DNA is Binary

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DNA is BinaryWhile I am not a geneticist — and make no claims to any sort of authority in that realm — I do know a thing or two about computer programming. Coming from that perspective, I cannot help being fascinated by genetics. What engrosses me the most is that DNA is binary code. DNA — which most people know makes up the genetic composition of every single life form on earth (and possibly beyond?) — is a molecule comprised of extremely simple base pairs of nucleotides. That is not to say the field of genetics is easy to grasp, because it certainly is not; I have been a mostly-casual observer for two decades, and I don’t pretend to be anything like an expert.

Nevertheless,  the base pairs making up the famous DNA double helix are so simple in their construction, in fact, that I was taken aback when I began to learn about them. The nucleotides making up these base pairs are Adenosine, Thymidine, Cytidine and Guanosine — usually abbreviated as A, T, C, and G.

Perhaps the most elegant thing about the way these nucleotides combine to form the DNA double helix is the fact that A is always paired with T, and C is always paired with G. When I’ve discussed the binary nature of these pairings with other computer scientists, the response has sometimes been to point out that there are four nucleotides — whereas binary constructions always use just two elements: one and zero (which translate to “on” and “off,” or “yes” and “no,” et cetera).*

This is a common error made with the genetic pairings, and here is why I used the word “elegant” in the last paragraph: because each of these nucleotides can only match with its specific mate, each pair then becomes a single unit — meaning that the four nucleotides actually pair universally with one another to make just two elements… and that is binary.

The implications are breathtaking: somehow nature has combined these extremely simple organic materials in ways that allow for an infinite number of combinations — which, as I said before, account for every single form of life on earth.

Of course, this manifestation of elegance, simplicity, complexity, and specificity — all at once — begs the question from all proper theologians (and other curious onlookers): who — or what — created the code? And, naturally, they typically answer their own question: it must have been God.

I have no choice but to admit it is this sort of phenomenon that requires me to remain agnostic — religiously, philosophically, and scientifically. To tenaciously and dogmatically cling to anything regarding mysteries like these would arrogantly defy the embryonic nature of our awareness and understanding of the universe. As I’ve said so many times before: I am not (and in fairness to my own sanity cannot be) afraid to say I don’t know.

But I remain firmly committed to agnostic atheism; just because the explanation eludes science now does not mean it always will. And the existence of DNA does not, perforce, impart evidence for the existence of any God(s).

But even if there were a creator of some sort — and there very well may be — I have no inclination to automatically assign to this creator the qualities of omnicscientomnipotent, uniquekind, and/or loving. Nor am I ready to ascribe to this creator a gender of male based solely on the wonders of genetic discoveries.

Nonetheless, it is hard to dismiss this elegance as mere chance. I am a Darwinian to my very core, but being a proponent of evolutionary natural selection does not afford me the power to dogmatically reject the plausibility of this being a design of some kind. Of course, the semantic danger of making such a statement is that the religiously-minded will see this as acquiescence.

It is not. I am a scientist and I believe in the sanctity of falsification. But I am not a logical positivist, and I cannot automatically consign the profound implications underlying genetics to mere chance.

But they may very well may be chance. And I am inclined to like that theory. A lot.

UPDATE: A friend (also a computer scientist) pointed to the fact that some DNA contains six nucleotides. He also observed we could consider base-4 or base-6 mathematics when analyzing either configuration. I haven’t looked into it, but it might be a reasonable thing to consider. Either way, I’m still curious about how cryptographers might handle the “code” of the human genome, as I wrote in my follow-up article.


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