The Symbolic Gene
Everyone has heard of the genetic code. Here is a typical statement from Wikipedia: “The genetic code is the set of rules used by living cells to translate information encoded within genetic material (DNA or RNA sequences of nucleotide triplets, or codons) into proteins…The codons specify which amino acid will be added next during protein biosynthesis”. Notice the heavy use of semantic notions in this formulation: code, rules, translate, information, encoded, specify. Other formulations use the concept of language explicitly and speak of “instructions” that “tell a cell how to make a specific protein”. What are we to make of these formulations? Are we to suppose that DNA contains symbols with meaning and reference? Evidently, we are to suppose this; there is no hint of metaphor in these words—no suggestion that it is merely as if genes have semantic properties. Still, someone might protest that metaphor must be what is meant, because it would be anthropocentric to project our mastery of language onto mere molecules. DNA doesn’t utter words, communicate, or perform speech acts! That’s a specifically human ability. There is much that is wrong with this protest, which I won’t go into (what about whales and dolphins?), but I do want to make a more general point about the attribution of such concepts to non-human subjects. Consider the concept of the selfish gene: this is often regarded as a mere metaphor and must be meant as such, useful or not. But that is surely wrong: genes really do operate in ways that closely mirror ordinary human selfishness, thus deserving the appellation “selfish”. To be selfish is to favor one’s own interests over the interests of others, not taking those interests into consideration. A dog or cat will eat all the food put in front of it without regard for what another cat or dog might desire or need. It does not consider the interests of others. It is not always selfish, though, because it considers the interests of its offspring (its genetic relatives). Sometimes it exhibits selfish behavior and sometimes not. And the same is true of animal species in general, going right down the phylogenetic scale. Of course, there are differences between the different species (animals are not blameworthy for their self-centered behavior whereas humans are), but the common pattern justifies applying the concept in this extended way. This isn’t mere metaphor; it is rooted in the behavior and dispositions of the animal in question. Animals are literally selfish (sometimes), self-centered, self-interested, self-promoting—despite their differences from humans. In the same way genes are selfish, literally, non-metaphorically: they act in ways that favor their own survival at the expense of others. They don’t do so intentionally, consciously, with malice aforethought; but they still do it. They thus resemble consciously selfish agents in significant respects, and that is what grounds the ascription to them of the word “selfish”. Is it a metaphor that computers compute? It used to be that only humans were called “computers”, which seems quaint now, but when machine computers were invented their similarity to human computers warranted the extension of the term to them. This doesn’t require us to suppose that computers are conscious, only that their behavior resemble that of human computers. The same applies to the current use of “smart”—smart phones, smart TVS, smart cars. When someone writes a book called The Intelligent Eye, we don’t immediately impute metaphor but recognize that eyes act with many of the attributes characteristic of human intelligence (The Intelligent Eyelash would not invite the same semantic tolerance). There isn’t some kind of fallacy involved in using words like this; it is entirely reasonable in the light of the facts. So, the title The Selfish Gene wasn’t simply a category mistake or fanciful trope; it was the literal truth given the facts expounded in the book. And everyone can see this (aside from captious critics). Similarly for the phrase “the symbolic gene”: the biological facts justify this coinage—as with whale and dolphin language. Compare “the language of thought”: you may or may not agree that such a thing exists, but it is not a category mistake to talk that way—it all depends on whether thought is sufficiently similar to speech. These are all natural biological kinds and have their extension fixed by the facts not by supposed paradigms. If that is so, we have an interesting question about symbolic genes: do they thereby have a mind? Isn’t a symbolizing entity necessarily a mental entity? It is supposed by some that we have a second mind located in our bowels, given the neural activity at that locale; do we have a third mind located in our genes? The idea should not be dismissed out of hand; again, we must beware of linguistic parochialism. We don’t need to assume that genes are conscious in order to believe they are endowed with mind, so long as they have intentionality (just like the unconscious); and the usual way of talking encourages this supposition. The symbols in the genetic code stand for different amino acids, so there is intentionality built into the system—reference, representation. The genes instruct genetic mechanisms to assemble amino acids in certain places in a certain order, so they must contain the semantic machinery required for such instruction. Indeed, they must have a semantics: an assignment of entities from a domain and rules for determining conditions of satisfaction. The entities are amino acids and the rules fix conditions under which the instructions have been correctly carried out: “Put such and such an amino acid in such and such a place” is satisfied if and only if that acid is put in that place”, or some such thing. That is, the genetic code and its instructions have a semantic interpretation in the classical sense—if (but only if) it is right to attribute a language to the genes. But then, we have enough to warrant an ascription of mentality. Clearly this mind (like the gut mind) is very different from our head-centered mind, but it would be narrow-minded (!) to exclude such minds from the general category of mindedness. We have finally got used to ascribing minds to our fellow animals, despite their differences from our minds; it shouldn’t be too great a stretch to grant this license to sub-personal systems. And aren’t genes fully deserving of such largesse given their extraordinary generative powers? They can make whole complex organisms, which no brain-centered intelligence can do: they are clever, resourceful, sophisticated (what other words can we use?) Embryogenesis is a remarkable engineering feat of nature, requiring complex ingenious machinery; it seems petty and self-aggrandizing to deny them the honorific label “mind” (or “intelligent”, “clever”, “inventive”). True, they mimic the impressively intelligent Mr. Spock in their lack of affect, but no one has ever denied that he has a mind, in some ways superior to the affect-laden human mind. Minds come in many forms and we shouldn’t take ours to be the measure of all of them. The octopus, as we now know, has a mind suited to its anatomy and needs, and the same might be true of the molecule made of DNA. Also, can we really exclude the possibility of consciousness here? Our knowledge is limited, panpsychism might have some truth to it, and conscious minds can be very alien—so it is possible that genes have some sort of consciousness. But even if they don’t, that doesn’t preclude them having an unconscious mind. So, maybe mind appeared on earth a good deal earlier than it is commonly supposed, with the advent of DNA (itself a remarkable evolutionary product). We might think of it as the brain behind evolution by natural selection, its sine qua non. The selfish gene, the symbolic gene, the intelligent gene, the cerebral gene: DNA is more than just a chemical double helix.
 R.L. Gregory (1970). The book deals with the perception of ambiguous figures and other sorts of visual interpretation. Nowadays it would not be out of place to speak of the “genius eye” given what we know of the eye’s feats of reconstruction from the retinal image.
 See Michael Gershon, The Second Brain (1998).
 The same is true of the brain: if you look at it from outside, or under a microscope, it looks like a mere collection of spindly cells, but it has many characteristics not so revealed—including selfishness, symbolism, intelligence, and consciousness. Why should the same not be true of the genes? They may have emergent properties not revealed by simple inspection. It all depends on what theory demands and reason recommends.