Human DNA contains roughly 3 Billion base-pairs. That is 1.5 Gigabytes of data. This can easily fit onto a small usb memory stick.

Can something as complex as a human consciousness be derivable from such a tiny amount of data?

Should one need incorporate the behaviour of the proteins?

Should one incorporate the environment of the womb, and so the actual biochemistry that happens there. But this womb is of a woman. This woman has her own DNA and it appears we thus have an infinite regress.

Does this mean that the attempt to rigorously describe human consciousness an infinite regress is unavoidable?

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    What amount of data seems adequate to model a physical process? Does "fire" seem simple enough that being able to "store" that on a USB stick seems plausible? It's a moot point, anyway — the data is only as meaningful as the means by which it is interpreted, which includes more information than just the DNA anyway. May 13, 2013 at 18:21
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    True enough - but the interpreting means is nothing without data to interpret. May 14, 2013 at 3:59
  • That depends on how you try to divide "data" versus "interpreter" — a division which, in the context of computers, Turing showed to be in principle arbitrary. May 14, 2013 at 6:44
  • @deBeaudrap: would you care to provide an example? Its not something that I recognise in Turings work. May 17, 2013 at 1:21
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    You do need some sort of hardware. May 26, 2013 at 3:46

7 Answers 7


Just a couple of billions of nucleic acids and there we have human consciousness. Seems to be a miracle. Before trying to figure out what is missing in the process creating the impression that it is almost impossible without some essential stuff, we may have a look at even more suprising observations before coming to DNA-consciousness pair.

We have only a few hundreds (not billions!) of kinds of atoms (and even much less number of sub-atomic particles). Put a few equations from general relativity and quantum mechanics (describing involved physical processes), there you have (almost) all the universe and all of its inhabitants with that huge complexity and variety. Despite not every thing is complete yet, but many scientist hope that eventuall, a page of mathematical formulations and a few constants will be the "theory of everything"!. Whether or not this will hapen one day, the point is that so little things can create almost arbitrary compexity given the way our universe's physical processes (plus, if you tend to separate it from physical ones, biological processes as well) execute.

A simple (scientifc) example is chaotic systems. There, even tiny changes in the initial conditions would create unexpectedly rich or huge-variety of outcomes. What makes this possible is the very nature of the physical systems. The variety increases exponentially if there would be evolutinary or cascaded stages of physical (or biological) "processes". Remember that the DNA allows production of simple or complex proteins which in turn initiate, inhibit, speed up etc.. many more chemical and/or biological processes all in a chained way. The number of the ways all these processes eventually would yield is practically infinite even if you start with a very limited number of controlling entities in the process. Another reasoning that I am not so sure of is the following: For DNA, not only the number of nucleic acids, but their relative order in the DNA alos matters! With this in mind, even by omitting the fact above (that chained interdependent complex natural physical and biological processes can yield almost infinite variety), roughly, you would have 3 Billion! (factorial) different kinds of outcome from the human DNA. This is too big a number which can enumerate so many kinds of different pyhsical organisation, one of which easily being the "stat of consciousnes" of the resultant (enumerated) physical system.


For what it's worth - you could probably quite easily store the schematics for the 100 most powerful super computers on one USB stick.

Furthermore, its not the complexity of a thing that makes it powerful, its the sophistication of its design (if you will).

An example to support the point: The schematics for a medieval repeating-crossbow (yes they existed) were probably as complicated as the schematics for a modern revolver, yet the revolver is more powerful.

  • "its not the complexity of a thing that makes it powerful, it's the sophistication of its design" - Excellent!
    – Vector
    May 27, 2013 at 17:28

There's no question it is a highly sophisticated piece of information for besides the schematic plan it necessarily must also contain the bio-program which executes the plan and builds the 10 trillion or so specialized cells in the right place, amount, etc. it must also do some import/export of materials, processing/assembly of materials, etc. etc.

Nevertheless, it does not need to be infinite regress though, many early computer games were able to use recursive algorithms/functions to make the code extremely compact.

(I personally think there's more to a human being than just physical material but that's another topic.)


The Mandelbrot Set can be generated with less than 225 lines of code but is infinitely complex --and fractal geometry is deeply embedded in all biology. Is the complexity just an artifact of the millions of reiterations of the algorithm or does its emergence tell us something fundamental about the nature of the world we live in? Similarly, is the complexity of a human being "in" our DNA, or is the DNA merely the entry point?

