What is Code Biology?

The genetic code appeared on Earth at the origin of life, and the codes of culture arrived almost four billion years later. For a long time it has been assumed that these are the only codes that exist in Nature, but in recent years more than 200 biological codes have been discovered and it is likely that more will come to light in the future. The existence of hundreds of codes in living systems is first of all an experimental fact but also more than that. It is one of those facts that have extraordinary theoretical implications.

Today there are two dominant paradigms in biology. One is the chemical paradigm, the idea that “Life is chemistry” or, more precisely, “an extremely complex form of chemistry”. The other is the information paradigm, the idea that “Life is chemistry plus information”. The discovery of the genetic code, on the other hand, has brought to light a third key component of life because a code is a set of rules that give meaning to something, and meaning is different from both chemistry and information. In the Morse code, for example, the rule that ‘dot-dash’ corresponds to letter ‘A’, is equivalent to saying that letter ‘A’ is the meaning of ‘dot- dash’. In the same way, the rule that a codon corresponds to an amino acid is equivalent to saying that that amino acid is the organic meaning of that codon. Meaning, in other words, is a mental entity when the code is between mental objects, but it is an organic entity when the code is between organic molecules. This is why the discovery of the genetic code has suggested a third solution, a third paradigm, the idea that “Life is chemistry, information and meaning”.

The discovery of the genetic code, furthermore, has proved that there are two molecular mechanisms at the basis of life, the copying of the genes and the coding of proteins. Life, in other words, is not based on copying alone. It is based on copying and coding, and this means that evolution took place by two distinct mechanisms. More precisely, the existence of copying and coding at the molecular level means that there are two distinct types of evolutionary change: evolution by natural selection, based on copying, and evolution by natural conventions, based on coding.

The key point is that copying and coding are totally different mechanisms because copying is about information whereas coding is about meaning, and this means that neither of them can be reduced to the other and that both of them contributed to the evolution of life. The research on the biological codes, in conclusion, has brought to light a new mechanism of evolution and the existence of meaning in living systems. This research field is Code Biology, the study of all codes of life, from the genetic code to the codes of culture, with the standard methods of science.