This is one of those ideas that cannot sound like anything other than wild exaggeration when first encountered, but which slowly takes root in the reader’s consciousness under Gleick’s deft hand. The idea clearly extends directly from Richard Dawkins’s notion that genes serve themselves rather than their living hosts. One way to understand Gleick’s book is as a successor and companion to Dawkins’s 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Gleick quotes Dawkins:
[A gene] is no more likely to die when it is a million years old than when it is only a hundred. It leaps from body to body down the generations, manipulating body after body in its own way and for its own ends, abandoning a succession of mortal bodies before they sink in senility and death.
By the same token, argues Gleick, we can see that all of information is trying to replicate itself, and using our world merely as a host. He quotes philosopher Daniel Dennett, who quips, “A scholar is just a library’s way of making another library.”
I only wish Gleick would take one baby step back from his total embrace of autonomy and causality. Genes are an interesting case study here. In his chapter on genes, he conveys an awful lot of the complexity very well, explaining, for example, that there can’t be any such thing as a “gene for” any particular trait because genes interact with other genes. (“There is no gene for long legs; there is no gene for a leg at all. To build a leg requires many genes, each issuing instructions in the form of proteins, some making raw materials, some making timers and on-off switches.”) But then he lapses, omitting the critical factor of gene-environment interaction, or what is now commonly referred to as epigenetics. Thus it’s not quite true when he insists, “The genetic message is independent and impenetrable: no information from events outside can change it.” DNA is stable, but epigenetic signals will impact a gene’s message. A trait will emerge, as McGill University’s Michael Meaney writes, “only from the interaction of gene and environment.” (This genetic critique I offer with less humility, as it is the subject of my own recent book.)
Of course, it is possible to contain both genetics and the environment within Gleick’s infosphere paradigm: environmental signals are information too, even if they aren’t seen as clearly as DNA. But my small pushback against Gleick is that he’s not just being somewhat gene-centric; he’s also set on depicting a world as filled with conscious, deterministic forces, while it might be better understood as being a creature of interaction. Just as a marriage only exists in the space between the two people, and humor exists only in the interaction between humorist and audience, it seems to me that genes and information are not any more in charge of our world than rabbits or carrots or carbon dioxide levels. The infosphere seems more interesting when seen neither as a mere tool of sentient beings nor as an omniscient, omnipotent being itself. There is no master and there is no slave. We’re all in this together.