  • 225 actually seems verbose for a vanilla mandelbrot rendering :) --Given the relevant functions can be written on the back of a napkin (nearly on a stamp!). Similarly, there are functions which calculate arbitrary digits of pi, capable of being written down in a highly-compact fashion...
    – Joseph Weissman
    Dec 15, 2014 at 23:50
  • True, that version also calculates the associated julia set for any given point on the main graph... Dec 16, 2014 at 2:10
  • @ChrisSunami and integrates it with html, and displays it, and allows for view control, and handles all the JS-specific boilerplate... nice program, btw!
    – noncom
    Nov 23, 2015 at 14:49

It's hard to talk specifically about consciousness, given that we still lack a widely-accepted definition of what it even is, as far as I know. That aside, the question can be rephrased to a more general form: assuming pure materialism (i.e. consciousness arises from some material interactions in the brain/neocortex), how can complex high-level phenomena arise from DNA information alone?

A short answer is that they don't. Assuming pure materialism, consciousness obviously can arise - you and me are conscious, and we have the required biological foundation to exhibit consciousness. So how can this be? DNA in the form of a genome represents only a fraction of biological information. How genes - which represent a subset of DNA - are actually expressed - i.e. what chemical products end up in a cell based on the genetic sequence - is a completely different matter. As you hint, proteins (e.g. transcription factors) absolutely play an important role. To simplify a bit, each cell in your body contains essentially the same DNA, yet cells exist in different forms (muscle cells, nerve cells etc.) and make up different tissues. An analogy: you may have a DVD disc and know exactly how it is encoded, but without an actual DVD player, this information alone means little. DVD player in this example is to DVD disc what a cell is to DNA. You can have identical DNA sequences and obtain completely different results (i.e. different proteins being produced, which are the main agent of biological activity) depending on what genes are active (i.e. being expressed), when they are active and how they are active. In turn, one gene being expressed can lead to shutting down another gene's expression, or even it's own - the process is not time-invariant. An example of a phenomenon where different genes are active at different times is a circadian rhythm.

In general, gene expression and regulation depend on various epigenetic factors, such as the position of nucleosomes (1). Epigenetics essentially refers to our environment being able to influence our gene expression without actually altering the DNA sequence itself; see (2), (3) for an overview. Indeed some studies in mice show that epigenetic changes acquired by parents can be passed to offspring, although the debate on the role of epigenetic inheritance is still not finished (4), (5).

In short, DNA information does not equal total biological information. My answer here of course is very general and can also be used to answer e.g. "How can something as complex as a human arm be encoded in DNA alone?", but I believe it's still relevant given the details and assumptions of the question.

  • sure; this is in some sense what I was getting at; the analogy with the dvd and its player breaks down here; because you use a dvd to play a film; and not to build a dvd player; if you look at the genealogy of a human being, ie all his ancestors; then one sees a kind of infinite recursion. Dec 13, 2014 at 14:09

Interesting topic! I have devoted many years of independent research on this topic of DNA and consciousness. In addition, I have published many articles on this topic. You can find most of them here: http://publicationslist.org/john.grandy

I am interested in any feedback!

  • 1
    Welcome to philosophy.se! As a general policy around here, "link-only-answers" should be avoided, because links can change - which can turn an answer in a non-answer. So would you mind to summarize some of your research?
    – Einer
    Dec 11, 2014 at 12:52

You can claim the sleeping are in some way conscious, but in a vegetative body, one which has no alpha waves, and which we would therefore declare brain dead, all of the machinery you allude to is still active and generally not compromised. It also has all that history. So no part of this explains consciousness. If I return the body to a functioning state, consciousness may or may not return, and that consciousness may or may not see itself as a continuation of the previous consciousness.

Since consciousness can cease or resume for reasons unrelated to the ongoing life processes, looking back across the generations of life that culminated in this one does not reduce out whatever other factors are needed for consciousness, so that lead is a red herring.

The direction we need to look to find whatever information is necessary for consciousness must include spreading outward in the present as well as, or instead of, back in evolutionary and developmental time. I would vote for 'instead of', on the basis of a common science-fiction thought-experiment.

If I constructed a functioning body identical to my own, I may or may not be able to capture everything that maintains my consciousness in the duplication process. But if the copy is exact enough, it is likely we can do something to that physiologically duplicate body to provide what it needs to become conscious in some limited sense.

So I would argue that no biological history is truly necessary to produce one consciousness from another, if we can imitate enough aspects of the present state. Though, as the brain-death example shows, those aspects of the present state must involve something more than my ongoing life processes or their biological sources.

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