Viewing DNA in Communication Terms

In the 2001 PBS special “Cracking the Code,” host Robert Krulwich opens the documentary by claiming that the “secret of life” is a “message contained in this stunning little constellation of chemicals that we call DNA.” Both Krulwich and his first interviewee Eric Lander call DNA a “code,” a “story” or “storybook” and “information.” Krulwich even describes DNA as being able to actively “tell us” things about our genetic makeup. And these all these names for DNA are just from one few-minutes-long segment of the documentary!

Referring to DNA with communication metaphors — such as “message” or “story” — has been a common practice almost since DNA was discovered. As an English and Corporate Communications double major, I find it very interesting that both society and science have chosen to frame DNA in communication terms. Such metaphors make DNA seem like it has the ability to speak directly to us, almost as if it were a person.

But is it fair and accurate to personify DNA like this? As Lander points out in this same segment, “DNA has a reputation for being such a mystical high-falutin’ sort of molecule—all this information, your future, your heredity. It’s actually goop.” So can goop actually talk to us? And perhaps more intriguingly, can we talk back?

An actual picture of DNA, imaged by electron microscopes. By Enzo di Fabrizio via New Scientist.

An actual picture of DNA, imaged by electron microscopes. By Enzo di Fabrizio via New Scientist.

Framing DNA in communication terms can help us better understand it by placing it within the context of something that we all do — communicating! However, it’s important not to let such metaphors unfairly influence our understanding of DNA. Right now, our DNA knowledge is essentially a “parts list” of chemicals, although I suppose research could move us beyond that in the near future. In order to figure out what the DNA is trying to “tell us,” we must interpret this list. There might be a “story” or a “message” contained within the goop of DNA, but we have to go searching for it. And it’s important that we don’t find something just because we want it to be there.

It’s certainly tempting to think of DNA as the mystical, all-knowing molecule that Lander describes, to talk about it in terms of “messages” and “stories” and “information.” But we can’t forget that at the end of the day, DNA is also just a goop of chemicals. The goop that drives the development and functioning of pretty much all life forms, but still goop.

-Kara Sherrer

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~ by ksherrer on January 12, 2014.

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