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  • Cybernetics, Information, Life: The Emergence of Scriptural Representations of Heredity
  • Lily E. Kay (bio)

The word “information” in this theory [mathematical theory of communication] is used in a special sense that must not be confused with its ordinary usage. In particular, information must not be confused with meaning.

Warren Weaver 1

Unfortunately, however, it turned out that impatient scientists in various fields applied the terminology and the theorems of the statistical (communication) theory to fields in which the term “information” was used pre-systematically, in a semantic sense . . . or even in a pragmatic sense.

Yehoshua Bar Hillel 2

The destructive impact of ordinary language on any extensions of information theory begins with the very terms the originators (Shannon & Weaver, 1949) chose to name parts of the paradigm.

Michael J. Reddy 3

The ideas and terminology of information theory would not have caught on [in biology] as they have done unless they were serving some very useful purpose. It [End Page 23] seems to me that they are highly appropriate in their proper context . . . and in speaking of genes and chromosomes the language of information theory is often extremely apt.

Sir Peter B. Medawar 4

We shall therefore pray for the banishment of the abusive use of the term “language” from the field of molecular biosemiotics.

Marcel Florkin 5

The future historian of the origins of molecular biology will, I hope, examine critically the purported role of information (or communication) theory. . . . Although the mathematics of information theory . . . appear to have had little application in biological research, the language they introduced was eagerly adopted by those engaged in the study of the genetics and metabolism of bacteria and viruses.

Joseph Fruton 6

I. Introduction

In the 1950s molecular biology underwent a striking discursive shift: it began to represent itself as a communication science, allied to cybernetics, information theory, and computers. 7 Through the introduction of terms such as information, feedback, messages, codes, alphabet, words, instructions, texts, and programs, molecular biologists came to view organisms and molecules as information storage and retrieval systems. Heredity came to be conceptualized as contemporary systems of communication, guidance, and control. This linguistic and semiotic repertoire was absent from molecular biology before the 1950s. Based on these scriptural representations, the genome could be read and edited unambiguously by those who know, laying [End Page 24] claims to new levels of control over life: beyond control of matter there was now control of information, the word.

In his small volume, The Book of Life (1967), the molecular biologist and progenitor of the Human Genome Project, Robert Sinsheimer, described the information stored in the human chromosomes as the written word:

[T]he book of life. In this book are instructions, in a curious and wonderful code, for making a human being. In one sense—on a sub-conscious level—every human being is born knowing how to read this book in every cell of his body. But on the level of conscious knowledge it is a major triumph of biology in the past two decades that we have begun to understand the content of these books and language in which they are written. 8

Nobel Laureate Jacques Monod, in a series of lectures (1969) that formed the basis for his notorious book Chance and Necessity, celebrated these new representations as a turning point in biology. The organism was nothing but “a cybernetic system governing and controlling the chemical activity at numerous points,” he argued; within the scientific imagination of the missile age, gene-enzyme regulations were “systems, thus [were] compatible to those employed in electronic automation circuitry, where the very slight energy consumed by a relay can trigger a large-scale operation such as, for example, the firing of a ballistic missile.” 9 He credited the ideas of his colleague Leo Szilard and their elaboration by the noted information theorist Léon Brillouin with providing the key to these fundamental biological concepts. 10

“Heredity is described today in terms of information, messages and code,” proclaimed Monod’s partner, Nobel Laureate François Jacob [End Page 25] (ca. 1970), in the introduction of his book The Logic of Life. 11 Analogizing the genetic code to a computer program, Jacob argued that...

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