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Living creatures have DNA that basically tell how the organism should be constructed. This DNA evolves in response to the environment by trial and error. For example, a mammal living in cold environment is likely to have a gene that causes the organism to have a thick fur. Could we say of this gene that it knows that the environment is cold? Did this DNA sequence learned through evolution that the environment is cold? Does the gene contains the information that the environment is cold or only the information that the organism should grow a thick fur?

I guess that in order to answer my question, one will first need to make good definitions of what knowing and learning means and what is an information about or what knows the meaning of an information.

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  • I think DNA (or genetic info) could be considered knowledge of the environment. As a hobby gardener, I've always been intrigued how plants "know" how to deal with their environment. If they're shaded and need more light they tend to grow tall and skinny trying to reach light. Seeds can seem to "sense" their environment and have "know" when it's opportunistic to germinate. Plants "know" when to abandon a limb or try to repair it. I've always been fascinated by this behavior without a nervous system. Looking forward to more knowledgable answers on this subject.
    – obelia
    Oct 19 '13 at 18:23
  • I don't think knowledge is a useful way of thinking about what's going on with genes there. It leads to a controversial thesis that objects can have what philosophers of language call 'propositional attitudes' such as believing, hoping and so on. It's controversial because all those attitudes presuppose that the subject having them has, at least, intentionality/consciousness. This is connected to an unusual theory in the philosophy of mind called 'panpsychism'; David Chalmers maintains a nice bibliography of some major writings on this topic, so check that out if interested. Oct 19 '13 at 23:27
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This is more properly a question for Biology.SE, but in brief, the genome of a species is substantially shaped by its environment and the environment of its ancestors. So there is certainly information about the environment there (in the mathematical sense). Indeed, genetic algorithms (an optimization technique used in computer science) work precisely because evolution, or a generalization thereof, stores information about the environment.

However, knowledge is usually considered to be some sort of justified true belief. Although the information in DNA is in some sense justified on average in that the creature containing that DNA existed, this isn't what is meant in the philosophical context.

So information: yes. Knowledge: no. (At least using those terms as understood by philosophers.)

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  • thanks for your answer. It is the philosophical discussion of your second paragraph that interests me. Being a biologist I know enough about what is DNA and how it evolves. "Justified true belief". The part that is still unclear to me now is "what is a belief". Does it mean that knowledge cannot exist without consciousness?
    – Remi.b
    Oct 19 '13 at 23:03
  • @Remi.b - In the conventional view, yes, consciousness is presupposed. Otherwise it's just information, not knowledge. As machine learning becomes increasingly powerful, it may make sense to revisit these definitions, however.
    – Rex Kerr
    Oct 20 '13 at 20:59
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DNA itself is Unit of programming language of life every cell of our body is a biological database.

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