Matter is Information: On Gene Patents, cDNA, and Spontaneous Generation
by KARL STEEL
Like others, I’ve been trying to get my head around the recent Duns SCOTUS1 ruling on patentable genes. Here’s Tim Morton, and here’s me earlier today, where I observe that the “SCOTUS ruling on non-patentable genes relies on precritical distinction between matter and information.” I was led to this by the payoff paragraph in Jeff Guo article at The New Republic:
saying that cDNA is patentable but natural DNA isn’t misunderstands the central complaint about gene patents, which is that genes are basically information, and information can’t be patented. The body has its own code, it’s a natural code, and the body naturally manipuates [sic] that code, making copies, edits and deletions all on its own. Genetics is data. The provenance of the molecules that carry that data, whether they are DNA or RNA, whether the DNA version exists naturally or the RNA version exists naturally, is completely irrelevant.
My emphasis. As one says, read the whole thing. It won’t take long.
I’ve been stewing on the indistinction between structure and information on the level of RNA and DNA (for example) at least since April in Tuscaloosa. In some typical ways of thinking things, matter without spirit is inert; and matter needs spirit to inform it. Spirit is information, in other words. The informing makes you you, for example, distinguishing your mere stuff from my mere stuff. In genealogy, this informing is what’s passed down from one generation to the next. This is familial information, whether we call this the paternal name or the genetic code.
But if information can’t be distinguished from material structure, then we have the tools for a radically nonspiritual, nonpaternal, and nonvital conceptualization of objects in general, living things included. Individuation now isn’t something that happens through the application of spirit, or vitality, or writing, or code to matter. It happens with matter itself, through its organization within a roiling field of other matter, in which a perfect description of the information particularizing a particular piece of matter would be nothing less than an exact copy of that piece of matter, and possibly of the larger constantly shifting spatiotemporal order of matter that made that particularization possible.
This is all highly abstract. It could help if I share some of the material from my Tuscaloosa talk that never found its way onto the blog in this form.
Normal life proceeds by what medieval writers called generatio univoca, generation from a single source, cause, or even voice: an ultimately transcendent divine motion. What we call spontaneous generation the medievals tended to call generatio equivoca, generation from an ambiguous source, or without the hierarchy of some singular outside cause.
An example: Aristotle speaks of some insects “not derived from living parentage, but…generated spontaneously: some out of dew falling on leaves…others grow in decaying mud or dung; others in timber, green or dry; some in the hair of animals; some in the flesh of animals; some in excrements: and some from excrement after it has been voided, and some from excrement yet within the living animal.”
This is unpaternal life, without, as Aquinas said, any “aspect of generation and sonship.” Paternal life transmits information. This information is its lineage or history, which, however inherent it may be to matter, can be separated or abstracted from it as a transmitted or chartable code. We might think of this code as the spiritual principle. Spontaneous generation by contrast springs into swarming life from itself, without any sexual intermediary, without parental transmission, without a singular cause or singular voice, without a quality that can be separated from its temporary affiliations. Its noise is its matter is its motion is its life, all together. This is a life without separable history, without the controlling line of fatherhood, without information or coding, without distinction from its momentary configurations, and without divisions of passive matter from an active principle that gives matter form, and thus outside Aristotelian gendered conceptions of feminine passivity2 and masculine activity.
And later on:
The campaign against [spontaneous generation] has to be understood as something other than that of a modern split from medieval habits, and something other than a war against the persistence of the medieval in the modern. Because we know that life at its origin is abiogenetic, unlife acting upon itself and springing into life. This point was one Darwin himself was making not long before Pasteur was celebrating his victory over Pouchet.
Thus, although we might think of modern origin of life research and the new materialisms as a kind of return of medieval fecund materiality, we should think things otherwise than a line between medieval and modern, superstition and science, not least of all because there’s no one medieval attitude about matter. We might draw the line better not between historical eras but between kinds of grammar, per Nietzsche’s famous critique of “the metaphysics of language,” which, he argues, persists in differentiating between a “doer and doing” and asserting some “will as the cause,” or, more simply, classifying things into clear subjects and predicates, between a matter that needs something or someone to make it happen, and matter whose operations cannot be neatly sorted into effect and external cause, object and external subject.. You know how Nietzsche’s famous critique ends: “I am afraid that we are not rid of God because we still have faith in grammar.”
Life, or matter, is in its origin ungrammatical, a point I insist on even as I accept some of triumphalist narratives of spontaneous generation’s defeat. I’ll emphasize that I don’t want to obscure the differences between spontaneous generation and origin of life research. Insofar as this medievalist can know, I know that origin of life research (eg and also eg) provides hypothesizes about the development of a paired genetic continuity and openness to adaptation across generations; that it provides irreversible historical narratives of, say, the long rise of DNA out of an RNA world; and that it tends to insist that the time of abiogensis is long over. Spontaneous generation doesn’t relegate its processes to the tremendously distant past—or the tremendous speed of chemical interactions. That may be its error. Yet in abiogenesis, in spontaneous generation, and the continued operations of DNA and RNA insofar as I understand them, we do have matter operating on itself to bring something new and surprising into being in ways that meets Jane Bennett’s call “to dissipate the onto-theological binaries of life/matter, human/animal, will/determination, and organic/inorganic” (x). In other words, I’ll suggest that the somewhat embarrassed response to spontaneous generation in some scholarship (eg) evidences a need to cling to subject/object binaries—evidences, in other words, that it hasn’t yet got rid of God or the myth of an infusing spirit, or of the distinctiveness of information from matter—and that spontaneous generation offers a resource both to the still developing work of the new materialists and to critical animal thinkers like me.
Or, for that matter, to the Supreme Court of the United States.
1 Tip of the hat to Kári Driscoll for the medieval SCOTUS twist↩
2 Note that Isidore Etymologies IX.v.4 derives “materia” [matter] from “mater” [mother]! ↩