Low-Energy Sequences

You may not realize it, but English contains many idioms that relate sequences to energy. Talk is cheap and actions speak louder than words. We often use idioms like these without much reflection on their deeper meaning, but I invite you to consider in more detail what expressions like these are really getting at. You may conclude that it is easier said than done.

How we think about energy in the world of sequences is nothing like how we think about energy in the everyday world of ordinary matter. After all, what are we implying about energy in the sequences comprising our talk, or words, or what is said? The implication is that sequences are low-energy affairs compared with behaviors in the real world. Talk is cheap; it does not cost much in the way of energy. Discussing an activity consumes less energy than performing it; it is easier said than done. Conversely, actions speak louder than words. This is because they require more energy.

Like the valve that opens the floodgates of a dam or the switch that activates a jackhammer or the trigger that fires a shotgun, a sequence consumes very little energy when compared with the magnitude of the dynamic processes it can unleash. The energy involved in transcribing and translating a sequence of DNA into an enzyme is tiny compared with the energy the enzyme can harness in a metabolic pathway.39 Likewise, the effort you make in asking a dining companion to pass the pepper is much less than the effort he makes in passing it. Anthropologists Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson put it succinctly: “Energetically minor causes have energetically major effects.’40

The asymmetrical relationship between the energy needed to interpret, replicate, or store a sequence and the energy needed to behave in the world is well-known to researchers who study animal communication. “By a communication from animal X to animal Y,” writes biologist J.B.S. Haldane, “I mean an action by X involving a moderate expenditure of energy, which evokes a change in the behavior of Y involving much larger quantities of energy.”41 Hockett lists this energy asymmetry as one of his design features. He calls it specialization. “The direct-energetic consequences of linguistic signals are usually biologically trivial; only the triggering effects are importanthe writes. “Even the sound of a heated conversation does not raise the temperature of a room enough to benefit those in it” (emphasis his).42 Sequences may be physical objects, but as physical objects they are largely inert. “A communicative act is specialized,” says ethologist Stuart Altmann, “to the extent that its direct energetic consequences are biologically irrelevant to anything but communication.”43

The pen is mightier than the sword because of the forces it can release, not because of its inherent energy level. And as you know, sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can never hurt you. A soprano at the Metropolitan Opera might shatter a wine glass by hitting a resonant high note, but that is due to physics, not to the subject matter of her aria.

Much superstition and magical thinking is built around the imagined efficacy of spoken sequences to intervene directly in the physical world, in the West perhaps inspired by Psalm 33:6, “By the word of the Lord were the heavens made.” Spells and incantations are common plot devices in fairy tales, and they persist in folklore, but our literate technological civilization doesn’t put much stock in them.

“Rarely do we shout down the walls of a Jericho or successfully command the sun to stop or the waves to stand still,” writes psychologist B. F. Skinner. “Names do not break bones. The consequences of such behavior are mediated by a train of events no less physical or inevitable than direct mechanical action, but clearly more difficult to describe.”44 To change the world, sequences require the intervention of some physical mechanism, an interactor. We will meet interactors in Chapter 3.

As we did with space, we can look at the relationship of sequences and energy both outside and within the sequence. To the physical world outside, sequences are energetically inert; they don’t do much on their own. With a little help, though, they can orchestrate enormous external forces. However, within any sequence the energy differences among elements are vanishingly small. Think of floats and marching bands in a parade: it is equally possible for the Navy Band to precede or follow the Chamber of Commerce float. One pattern does not require more energy than the other; there is no energetic limitation on the order of elements.

Put simply, no element of a sequence requires significantly more effort to process than any other element. The energy consumed in interpreting, replicating, or storing any sequence of length 20 or 30 or 100 is essentially the same as for any other sequence of the same length.45 One name for this property is energy degeneracy, and it is common to all systems of sequences.46 As a result, there is no physical reason why any sequence of a certain length is more likely to occur than any other sequence of that length; all are equally likely, or equiprobable.

It requires no more energy to speak, write, hear, or read the word thumb than it does to speak, write, hear, or read the word crumb. Even if there is an energy difference, it is so small that it does not affect the probability that you will use one word rather than the other. Suppose a computer needed twice as much energy to store a zero rather than a one, or that it were twice as hard for you to produce the sound of th rather than sli, or it required more cognitive effort for you to read и instead of a. In these hypothetical cases, the sequences containing the most energy-intensive elements would become disfavored solely on the basis of their physics.47

Energy degeneracy has important implications for the mechanisms responsible for interpreting, copying, and storing sequences. Whatever they may be doing—replicating a genome, reading code from a thumb drive, or repeating orders from the commanding officer—these mechanisms need not worry about unusual energy demands.48 They can process whatever is thrown at them with the same expenditure of effort. This is especially important in evolution. If you swap one element for another in a sequence—in other words, if you introduce a mutation—the changed sequence is no more difficult to replicate than the original.

