Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Twin Phantoms: Genes and Information

Ongoing research in molecular biology has delivered to the world the peculiar finding that the term gene refers to no determinable thing at all. Gene is an idea. It grew from an assumption. The assumption, implied by the prevailing scientific philosophy of reductionism, is that there must be a smallest unit of biological expression. And a smallest unit of biological inheritance. And that atomic entity was called a gene.

Despite gene losing its power to denote, the science of genomics continues to advance and looks determined to keep doing so. And this is also despite reductionism’s shortcomings increasingly becoming apparent, as research reveals the seemingly intractable interwovenness of the processes and subprocesses of biological metabolism.

Reductionism fails because everything that goes on inside a living cell depends on—is caused by, directly or indirectly–everything else that goes on inside the cell. And then, adding more complication, there are exogenous influences. And above it all, no locus of control. There is a lacuna of control. The cell has no brain. The sequencing of the human genome, that recent triumph of reductionism, like the cataloging of elementary particles, provides a compendium, but it resides far from the macrostructure, far from an accounting of gross outcomes. Structures and processes that define the macro world do not map readily onto elementary bits.

Once causality is recognized as a two-way street (or a multidimensional interchange), then neither top-down nor bottom-up models of nature will suffice. And whatever somethings we want to denote by gene they cannot be point origins of causal chains but only links in such chains. And what vital essence ensures that the cellular machinery runs smoothly? Somebody’s got to manage the store.

Enter then the latest applicant for the position of deus ex machina, that magical, mystical sort-of-something called information.

Arrange the atoms just right, and . . . presto! A (kind of) causal agent arrives, the untouchable information.

This property or characteristic or emergent attribute of variously arranged bits of matter (or is it just another name for the geometrical arrangement itself of the atoms in space and the distribution of electrical charges among them?) supposedly explains why at least some events occur as they do and not in some other way. Such explanations of natural forms, those that invoke information and its affiliates, the codes and programs, compose a fine metaphorical stuff, but in the world of databases and information management, what corresponds to a nucleotide or a codon or a gene? Information is just today's phlogiston.

Nonetheless, we probably should expect information talk to enjoy a resilience comparable to that wielded by gene talk. Information is a secular god of the gaps, shoveled in to smooth over the reductionist model of biology.