Biology and Philosophy

, Volume 19, Issue 2, pp 205-222

First online:

The arbitrariness of the genetic code

  • Ulrich E. StegmannAffiliated withPhilosophy Department, University of Bielefeld

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The genetic code has been regarded as arbitrary in the sense that the codon-amino acid assignments could be different than they actually are. This general idea has been spelled out differently by previous, often rather implicit accounts of arbitrariness. They have drawn on the frozen accident theory, on evolutionary contingency, on alternative causal pathways, and on the absence of direct stereochemical interactions between codons and amino acids. It has also been suggested that the arbitrariness of the genetic code justifies attributing semantic information to macromolecules, notably to DNA. I argue that these accounts of arbitrariness are unsatisfactory. I propose that the code is arbitrary in the sense of Jacques Monod's concept of chemical arbitrariness: the genetic code is arbitrary in that any codon requires certain chemical and structural properties to specify a particular amino acid, but these properties are not required in virtue of a principle of chemistry. This notion of arbitrariness is compatible with several recent hypotheses about code evolution. I maintain that the code's chemical arbitrariness is neither sufficient nor necessary for attributing semantic information to nucleic acids.

Allosteric effectors Arbitrariness Competitive inhibition Complementarity Evolutionary contingency Frozen accident theory Genetic code Genetic information Principles of chemistry