When it comes to sequences and energy, the points to remember are (1) the direct energetic effects of sequences are not important, and (2) sequences themselves are energy-degenerate. Sequences do have their own internal dynamics as purely physical objects, but the small amount of energy involved is of no interest to us. Rather, we are interested in the larger energy of the systems that sequences orchestrate.

1.7 Matter Matters, Except When It Doesn't

Having looked at time, space, and energy, we have seen that sequences have unusual properties and behaviors with respect to each. How will this play out with the final member of the great quartet of physics, matter? We can start with a quick lesson from another field that deals with material things, and that is economics. A fundamental concept of economics is scarcity. If there is only one pie, there is no way you and I can both eat the entire pie. Economists call a pie a rival good, meaning if I eat it you cannot and vice versa. A pie can also be an excludable good, meaning I can lock it in a cabinet to keep you from eating it.

Every physical object, everything that is made of matter, is rival and excludable. A pie cannot be in two kitchens at the same time, and a photon of light cannot energize two plant cells at the same time. However, two kitchens can each have a copy of the recipe for the pie and two plant cells can each have a copy of the gene for chlorophyll. I can have the recipe for the pie in my kitchen and you can have it in yours. Neither of us is disadvantaged even though the note card displaying my recipe is physically different from the note card displaying yours. The note cards themselves are rival and excludable, but the sequential patterns of the recipes are not.49

Economists call sequences public goods.*0 They are non-rival and, unless copyrighted or protected with a paywall, non-excludable. “Knowledge is considered to be a public good,” write molecular biologist James Mclnerney and colleagues. “It is difficult to prevent the spread of knowledge and facts don’t get ‘used up’ if many people know them.”51 Most of what economists call knowledge is embodied in sequences.

Another way to think about matter and sequences is that the meaning and function of a sequence do not depend upon its medium of expression. Texts can take on a wide variety of material structures. Besides paper, they have been pressed into clay tablets, engraved in stone and metal, and written on animal hides. And the sequences of zeros and ones used by computers have been stored on everything from punch cards to photographic film to magnetic wires to optical discs. “Written languages are not associated with their particular physical representations,” says Pattee. “We do not consider the type of paper, ink, or writing instruments as crucial properties of language structure.”52

Sequences possess their own material reality, but in order to function as sequences they must rely on external mechanisms in ways that the physical world does not. The laws of physics are incorporeal; they are disembodied and quite able to function without any mechanism to make certain they are obeyed.53 Earth and its moon experience gravitational attraction, but there is no grav-o-matic machine making this happen.

We have already established that, taken by themselves, sequences are inert. Unlike gravity, they are reliant upon external mechanisms for their expression, interpretation, and replication. The pre-existence of a complete set of these mechanisms is a requirement for sequences to express their functions and replicate their patterns. “We inherit not only genes made of DNA but an intricate structure of cellular machinery made up of proteins,” writes evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin. “An egg, before fertilization, contains a complete apparatus of production deposited there in the course of its cellular development.”54 This is the matter that matters.

Were humanity to become extinct, our libraries filled with books might still exist, but the books would be mere material objects, no different from the shelves on which they rest. The sequences of human language are useless in the absence of human bodies and brains. Likewise, the genetic code loses its functional value without a molecular starter kit in the reproducing cell, and the binary sequences of computer code have no effect without a computer to run them. Sequences can choreograph the three-dimensional world only when they are part of a larger system that includes sequence processing machinery. The closest thing we have to a pure sequence life form is a virus, which has to borrow another cell’s molecular equipment to function and replicate. Viruses will be discussed in Chapter 8.

Developmental biologists like to point out that most machines do not have to function until after they are constructed: a truck does not have to run until it comes off the assembly line. But living things must function while they are being constructed. It is amazing that a caterpillar converts itself into a butterfly; perhaps more amazing is that it does so while remaining alive during the entire process.55 This continuity of function through evolution and development is only possible because the sequence processing equipment is always present.

Sequences and matter have a complementary relationship. Although sequences depend upon real material structures for their function, the material nature of the sequences themselves is not relevant to that function. It’s the pattern that counts.