Saturday, June 11, 2005

Is Nature God's Gadgetry?

Would an advanced theology cast God as an artist or an engineer --- instead of a magician?

If intelligent design is behind Nature, then human industry is an odd thing: intelligent design working inside another intelligent design. If that's the case, then Nature would seem to embody the essence of human industry, being itself a meta-industry. Nature already has met all of the technological challenges that we face. Galaxies, trees, and amoebas are God's gadgets.

God's design even conforms to economic law. Efficiency drives design and fabrication toward doing more with less, the ideal being the creation of everything from nothing. The perfect industrial process must be the "Big Bang"which succeeded in making everything from nothing. So, the apotheosis of humankind’s intelligent designthat is, of human industry and engineeringmust be the birthing of new universes, a la Big Bang, with all of its economic efficiency. (We are, after all, made in God’s image.)

When we look at Nature, we are looking at the future of human technology. The DNA "code" illustrates the point. Protein synthesis in the cell is the kind of notechnological manufacturing process that our visionaries promise. It is managed through an advanced hypertext mark-up language (HTML). The one-gene one-protein model of gene action was a first approximation to understanding how DNA works, but we know now that that was an oversimplification. Evelyn Fox Keller, in "The Century of the Gene" recounts the history of genetic doctrines, and ends up challenging the very concept of "gene." Her account of gene action reminded me of another code-based technology. I wrote to her about the similarities between the two technologies and received a polite reply, below:

Dear Professor Keller, I am writing to share my reactions to your book “The Century of the Gene.” I have always been put off by science’s seemingly cavalier attitude toward explaining the macro-structure and development of complex organisms. The gloss, “It’s genetic” is not much of an explanation. So, I was glad to read your challenge to the scientific community to clarify what is meant by ”It’s genetic.” In particular, I want to suggest a metaphor that struck me while reading your account of the baroque processes that lead from DNA to proteins. The process seems to resemble that by which pages sometimes are assembled on the worldwide web. A web page presented on a computer screen often does not correspond to any determinable locus of stored data. You can get more detail from a web programmer, but my understanding is that web pages often are assembled on the fly from bits of content that reside in many different locations. For example, if you enter a search term into Amazon.com, the page that will appear on your computer will include, in addition to information about the product you searched for, some default Amazon content, suggestions for products related to the one you searched for (based on statistical analysis of what people also bought who bought what you searched for), advertising that is customized for you perhaps based on cookies or other data stored on your computer that the Amazon software is clever enough to read, links to other sites of interest (again based on your demographic particulars). And so on, with some prospective content being edited out if you have a parental-control filter enabled on your computer. The “page” that you view on your computer screen is a coherent whole and identifiable as an Amazon page, but it comprises many chunks of data that have been drawn and customized from many sources based on many criteria. The sources are relational databases and the criteria are complex queries to those databases. A given query result might trigger another query to another database, in a cascading data-retrieval process that feeds the layout of the web page. Using this process as a metaphor for protein synthesis, the web page you see on your computer corresponds to the end product, and the data retrieval and assembly/selection processes correspond to the complex genetic and enzymatic processes that occur during protein synthesis and that involve tapping multiple genetic sites in the DNA and assembling, editing, filtering, and otherwise defining and manipulating the RNA sequence before it gets to the ribosome. DNA is a hierarchical collection of databases in this model, and the enzymes involved in translation and transcription are queries to the databases. Messenger RNA is the report returned by the queries from the databases.

It’s an imperfect model, but captures some of the complexities of the problem and provides a way of thinking about the lack of a one-to-one correspondence between a given data sequence in a repository (database/DNA) and a given end product (web page/protein) of a translation and transcription process.

Let me add that I was relieved to find only one reference in your book (though I might have missed more) to genetic “information.” I worry that science has adopted the concept of “information” as an explanatory tool. I take the position that there is no information in nature at all. Not in DNA nor anywhere else. “Information” is the new phlogiston or ether, an imaginary substance that bookmarks a gap in our understanding. Celebratedly, Stephen Hawking recently recanted his earlier position that not even information can escape from black holes. He now says that it can. I’m no astrophysicist, but I am certain that no information can escape from black holes. Matter, maybe. Energy, maybe. Space, maybe. Time, maybe. But not information. Science can describe the world as being made up of many things: protons, electromagnetic waves, gravitational curvatures of spacetime, picoseconds. But information is not one of those things. Information exists only in minds. Minds can acquire information by apprehending the objects of the world, but the information is not in the protons, or DNA, or even in computer circuits. If it is, then science has merely rediscovered and renamed the metaphysical principle that used to be called soul, spirit, and many other names. I don’t think science should go there. If a strand of DNA contains information, then how would it be changed if the information were removed? To say that the information IS the arrangement of the atoms is to say nothing at all -- except that the atoms are arranged in a particular way that has a particular utility.

Dear [Heresiarch],

Thank you for your comments. Its always a pleasure to hear from a thoughtful reader. I like your metaphor quite a bit, and I agree fully about "genetic information", and maybe even about "information".

Best,

Evelyn Fox Keller