On the Analogy Between DNA and Language

I’ve had something rumbling in my mind for a few years and am wondering what you all think of it.

TL;DR: DNA is like computer code, not like language, and is thus able to create more “information” without a mind.

I hear occasionally hear people talk about how DNA is like a language, and consequently, DNA carries information. People all over the spectrum talk this way, and YECs in particular use it as part of their “information only comes from minds, therefore evolution can’t create new information” argument. Often part of this argument is to compare DNA to human languages like English, or to computer code.

As part of my bachelor’s degree in computer engineering, I took several classes about how computers work on a very low level, and as a result, I think this analogy is equivocating, and thus its conclusions are incorrect. In fact, I think the correct conclusions actually help evolution, not hurt it. If I understand DNA correctly, it is indeed a lot like computer code, and not at all like natural languages.

Natural languages are systems of concrete symbols (sounds, marks on paper, etc) that arbitrarily correspond to abstract ideas. Words don’t have intrinsic meaning. All meanings (relationships between words and ideas) are necessarily arbitrary and subjective (they reside in the people communicating, not in the words themselves).

Computer code is not like this. To even call is a “language” is a bit misleading. The base code of all modern computers is binary code (1’s and 0’s), which are arbitrary symbols that stand for real electrical charges. The electrical charges are what matter, not the 1’s and 0’s. Those electrical charges trigger a series of physical effects in the transistors and other components. When programmers write code, they are (in a very abstracted way) organizing a series of electrical charges for the components to react to. It is an entirely deterministic system of physical cause and effect. The electrical charges do not “mean” things the way words do. Computers do not “think” any more than automobile engines or dominos “think”. They simply “do”.

Computer code notation (binary code) is also not really a language. It is a code. It represents those electrical charges, not any abstract meaning. The relationship is still arbitrary in this case, but it does not carry relationships to abstract ideas. It’s a lot like musical notation. The notation doesn’t “mean” anything the way words do, but rather acts as symbols relating to the physical design of an instrument. Musical notation is for people, not for pianos. A piano does not use musical notation. The relationship between piano keys and sound is an entirely deterministic system of physical cause and effect.

If I understand correctly how DNA works, it sounds a lot like computer code or piano keys. The coded representation of a DNA sequence (GATACA) is like binary code, or musical notation. Living bodies know nothing of them, they are just to help us understand. DNA itself is a lot like a computer’s electrical charges, or a piano’s keys. It is an entirely deterministic system of physical cause and effect. We can call them “instructions” if we like, because that’s a helpful metaphor (programmers do it all the time), but they’re actually just physical causes that have physical effects.

This analogy of DNA to computer code also reveals that it is indeed possible for non-minds to create new “information”/“instructions”. Computers do this all the time, and it’s the basis of some aspects of artificial intelligence. All the system needs is a mechanism to replicate itself, increase the number of instructions in the next generation, and alter the values of those instructions, and now it can “create information”. A designer is still needed for the initial creation of the system, but that’s it (assuming a sufficiently well-designed system).

Thus, DNA is like computer code, but not like language, and is indeed able to “create new information”.

Thoughts? Am I way off? Does anyone know of a book (or other resource) that addresses this?


I think that’s pretty much spot on. DNA instructions are just complicated chemistry as computer code is just complicated eletrical signals. One nitpick, though:

DNA isn’t entirely deterministic, at least not at a practical level. There is a stochastic component to whether a DNA segment is transcribed, whether a stop codon is read through, whether a transcription factor binds or not. Quite a bit of biology depends on that stochasticity.

Another comment: to the extent that DNA looks like computer code, it looks like code that has evolved without an overall design, with inconsistent duplications, defunct pathways that are no longer executed, and patches to fix bugs in other parts of the code.


To counter the YEC/ID claim that information only comes from minds, one counterexample that I like is the shadow of a cloud. It contains information about the cloud – how big it is, how fast and in what direction it is moving, and it also contains information about its shape and maybe its density or translucency as well.

Oops, that’s probably off topic. :grimacing: Sorry.

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Counter arguments may be:

  1. the same type of reasoning as applied to computer languages might be valid for natural languages. You don’t explain extensively why not. Why do you think that computercodes have no real meaning but words do have. May be the meaning of words is only the firing pattern of some neurons?
  2. that information doesn’t increase is not typical for human languages, it’s physics.
  3. the level of information can’t grow in a closed system. If codes in an isolated computer become more complex due to evolution, that does not mean that information increased. It’s only a different description of already present information. Not?
    Does this help to dig further in?

I’ve been thinking about this for quite some time as well and have not articulated it nearly as well or fully as you did.

I think some older technologies more effectively exhibit the the difference between languages and code that lead to mechanical “events”. I own a pneumatic player piano (c. 1910), which functions on the same principle (open hole, closed hole), and jacquard looms, an even older technology, do as well.

It helps to be able to see the rolls and cards functioning, rather than imagine the electrical impulses “hidden” on a circuit board.
It’s much harder to imagine the piano or loom as “mind,” where we even employ similar language to describe some of the functions of brains and computers today.

Obviously, these old mechanical devices and many others, weren’t able to do many of the things that computers can, but I think they demonstrate the fundamental differences between code and human language in more obvious ways.


