Genetic information is not itself material

Genetic information is not itself material August 21, 2018


A DNA spiral
It’s scarcely coincidental that, if you scramble my name, “Dan,” you get “DNA.” I’m absolutely saturated with the stuff.  Chock full of it, in every single cell.   (Wikimedia CC public domain)


Professor Hubert P. Yockey (April 15, 1916 – January 31, 2016) was a physicist and an information theorist who worked under Robert Oppenheimer on the Manhattan Project as well as at the University of California at Berkeley.


One of his areas of concentration was the application of information theory to problems in biology; from 1974 onward, he published his writings in the Journal of Theoretical Biology.  Yockey was very critical of the theory that life had originated in a kind of “primordial soup,” arguing instead that “the origin of life is unsolvable as a scientific problem.”


He died on January 31, 2016 at the age of 99.


Here’s a brief passage from a very rough manuscript of mine that draws a bit upon Professor Yockey’s thought:


Hubert Yockey used a linguistic analogy to make the point that the information contained in the genetic code, although it is embodied in matter, is not itself material.  It cannot be reduced to a chemical or physical property.  He points out that the meaning of words or letter sequences, if they have any, is essentially arbitrary.  It is determined by the natural language that they are seeking to represent, and is not an intrinsic property of the letters or their arrangement, let alone of the ink with which they may be printed on a page.  For example, the letter sequence that spells out the English word hell means “bright” in German.  Similarly, fern means “far,” while gift means “poison,” mist refers to manure, bald means “soon,” and boot means “boat.” The letter sequence singe represents, in German, the imperative verb “sing!”  In French, pain denotes bread.  Ballot refers to a bundle, coin means a “corner” or a “wedge,” and chair means “flesh.”  Cent means “hundred” in French, whereas son means “his,” tire refers to the act of “pulling,” and ton means “your.”  “This confusion of meaning goes as far as sentences,” Yockey observes. 

For example, “O singe fort!” has no meaning as a sentence in English, although each is an English word, yet in German it means “O sing on!” and in French it means “O strong monkey”.  Like all messages, the life message is non-material but has an information content measurable in bits and bytes and plays the role, ascribed by vitalists, of an unmeasurable, metaphysical vital force without being ad hoc, romantic, spooky, contrary to the laws of physics or supernatural.  Of course, like all messages, the genetic message, although non-material, must be recorded in matter or energy.[1]

[1] Hubert Yockey, “Information in Bits and Bytes,” BioEssays 17 (1995): 85.  [See original.]



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