When science meets culture

by Terence MacNamee

Claude Shannon was born just a century ago. He was an eccentric American genius who, among other things, studied the mathematics of juggling and built an “ultimate machine” the only action of which was to reach out and turn itself off when it was turned on. But he is best remembered for developing Information Theory in 1948. This turned out to be of great importance. Not only did it provide a basis for work with the new computing machines that were being developed at the time, but it influenced a whole range of sciences – in fact, it would be hard to think of a science that it didn’t influence. Yet one wonders if the whole craze wasn’t just a recycling of old cultural patterns.

Shannon always emphasized that he was interested in information only as an engineer; that is, he wanted to know how it might be transferred between machines. Now this kind of transfer could be called communication, but it had little to do with human communication. Shannon was not interested in meaning. His definition of information did not include meaning as it was not quantifiable. Information was just how much or how little you told me that I didn’t know before – which was quantifiable.

Yet soon enough information theory was on the radar of every science. Not just physics, where it seemed information might be some kind of basic element like energy. In the social sciences, they talked about information being transferred within and between social systems. In linguistics in particular, they started accounting for language in terms of information. They conveniently forgot about Shannon’s discounting of meaning, which surely is the key element in language. If you read the linguistics textbooks and the structuralist gurus of the 1960s, Information Theory is all there, cited again and again like a revelation from on high.

But the most important and lasting influence of Information Theory was in the new science of molecular biology. After Watson and Crick discovered the double helix, Nirenberg and Matthaei “cracked the code” of DNA. It turned out to be a code with combinations of letters. François Jacob extended this with “messenger” RNA. Linguists (who should have known better) as well as others toyed with the idea of language being just one instance of patterning in life and in the universe, a patterning which turns out to be – information.

Molecular biology got a further boost around the turn of the millennium with the project of the human genome. Now there was all kinds of talk about the Book of Life. A very Biblical-sounding phrase, to be sure. As historian of science Lily Kay pointed out, the language/code/book-of-life complex is a metaphor, which turns out to be a reworking of age-old commonplaces in philosophy. Molecular biology could operate without this, but just uses it as a convenient mythology.

Mythologies like this are dredged up from the past of human thought – maybe from the collective unconscious – and form the cultural side of science, which is too often underestimated. Science – even so-called “hard” science – is not as pure and unaffected by culture and ideology as we like to think.