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Digital codes do nothing

Rejoinder by Jesper Hoffmeyer
In: Semiotica, Vol. 120 – 3/4 (1998)

Günther Witzany has an idea which cannot easily be refuted but which I think we have good reason not to accept.The idea is presented as a solution to a general problem which is illustrated by the immensely complicated behavior exhibited by swarming bees when they select the proper location for their winter hives. No haphazard change or deformation of genetic text sequences can shape the highly differentiated selection criteria for the winter hives of nothern hemisphere honey bees: they are simply too rigorous writes Witzany.

And now the idea: "Pragmatic interactions or communication situations which the overall organism experiences in real life apparently determine how code constituting factors of that organism constitute new or altered genetic text sequences".

That such code constituting factors should exist in a cell or organism and that they should be able to translate actual experiences of life back into the digital code of DNA is no small claim. It amounts to what we usually call Lamarckism, and therefore Witzany (in a footnote) feels the need to point to scientific work in support of his claim (Buldyrev et al. 1995; Mantegna et al. 1994). Considering the enormity of his claim, I looked these references up, but I fail to see that they carry the weight. Based on statistical studies of DNA base pair sequences, Mantegna and co-workers claim that noncoding regions are more similar to natural language than the coding regions and they conclude that noncoding regions of DNA may carry biological information (Mantegna et al.1994:3169-3172).

This conclusion does not surprise me at all, since I have always suspect that these regions – which occupy perhaps 90 percent of all DNA – might eventually have unknown regulatory roles. But not only is the evidence circumstantial, it is also a far stepp to jump from this to the claim that there are strong reasons why other codes i.e., codes for coding Umwelt-experiences , are present in the cell.
The idea that there should exist DNA-based (and thus digital) codes for the coding into DNA of Umwelt-experiences is not only untrustworthly because it is near to impossible to imagine a mechanism whereby such codes should possibly be able to exert their alleget power, it also runs counter to what we normaly consider to be the functions of digital codes. For instance, we do not normaly believe words accomplish deeds in the world all on their own; rather, we see such cases, e.g.,spells,as superstition. Likewise, genes are not normally considered to accomplish anything by themselves. they have to await for a long series of enzymes and signal molecules to co-operate in the processes of transcription, RNA-editing, translation, folding, and targeting which must all take place before they can exercise that power which was only latently present (like the power of a word) in the DNA-version of the message.The only case of a digital code with an activity of its own I know of is the computer virus, but I suspect that is the only because I don´t know enough about computers to see how these digital codes are in the end acted upon rather than themselves acting.
Witzany´s meta-DNA- solution seems even less attractive when considered against the backround of the fast growing literature on the power of self-organizing and complex systems (Yates 1987; Kauffman 1993; Kauffman1995; Goodwin).

For instance, Deborah Gordon recently published an account of the self-organizing behavior in ant colonies (Gordon 1995), pointing to new, promising avenues of studying such phenomena trough complex systems dynamics rather than natural selection scenarios. If we add to this the semiotic dynamics of semetic swarm-behavior which I suggested in SMU, I don´t see we have any need for introducing a new and totally unknown kind of DNA code. In my opinion, we have more than enaugh of DNAism, we least of all need super-DNAism.

Since Witzany believes in the existence of a mechanism guided by Umwelts-experience for generating novelties in the genetic text, he can end up in the following remarkable but from a biocemical point of view completely improbable postulate:’The real-life world (Lebenswelt) of the affected cells and molecular structures of a complete organsim form the evaluation function which constitutes the actual text combination as a meaning function’ (his emphasis). And this again seems to be what structures his critique of SMU, because it makes up for a philosophy of the language of nature which doesn´t reduce it to only syntactics and semantics. Here however, he seems to have overlooked a simple fact: contrary to Witzany´s countryman, the molecular biologist Manfred Eigen, toward whom much of Witzany´s critique in fact seems directed, SMU does not talk about the language of nature at all.The focus on the digital codes - language or DNA text - is Witzany’s own bias which he shares with much of molecular biology, not the last Manfred Eigen. Perhaps because Witzany is reading SMU from the point of view of a book about “language of nature“ he searches for theoretical structures which were never there. Rather than countering all the strange inerpretations of my text which follows from this, let me just say as a biochemist writing in a cross-disciplinary landscape, I tend to use words mostly in the everyday language sense. For instance, I do not ‚[adopt] an older model of explanation in psychology , the model of empathy’, for the simple reason that I know no such model. Actually what we have in this case is an English translation of the Danish word indlevelse, which literally translated would be something like ‚mentally imagining oneself as living another person’s life’. The translator Barbara Haveland and I had long discussions before we chose to translate this as ‚empathy’ and I think in general when reading books from outside one’s own discipline, one should not be too quick to categorize the text into one’s own divisions. In the passage to which I prefer here, Witzany has a long discussion of what he probably considers to be a central problem, namely, the practice of social interaction underlying speech. My chapter, however, was not concerned whith speech as such but with how we came to be a speaking animal. Empathy was not invoked to explain how we understand meaning but only to mark out one necessary precondition for acquiring the capacity to do so.