readily employ concepts like “information,” “code,” and a variety of other linguistic terminology. Cellular machinery, including transcriptional machinery and a lot more, is amazing, ingenious stuff.

    It’s only when people with the “wrong” worldview pick up and run with such wording, that the backtracking must begin!

      1. But the reason you’re making an issue and being critical of Dawkins on this point (ex suspicione mea) is that he is, in your words, “giv[ing] away too much territory to the Intelligent Design Folk.”

          1. OK, accepted.

            Nonetheless, on this issue it seems to me that Dawkins, whatever may be his faults and lack of philosophical precision, has put his finger on something important — something that those who criticize him may be wanting to evade. Some of the other commenters seem to be feeling the same tension that I am.

            There is something profound, amazing, mysterious, ingenious, going on in cells, which Dawkins is employing the word “information” to try to express. Can you suggest a better way for him to express himself, that would properly capture his thrust without using the unwanted word?

              1. OK, interesting article. Regarding “information” in particular, I found two segments that struck me as both noteworthy and pertinent to our present discussion.

                (1) “No gene as a physical body lasts all that long. In mitosis, a gene loses half of its substance at each replication. What endures is not the entity itself but the information incorporated in its structure. It is this information that is copied with such high fidelity.” (part 4)

                This statement — which originated with David Hull, but has not been subsequently revised under your management of the article — nicely distinguishes the “information” (the term seems to be used here in some acceptable sense) from the matter in which it’s embedded.

                (2) “The literature dealing with information is both extensive and factious. Several different formal analyses of information can be found and very little agreement about which analysis is best for which subjects. On one point these scholars tend to agree—cybernetic information and communication-theoretic information will not do for replication in biological contexts. The best bet is semantic information (Sterelny 2000a; Godfrey-Smith 2000; Sarkar 2000). The trouble is that no widely accepted version of semantic information exists. Winnie (2000) distinguishes between Classical and Algorithmic Information Theory and opts for a revised version of the Algorithmic Theory. But once again, the problem is that no such formal analysis currently exists. In the face of all this disagreement and unfinished business, biologists such as Maynard Smith (2000) maintain either that informal analyses of “information” are good enough or that some future formal version of information theory will justify the sorts of inferences that they make. The sense of ‘information’ as used in the Central Dogma of molecular biology, which states that information cannot flow from protein to DNA, is more like a fit of template, or the primary structure of the protein sequence compared to the sequence of the DNA base pairs.” (part 7)

                All right, so the term “information” has many possible meanings, some of which don’t apply to the DNA-RNA-protein story, but some of which do (or possibly could, with some work).

                Be that as it may, I think biologists are going to carry on using information- and linguistics-related vocabulary to describe the amazing events that take place in cells.

                By the way, did I somehow miss it, or did that article not actually provide an answer to my question, “Can you suggest a better way for him [Dawkins] to express himself, that would properly capture his thrust without using the unwanted word [‘information’]?”

  3. John, I think it is an example of the apologetic filter Richard applies to everything. It couldn’t actually be that the evidence is all against him, could it?

    1. “Everything”?? “All”??

      John, I think Michael needs to learn to be a bit more nuanced and specific in his critiquing, and also to wean himself from his continual ad hominem swipes.

    1. Michael: Please see John’s comment just above (at 12:29 pm).

      If you’ll kindly place your comment within the appropriate thread, then we’ll have a possibility of comprehending what you’re referring to. (To do that, you need to push the proper ‘reply’ button.)

      Thanks very much,
      Richard

  4. If I had the least amount of respect for you Richard, then I might care, but I don’t.
    I think the mote/log analogy is appropriate here – you’re worried about a thread and yet you’re a creationist. Perspective.

    1. Not ‘worried,’ Michael, just trying to be helpful, and to bring comprehensibility to the conversation.

      Regarding ‘respect’: it makes good sense for me to respect human beings in general (even those who show disdain for me), since I believe them to have been created in the image of God.

