Nautilus

Is DNA the Language of the Book of Life?

Thinking of nucleobases as a long sequence of letters may contribute to the illusion that DNA is a language.Neil Palmer / CIAT via Flickr

When we talk about genes, we often use expressions inherited from a few influential geneticists and evolutionary biologists, including Francis Crick, James Watson, and Richard Dawkins. These expressions depict DNA as a kind of code telling bodies how to form. We speak about genes similarly to how we speak about language, as symbolic and imbued with meaning. There is “gene-editing,” and there are “translation tables” for decoding sequences of nucleic acid.  When DNA replicates, it is said to “transcribe” itself. We speak about a message—such as, build a tiger! or construct a female!—being communicated between microscopic materials. But this view of

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from Nautilus

Nautilus3 min read
Making a Future Among the Stars
In Boca Chica, Texas, presenting SpaceX’s latest prototype vehicle, Starship, Elon Musk remembered how, 11 years ago, he got mad at his parachute supplier. His young rocket company seemed doomed: The Falcon 1 rocket had to reach orbit or else SpaceX,
Nautilus9 min read
Is The Search For Dark Matter An Act Of Faith?: In an underground laboratory, the talk turns to religion.
The young physicist sits at his computer, watching for signals from Cygnus. His name is Christopher Toth, and his white lab coat is too big for him. Christopher speaks with calm clarity. His manner is modest, gracefully gentle, and I wonder if this c
Nautilus6 min read
Language Is The Scaffold Of The Mind: Once we acquire language, we can live without it.
Can you imagine a mind without language? More specifically, can you imagine your mind without language? Can you think, plan, or relate to other people if you lack words to help structure your experiences? Many great thinkers have drawn a strong conne