Tuesday, December 21, 2010

About the Code Delusion

After randomly stumbling across a link to the article “Getting over the Code Delusion” in a link posted by Deepak Sing a couple months ago I’ve just spent the last hour reading it instead of getting my own work done and now I’m spending more time writing about it.  Sorry boss, but I couldn't help myself... 
The central point that the article makes with surprisingly elegant prose is that it is impossible to understand how life works entirely through the lens of a linear DNA sequence.  Put very simply, life is much more complicated than we had hoped – read his piece to get a better understanding of some of the mechanisms of that complexity. 
While I generally found the piece informative, enlightening and a pleasure to read, one element that I found unnecessary was a thread of what seem like bizarrely placed calls to some higher power.  For example,
 “When you encounter the meaningful, directed, and well-shaped movements of a dance, it’s hard to ignore the active principle — some would say the agency or being — coordinating the movements.”
 And close after,
 “Seemingly in the grip of the encircling DNA with its relatively fixed and stable structure, yet responsive to the varying flow of life around it, the nucleosome holds the balance between gene and context — a task ­requiring flexibility, a ‘sense’ of appropriate rhythm, and perhaps we could even say ‘grace.’”
These, perhaps unscientific, references seem to arise in the text because the complexity of the totality of the factors that affect how cells and organisms function appears too great to hope to understand in a reductive way.  Along the same lines he suggests: 
"The search for precise explanatory mechanisms and codes leads us along a path of least resistance toward the reduction of understanding."
Now what does that mean for a scientist?  How can we increase understanding without searching for precise explanations? 
It puts me in mind of the unlimited complexity produced by simple underlying rules in Wolfram's "A new kind of science" - would love to hear what it puts in your mind.