      If I were still an evolutionist, though, I would see no particular reason to have (heartfelt) respect for anyone — including myself. Why should I ‘respect’ a product of irrational, impersonal chemical processes, who is here today, gone tomorrow, and carries no ultimate meaning or relevance? Why not just as soon use and abuse them, if it’s to my perceived advantage?

      Now regarding anyone’s personal respect or disrespect of me in particular, that matters relatively little. I am much more concerned to please my Creator and ultimate Judge than to please men who are at war with him.

  5. If I were a creationist, I would be placing my trust in the designer(s) of Homo sapiens, the agency concerned with (or constrained to) designing that species as a typical member of the Hominidae. As a creationist, I would be concerned with the collective, and wonder whether we humans are supposed to fit in a “common plan” with chimps and other apes. As a creationist, I would not be concerned with my personal relationship with my Creator and Redeemer, but only with the collective and the origins of that collective.

    If I were a creationist, I might conclude that the designer(s) wanted us to be like chimps. Unlike those who accept that the similarity with chimps is only a matter of common descent by natural causes. Those who recognize that having common descent with Torquemada makes no demands of our similar behavior.

    But if I were finding that my being a creature of God conflicted with a naturalistic account of my origin, that conflict would be with the scientific studies of my origin, that is reproductive biology (and developmental biology, etc.)

  6. Richard, you do realize that if you want to refute an absolute, all you need do is produce a single exception. If, for instance, Genesis has not been refuted by testing scientific hypotheses, all you need do is generate one that hasn’t been. I am pretty sure that a book like Strahler’s “Science and Earth History” shows why you prefer to whine instead. If you are not using an apologetic filter – by all means prove me wrong – won’t be the first time I have been so. If you have evidence that better fits creationism (whatever that is), bring it on – convince me that you understand science and evolution – convince me you have a working model for your beliefs that I can evaluate.

    1. Herbert Spencer wrote an 1852 essay, “The Development Hypothesis” (which you can see online in Wikisource) in which he pointed out that the creationists (not his word) lacked a model of what happened when the sudden appearance of animals took place. Far less a better model, nor better evidence for it.
      To the best of my knowledge, there has been exactly one such model proposed: Omphalism.
      When you think about it, how else could the world of life suddenly appear in something like its present form, except with the appearances of having had a prior history? Even the non-living environment, like the water cycle, would have to have appeared in mid-cycle: humidity in the air, liquid water on the ground, etc. Animals like mammals could only be functioning if they had the kind of knowledge that mammals only learn by experience.
      But whatever. Does anyone have a model for the sudden appearance of life?

      1. In military history, generals get points for having put up a good fight even though they eventually lost and never really had a chance—Hannibal, Robert E. Lee, Kesselring, etc. In that sense you’ve got to hand it to the Creationists who, with the worst case in the world, have succeeded in nevertheless getting grown human beings to take stories about talking snakes seriously and come up with detailed mathematical arguments showing the unlikelihood that an extremely elderly man built an enormous boat and filled with every kind of animal. Still an argument showing that anvils don’t float can be clever, and I applaud your demonstration of yet another problem with the notion of instant creation. No kidding. Very good, though it’s sort of like the argument that geocentrism must be false because it violates special relativity—if the earth is in the middle, the outer planets must be traveling faster than the speed of light.

    2. As usual, Michael, I’ll pass by your ad hominems and just respond to your comments that give the appearance of being more substantive.

      “If you have evidence that better fits creationism (whatever that is), bring it on….”

      Already provided, Michael (although it’s not my job to “convince” you of anything). For example, see toward the end of this comment on one of John’s previous articles:
      http://evolvingthoughts.net/2014/04/closet-darwinism-and-definitions/comment-page-1/#comment-50977

      “If, for instance, Genesis has not been refuted by testing scientific hypotheses, all you need do is generate one that hasn’t been.”

