Thursday, June 18, 2009

Life: an operating system?

It pains me to say it but DNA looks like an object class definition in object oriented programming (which is itself based partly on principles of heredity). The paucity of genes can be accounted for in a system where the DNA represents a program to be run by an operating system that is far more complex than the program itself.

In my analogy (below somewhere) I described DNA as like measurements and specifications such as colour and fabric for a suit, which is then made by a tailor. It is the tailor who knows how to make the suit, he or she initiates the processing and guides it by using techniques that are not described at all in the specifications for the suit. What I am saying is that you can take the material (a bolt of cloth, say) and the pattern and place them in the world and they will sit there forever and decay, fall to bits and no suit will appear. That is unless somebody or some thing - it could be a machine - takes the material, follows the pattern and after a time equivalent to gestation of a creature - outputs the finished garment.

So my question: What is it that takes the pattern of DNA and the material and not only makes it but like Pinocchio's carpenter brings it to life? And a possible answer, or rather another metaphor for it, is that Life is an operating system. In this view DNA is object class definition language, living things are object instances and Life is an operating system that implements our constructors, provides our operating environment and eventually disposes of us and recycles our material.

I foresee the objection that this is a tautology and that we have arrived at nothing more than the laws of nature, which are already described. However, the laws of nature may be described separately, as somewhat isolated phenomena, or phenomena whose interactions are investigated and catalogued as a series of fragments, whereas I suggest we are functions of a large system called Life which, in summary, drives us and all creatures, and without which we would just be piles of inanimate materials. Materials, as far as we know, do not get up and write A la Recherche du Temps Perdu or indeed anything at all, they rather tend to chaos (entropy) when left alone.

I am looking for something scientific, which will explain how DNA is translated into a finished product, to put it that way, and when the answer is known we will not be in any different position as regards "the meaning of life" - we still will not know, because behind every new mechanism lies another mechanism that must enable it. "All of our knowledge only brings us closer to our ignorance" (Eliot).