The “information” that is “encoded” in DNA gets “read” by cells. You likely didn’t notice because this is now a nearly reflexive way of talking about DNA, even in popular culture. It’s just obvious to us that DNA stores information—for curly hair or blue eyes—and it’s natural to think of it as an information storage device much like the hard disk of a computer. Yet one of Cobb’s main points is that this is a remarkably recent way of thinking about biology.
True Then it gets interesting.
In the early 1960s, mathematicians confidently declared that “it will be interesting to see how much of the final solution [to the coding problem] will be proposed by mathematicians before the experimentalists find it.” As Cobb concludes, the “answer…was simple: not one single part of it.”
The interesting question is why theory failed here. Part of the answer, as Cobb emphasizes, is related to Crick’s idea of the frozen accident. The genetic code seems at least partly arbitrary. It represents a half-decent arrangement arrived at by the imperfect, tinkering process of evolution by natural selection and, once settled on, it couldn’t be “improved,” or made somehow more systematic. In such a situation theory is likely useless.
I suspect there’s another, related, reason that theory contributed so little to cracking the code. There was, at bottom, a mismatch between the nature of the problem and the nature of much biological theory. Successful theory in biology typically plays a different part than does successful theory in, say, physics. Theory in biology often guides thought, or trains intuition, or points to patterns that might hold approximately in nature. Only rarely does biological theory provide the essentially exact results that physicists are accustomed to. (And in biology approximate results, or even rules of thumb, are often more useful than exact results.) This kind of broad-stroke theory doesn’t provide much help with a problem as specific as the coding question. More.
The actual problem is that biology, as a Darwinian like Orr understands it, does not really account for information.
See also: New Scientist astounds: Information is physical The last time this idea whistled through, couple years back, the alleged substance was called perceptronium.
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