      Your syntax is a bit muddy there, but anyway, it seems you think that if “science” (whatever that is) and Genesis are in conflict, then Genesis must be wrong. But there’s no logical necessity of such a conclusion. That’s just your secular/nontheist filter being applied to the data.

      Genesis has not actually been refuted by any scientific experimentation. It has only been dismissed by people whose theoretical frameworks were formulated on the basis of antibiblical presuppositions.

      1. Once again substanceless pedantry on your part. If you had anything to back up your “worldview”, you wouldn’t resort to arguing semantics and tone. Evidence?

        Your claim is that revelation is an additional tool in understanding the world – a claim that relies on there being not only a god, but a very specific one – if your claims are true. You claim that revelation is reliable because it fulfills scripture, but there was no scripture when the original revelations supposedly occurred. You claim that revelation is more reliable than science when studying the past. Here’s a little test of your faith, let’s say no one witnesses a death – and we can use forensic science or revelation to determine the cause of death. Let’s say forensic science exonerates you of the crime, but revelations reported by god-fearing Christians say you did it, do you accept your fate or do you contest it? For all you know you could have committed the crime and just don’t remember. Why would they lie?

        Of course science is fallible, so the forensic evidence could be wrong. We do know that people are wrongly accused all of the time. This would make it more likely to accept revelation, no?

        You have never had an original thought have you? You try to turn my thoughts into yours – in what you think is clever – but just shows your utter lack of creativity. If evolution were a product of a nontheist filter, then why do millions of theists accept evolution? Why do millions of theists view Genesis as a myth? Science is not law and your semantic maunderings are an obfuscatory ploy which might work on the scientific and philosophic illiterates who populate your world, but alas fall way short amongst anyone else.

        1. “You claim that revelation is more reliable than science when studying the past.”

          I know that some evolution-deniers claim to make a distinction between “historical science” and “observational science”. There are several issues that raises.

          1) Is science more reliable than revelation when studying the present?

          1a) Is that what makes our knowledge of helicentrism trump what the Bible says?

          1a’) Is our evidence for heliocentrism any better than the evidence for the evolution, or for an “old Earth”?

          2) Is science about the far distant, more distant than we can reach, more reliable than science about the past? What about stellar distances, which make observations about the distant, because of the finite speed of light, automatically about the past?

          3) Is science about the microscopic more reliable than science about the past? How about that which is not seen in visible light (X-rays, radar, sonar, etc.)? That which is just hard to reach (core of the Earth)? What small residue of science is left?

          4) And, let it not be forgotten, what evidence does anybody have for “historical science” not being reliable? Are we supposed to <ibelieve it? Is not that, itself, not “observational science”, and not attested to by the Bible?

      2. Richard,
        I think I now understand your comment “Genesis has not actually been refuted by any scientific experimentation.” This is because Genesis has nothing to do with science at all. Scientists applying their tools to biogeography, anatomy, paleontology, genetics, development, etc. have proposed evolution as an explanation. Creationists relying on revelation have proposed creation as an explanation. One is science and the other isn’t. This means that creationists who label what they do as “science” are lying. This means that creationists who try to have creationism taught in science classes are subverting science. Why not be honest and say “evolution is how science explains biological diversity, but creationists believe that revelation gives a more reliable explanation.” This doesn’t make science wrong – its conclusions are correct given its assumptions. What creationists are doing is misrepresenting science to the masses – making them choose between evolution and creation, when if they understood science and religion, for that matter, they wouldn’t be making such demands.

  7. There is an article on Forbes online site about this series.

    “Why Your Genes Aren’t A Language”, by John Farrell
    2014/06/29

  8. Long long time ago, circa 2002 our paths crossed in a land far away called Google groups Talk.Origins. I was young a thirsty for knowledge and didnt let my broken English to stop me from sharing ideas and learning. An Atheist and believer in Evolution I had set up a task for me to prove once for all Theist were wrong and Evolution was right. 🙂 Anyway, I was researching something and your name came up. Wanted to say Hi. Suzana former Suz.net@hwcn.org

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