I think you have two choices in how to proceed if you take the analogy to the level of neurons. If you do what you suggest here and treat human language as nothing but chemical reactions, you can remove the concept of meaning entirely. This does indeed make DNA like a language – and also like a waterfall and like a rock and like every other physical system. It makes both human intelligence and DNA meaningless natural phenomena, which was hardly the goal of the creationists advancing the argument.

Or you can take a less reductionist and (I think) more useful approach and try to discern what it means for human language to have meaning and to express human intelligence. At a minimum, I think it involves a mental map of physical reality, of other minds, and of oneself, as well as an ability to represent both objects and ideas symbolically. DNA certainly has none of that. Neither does computer code at present, although it may someday.

I can’t evaluate this claim without knowing what you mean by ‘information’. Under any definition I can think of, it’s clearly false.

Not. Assuming you’re invoking thermodynamics here, computer code is only a tiny fraction of the total state of the system, even in an isolated computer. There is no physical principle that I’m aware of that says that energy cannot be redistributed within the system in such a way that the information in the code increases while the entropy of the whole system also increases.

In any case, computers, humans, and DNA all work in systems that are anything but isolated, so I don’t see the relevance.


If words have meaning but computercodes lack meaning. Than we might have a problem since most words are stored and communicated by computer codes.

The actual human words are meaningless to computers. If human words are to be of any use to computers, they must be translated into code that the electronics can actually carry out. Users are layers of metaphor and code removed from what the electronics are actually doing.


That is true. In the same sense as words are meaningless to the paper of the book. For being information, it is not necessary that the carrier understands that it is information.

And so for DNA.

Yes! The information is not the material itself it’s something in the material that has meaning for a receiver. Therefore, I think that the title would have been more precise if it spoke of an analogy between DNA and a book.

Perhaps, but the OP is specifically responding to the claims of those, such as ID/YEC proponents, that argue that DNA is like language. If you are saying that DNA is not like a language then it appears that you are agreeing with @danielrbaughman’s premise (that DNA is not like a language). Even if you may not agree with his conclusion (that DNA is like computer code).

That’s my take as well. Language has a level of abstractness that DNA lacks. For language, the order of letters or symbols doesn’t have any physical or concrete meaning. What counts is the ability to convey your thoughts to others using abstractions. If two people didn’t speak the same language they could probably draw some pictures and get some of their ideas across. Language is a more formalized method of drawing pictures.

For DNA, all of the information is in the chemical and physical properties of the molecule. It is a very physical and concrete thing.


What would that look like at the level of DNA? What would be the transmitter and receiver?

Interestingly, Thomas Schneider worked out a model for Shannon information in genetic systems.

Using Shannon information, information can increase in genetic systems through evolutionary processes.


Well put. Genes map to proteins, and proteins have function, not meaning. Shakespeare’s sonnets are better characterized as having meaning, not function.


The words were meaningless to the ink and press as well.
Invoking a receiver demonstrates the limits of the book metaphor.

Proteins aren’t making sense of other proteins. They fit together. There is no mind, message or communication involved.

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Which is precisely why DNA is more like a language than like a computer program. Furthermore both DNA and language are a product of an organic process where things are tried for a great variety of reasons and goals rather than a product of design. DNA is filled with useless junk because it is a product of an organic development process rather than design. In this way, it is frankly language which is more like a computer program than DNA, because language actively discards useless portions far more than you see with DNA.

With that said all three are frankly more similar than OP makes it out to be. Computer programs are interpreted and often don’t work well when you port them over to a different machine.

I almost bought that… except in this you are ignoring the fact most DNA does not get translated to proteins. So I am not sure this is an accurate conclusion. Some language also gets translated into very precise actions and results. So… I am not sure this is true of the very large portion of DNA which is not directly translated into proteins. It is not that they play no role at all… and their role may in some cases be described as abstract in some sense.

I am not seeing the connection between “not translated” and “abstraction”. DNA that isn’t transcribed or translated is not symbolic of anything, as far as I can see. This DNA can still interact with itself to form secondary structures, but this is again a property of its chemistry.


I am not saying it is “symbolic,” just that its connection to actual results is not so direct, immediate, obvious, or clear. After all “symbolic” is a term directly devised for the mental context. But… if you try to nail down what this symbolic role is and how it affects things, I am not so sure you can make such an absolute difference. Remember I don’t have to and don’t actually buy into the dualistic understanding of reality which sees the mental aspect of things as fundamentally different.

Another parallel between DNA and some computer programs is that the assessment of functionality is external. A computer does not know whether the directions that it is executing are generating a useful result or not. Likewise, DNA provides directions that may or may not be functional for the survival of an organism. For the computer, the user determines whether the results are useful (contrary to what Microsoft seems to think). For the DNA, the environment determines the utility.

A simplistic program for “see, random stuff can get somewhere” is to generate random letters and keep any that match a target word. A popular anti-evolutionary critique is that such a program has to have the target programmed in. Thus, the information must already be present. But that is because the simple program has to incorporate both pattern generation and pattern recognition to complete the demonstration. For DNA, and for some computer programs, the pattern recognition is external.

Practically any DNA sequence will do something, whereas there are myriad sound or symbol combinations not used in any particular human language, so the chance of a DNA sequence being adequately functional is much higher than the chance that a random string of letters gives a useful message in a particular language.