Toad in the Hole

November 30, 2005

Am I Oversimplifying?

I confess I have one of those brainstem-deep pet theories* about how people get wound up** and talk about things. There's talk of "living machines" that seems to underlie a lot of creationist nutbaggery as well as TV-level science explanation: the cell rotor and the sodium pump, just e.g. And there's "information theory" that gets slathered all over things that it doesn't help with at all, like sociology, as well as becoming opaque slang with such formulations as "genetic information."

I suspect a lot of the fuzzy thinking about biology originates in these phrases too. And they're metaphors, not descriptions. Animals and plants got described as machines in the age of machines -- the years when people were widely exposed to mechanical brilliance, to steam engines and typewriters and doorbells and aeroplanes. Someone had discovered ways to apply energy and motion paths, reproduce in a crude fashion some of what they'd seen in other bits of nature, and accomplish what they wanted -- move large objects and human bodies around, weave cloth, fasten cloth bits together with thread, whip cream. And that vision, that bit of reductionism, colored their vision so that for example animals became living machines.

But of course we aren't machines, any more than we are shadows of a Platonic ideal. That's just a metaphor.

So is "information," as I understand things so far. Is what is "transmitted" (is that what's happening, or is that just what it looks like?) in DNA actually information, or is it just something that acts like information, looks ot us like instructions? And insofar as you have "information theory" are you applying it to actual information, or to something that looks to you as acting like information? When it stops acting like information, will you notice? What will you call that?

Whatever we're looking at, we're looking through the lenses of our time and its ways of seeing. Better be careful with those metaphors. We can count on looking about as quaint as people talking about an excess of choleric humor to people in a few centuries, who, one hopes, will be looking differently at whatever we've left them to look at.

*I mean theories in the popular sense, of course -- one step more vague than "hypotheses."

** Hey! There's one of those metaphors right there!

Posted at November 30, 2005 06:03 AM



Science as Poetry.

Posted by: Pica at November 30, 2005 02:46 PM

/laugh/ Yes, I'm oversimplifying, or Yes, you're agreeing? (Or Yes, all very well, but it's November 30? Feel free to send that over to um the unpronounceable if it's what you want.)

Actually, I have something else to say about science and poetry, which I hope to get to tonight after some museum time and a reverse burglary.

Posted by: Ron at November 30, 2005 04:35 PM