Nautilus

Is DNA the Language of the Book of Life?

Thinking of nucleobases as a long sequence of letters may contribute to the illusion that DNA is a language.Neil Palmer / CIAT via Flickr

When we talk about genes, we often use expressions inherited from a few influential geneticists and evolutionary biologists, including Francis Crick, James Watson, and Richard Dawkins. These expressions depict DNA as a kind of code telling bodies how to form. We speak about genes similarly to how we speak about language, as symbolic and imbued with meaning. There is “gene-editing,” and there are “translation tables” for decoding sequences of nucleic acid.  When DNA replicates, it is said to “transcribe” itself. We speak about a message—such as, build a tiger! or construct a female!—being communicated between microscopic materials. But this view of

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