Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 29, Issue 1, pp 33–53 | Cite as

Replacement of the “genetic program” program

  • Ronald J. PlanerEmail author


Talk of a “genetic program” has become almost as common in cell and evolutionary biology as talk of “genetic information”. But what is a genetic program? I understand the claim that an organism’s genome contains a program to mean that its genes not only carry information about which proteins to make, but also about the conditions in which to make them. I argue that the program description, while accurate in some respects, is ultimately misleading and should be abandoned. After that, I sketch an alternative framework which is better suited to capturing the full informational nature of genes. This framework is centered on the notion of a signaling game, as originally developed by David Lewis, but expanded upon considerably by Brian Skyrms in more recent years. On the view I develop, genes turn out to be the producers and consumers of regulatory or developmental information, rather than entities encoding such information. This finding has consequences that link up with a broader debate in the philosophy of biology concerning inheritance systems. I take this to be one form of theoretical payoff that results from applying the signaling games framework to genes.


Genetic program Gene promoters Hierarchical coding Information processing Signaling games 



I am grateful to Peter Godfrey-Smith for discussion and comments on this work. I would also like to thank Kim Sterelny and two anonymous reviewers for helpful advice.


  1. Gallistel CR, King P (2009) Memory and the computational brain. Blackwell Publishing, MaldenCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Godfrey-Smith P (2000) Information, arbitrariness and selection: comments on Maynard Smith. Philos Sci 67(2):202–207CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Godfrey-Smith P (2007) Innateness and genetic information. In: Carruthers P, Laurence S, Stich S (eds) The innate mind: foundations and the future. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp 55–68Google Scholar
  4. Godfrey-Smith P (2011) Senders, receivers, and genetic information. Biol Philos 26(2):177–181CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Godfrey-Smith P (2012a) Signals: evolution, learning, and information, by Brian Skyrms. Mind 120:1288–1297Google Scholar
  6. Godfrey-Smith P (2012b) Sender–receiver systems within and between organisms. Presented at PSA 2012, San Diego, as part of a symposium on “Signaling Within the Organism.” Available online:
  7. Hamilton WD (1964a) The genetical evolution of social behaviour. Part I. J Theor Biol 7:1–16CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Hamilton WD (1964b) The genetical evolution of social behaviour: Part II. J Theor Biol 7:17–52CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Istrail S, De-Leon S, Davison E (2007) The regulatory genome and the computer. Dev Biol 310:187–195CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Jablonka E, Lamb MJ (2006) Evolution in four dimensions. MIT Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  11. Jablonka E, Lamb MJ (2007) Précis of evolution in four dimensions. Behav Brain Sci 30:353–392Google Scholar
  12. Laudet L (2011) The origins and evolution of vertebrate metamorphosis. Curr Biol 21:726–737CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Lewis D (1969) Convention: a philosophical study. Harvard University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  14. Marcus G (2004) The birth of the mind. Basic Books, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  15. Maynard Smith J, Szathmáry E (1995) The major transitions in evolution. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  16. Pearson H (2006) Genetics: What is a gene? Nature 441:398–401CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Shea N (2007) Representation in the genome and in other inheritance systems. Biol Philos 22:313–331CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Shea N (2013) Inherited representations are read in development. Br J Philos Sci 64:1–31Google Scholar
  19. Shea N (forthcoming) Two modes of transgenerational information transmission. In: Calcott B, Fraser B, Joyce R, Sterelny K (eds) Signaling, commitment, and emotion. MIT Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  20. Skyrms B (1996) Evolution of the social contract. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Skyrms B (2003) The stag hunt and the evolution of social structure. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Skyrms B (2009) Evolution of signaling systems with multiple senders and receivers. Phil Trans R Soc B 364:771–779CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Skyrms B (2010) Signals: evolution, learning, & information. Oxford University Press, OxfordCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Yuh C, Bolouri H, Davidson E (2001) Cis-regulatory logic in the endo 16 gene. Development 128:617–629Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Philosophy, Center for Cognitive ScienceRutgers UniversityNew BrunswickUSA

Personalised recommendations