The I Ching of Everything

by Terence MacNamee

In Who wrote the book of life?, Lily Kay recounts that, after the description of the genetic code as sequences of letters that in each case spell out a biological message, some people had the idea that this code could be better accounted for by symbols of the I Ching. At first, it seemed to be a joke. But there was something to it.

There had always been suggestions that the genetic code pointed to something like a universal language at the basis of life; perhaps it might even be the stuff of the physical universe. Roman Jakobson, the chief figure in structural linguistics, was a believer in this theory; it had been enabled by the rise of Information Theory in the 1950s, which held out the possibility that all kinds of scientific laws, from social to physical, could be accounted for in terms of information.

Now, if this was so, surely something so universal, so more-than-human, as the genetic code could not, should not be accounted for using the terms of any particular culture. The trouble is that the letters of the alphabet are not universal, but are a Roman invention which has been generalised for use in Western European languages. It seemed presumptuous to say that DNA spells out a genetic code in terms of anything so culture-specific as that. The I Ching seemed to some a far more promising candidate. It was Chinese, to be sure, and also a product of a particular culture, but those who revere it claim universal validity for it, regarding it as a repository of the ancient wisdom of humanity.

Even before the discovery of the genetic code, another great linguist, Whorf, subscribed to what he called “the idea, entirely unfamiliar to the modern world, that nature and language are inwardly akin.” So he was well on the way to Jakobson’s position. On the other hand, Whorf was critical of the sheer unexamined Westernness of science: “The world-view of modern science arises by higher specialization of the grammar of the Western Indo-European languages.”

Indeed, Whorf is remembered as the chief relativist in linguistics. He thought languages were so different from one another that a universal level was implausible. He came to the conclusion that upstream from languages is not Language, but Patterning. “The different tongues are the real phenomena and may generalize not down to any such universal as ‘Language’, but to something better – called ‘sublinguistic’ or ‘superlinguistic’.”

Whorf’s musings are similar, in turn, to Hermann Hesse’s vision of the Glass Bead Game as a universal language that could enable the gamer to play with every pattern – from astronomers’ equations to sayings of Confucius. Hesse, of course, was an enthusiastic reader of the I Ching.

In the end, maybe there is something up there, out there, a superlinguistic level of patterning as applicable to life and nature as it is to language and thinking. If so, it would be “the I Ching of Everything”.