providing instructions for adaptive purposes. In this sense, argues Maynard Smith, genes are not only of central importance for molecular biology, but also for developmental biology. Genes are intentional, not in a mental sense but in the sense of seeking desirable outcomes. This element of post-hoc “intentionality” is itself a result of natural selection. This view clearly gives DNA a special status since DNA is instructing for specific outcomes rather than just working in a haphazard way. This biochemical concept of information is unilateral in orientation. Genetic information “codes” for the epigenetic processes of proteins, while there is no structural feed-back from the developed cell to the genetic instruction, other than the subsequent 10 See T. W. Deacon (2003, pp. 280-284). 19
feedback on differential survival. By contrast, the biosemiotic approach, represented by Jesper Hoffmeyer and others, wishes to extend the informational perspective to the level of the cells (Emmeche, 1999). Any cell is “interpreting” its environment by using its available resources in accordance with the “interests” of the cell. As put by Hoffmeyer, the “inventory-control system” of the DNA always “goes through a user interface” (Hoffmeyer, 2008, p. 166). This interface is provided by the cell in its immediate context (usually the organism itself); the “habits” of a cell’s conduct are thus the product of a long and intertwined evolutionary history. Thereby the specific role of the genes as carriers of information and as instructors for protein formation need not be challenged. The biosemiotic proposal is not Lamarckian, if we by Lamarckianism understand a notion of DNA-based heredity of acquired characteristics. But biosemiotics assumes a bigger part to be played by the “interpreters” of the genetic information, that is, the local organisms , acting under environmental possibilities and pressures. The behaviors of cells and organisms are themselves a product of a long (“Baldwinian”) learning history (Deacon, 2003). It remains to be seen whether the biosemiotic approach will be able to point to forms of causality that cannot be explained by more standard biomechanical approaches (such as chemical bondings and attachments). However, from a philosophical point of view, the biosemiotic approach has the gain of explaining how the emergence of meaning-information, or biological “interest,” can come about so to speak on the shoulders of the instructional information of the genome. On this interpretation, the biosemiotic approach presupposes the notion of instructional information in the well-known biochemistry of genes and proteins, but places the gene-story in the wider context of the life of the basic units of the organism, the cells.
- Spring '14
- Seth Lloyd