How biological codes break causal chains to enable autonomy for organisms

Keith D. Farnsworth*

*Corresponding author for this work

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Autonomy, meaning freedom from exogenous control, requires independence of both constitution and cybernetic regulation. Here, the necessity of biological codes to achieve both is explained, assuming that Aristotelian efficient cause is ‘formal cause empowered by physical force’. Constitutive independence requires closure to efficient causation (in the Rosen sense); cybernetic independence requires transformation of cause–effect into signal-response relations at the organism boundary; the combination of both kinds of independence enables adaptation and evolution. Codes and cyphers translate information from one form of physical embodiment (domain) to another. Because information can only contribute as formal cause to efficient cause within the domain of its embodiment, translation can extend or restrict the range over which information is effective. Closure to efficient causation requires internalised information to be isolated from the cycle of efficient causes that it informs: e.g. Von Neumann self-replicator requires a (template) source of information that is causally isolated from the physical replication system. Life operationalises this isolation with the genetic code translating from the (isolated) domain of codons to that of protein interactions. Separately, cybernetic freedom is achieved at the cell boundary because transducers, which embody molecular coding, translate exogenous information into a domain where it no longer has the power of efficient cause. Information, not efficient cause, passes through the boundary to serve as stimulus for an internally generated response. Coding further extends freedom by enabling historically accumulated information to be selectively transformed into efficient cause under internal control, leaving it otherwise stored inactive. Code-based translation thus enables selective causal isolation, controlling the flow from cause to effect. Genetic code, cell-signalling codes and, in eukaryotes, the histone code, signal sequence based protein sorting and other code-dependent processes all regulate and separate causal chains. The existence of life can be seen as an expression of the power of molecular codes to selectively isolate and thereby organise causal relations among molecular interactions to form an organism.

Original languageEnglish
Article number105013
Number of pages14
Early online date06 Sept 2023
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2023


  • Autonomy
  • Code Biology
  • Causation
  • semiotics
  • cell signaling
  • transducer
  • replicator theory
  • genetic code


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