Friday, 12 December 2008

Naming things...

Why do we love words so much? Is there a gene responsible for the love of language?

There’s a lot of commentary on genes which seems to conflate the four bases with the alphabetic symbols used to describe them; A, C, G, and T. For example, I’ve read that ‘genes are made up of sequences of these four letters’. But at the risk of stating the obvious, bases are not letters, they’re acids. So are we confusing the thing with its symbol?

The statement ‘DNA behaves like a written instruction’ is a powerful analogy. But not everything is language. DNA is not a written instruction, and to say it is muddles the distinction between a thing and its name. Perhaps this is a hangover from the belief in magic, the power of the spell and the perception that to know a thing’s true or secret name was to have some power over that thing.

I think there is a related confusion over the reporting of a new gene being discovered and its role. Often we are presented with information on the name of a new gene with the implication that there is now an understanding of what that gene does. The naming of chemical elements, living organisms and genes allows us to structure and order our external world. But it does not necessarily explain it.

And I love the fact that there appears to be no order or structure in the way that genes are named. It seems that anarchy rules, and there are no naming conventions. By contrast, in astronomy only solar system objects get names, and now everything else just gets a rather prosaic mixture of letters and numbers, usually based on their coordinates and the catalogue in which they are listed. This wasn’t always so. Stars which are visible to the naked eye, and which therefore were identified and named before the invention of the telescope kickstarted astronomy in the West, tend to show the influence of medieval Arabic civilisations. There is a sort of palimpsest on the night sky, we look through a web of names and their associated civilisations when we look up at the stars.

So in the future, people will look at genes’ names and get a sense of the civilisation that produced them. They may ask themselves what on earth was meant by ‘radical fringe’, ‘mindbomb’, or ‘zinc finger’. They may try and infer something about the processes which produced these names. They may suggest that geneticists in the 21st century were using these names to convey secret messages to one another, to rebel against the authoritarian times in which they lived, or to provide an amusing counterpoint to the way that science was normally described at that time. I wonder what they’ll think…

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