Genetic Theory and Film Storytelling: G/T/C/A… (coincidence..?)

So, first an excerpt or two, from: Evolution, Literature, and Film: A Reader (2010) – (Eds: Boyd, Carroll & Gottschall)


Below is a quote from the above Reader, and originally from Dawkins’ The Digital River (1995).

Discussing the literally-digital nature of all DNA on Earth, Richard Dawkins provides the following scenario:

`The following science fiction plot is feasible, given a technology that differs from today’s only in being a little speeded up. Professor Jim Crickson has been kidnapped by an evil foreign power and forced to work in its biological warfare labs.

To save civilization it is vitally important that he should communicate some top-secret information to the outside world, but all normal channels of communication are denied him.

Except one. The DNA code consists of sixty-four triplet “codons”, enough for a complete upper- and lower-case English alphabet, plus ten numerals, a space character and a full stop. Professor Crickson takes a virulent influenza virus off the laboratory shelf and engineers into its genome the complete text of his message to the outside world, in perfectly formed English sentences. He repeats his message over and over again in the engineered genome, adding an easily-recognizable “flag” sequence – say, the first ten prime numbers. He then infects himself with the virus and sneezes in a room full of people.

A wave of flu sweeps the world, and medical labs in distant lands set to work to sequence its genome in an attempt to design a vaccine. It soon becomes apparent that there is a strange repeated pattern in the genome.

Alerted by the prime numbers – which cannot have arisen spontaneously – somebody tumbles to the idea of employing code-breaking techniques. From there it would be short work to read the full English text of Professor Crickson’s message, sneezed around the world.

Our genetic system, which is the universal system of all life on the planet, is digital to the core.’

(Dawkins in Boyd, Carroll & Gottschall 2010, p. 65)

I only raise this theoretical science fiction scenario of Dawkins’s for one very important reason:

This is exactly how film already works...

A screenwriter can place `hidden’ themes, messages, and meanings in the memeplex of their film story. If that film then goes viral – exactly like the top 20 RoI films did – that message can be sent around the world. (The movie Fight Club is a fascinating example of this.)

A biological virus

A biological virus

The equivalent of the `virulent influenza virus [on] the laboratory shelf’ is the form (including the 30 or so common characteristics) of the top 20 RoI films.

The screenwriter/filmmaker actually is: a potential “Professor Jim Crickson”, who can implant any message/theme they so desire – in their own feature film.

The message itself may be: combatting climate change, fighting poverty, addressing inequality – or, anything at all.

That choice sits with: the free will of the writer / filmmaker.

Now, another Dawkins quote (from the same excellent book, in fact… ie the EL&F Reader, and of course originally from The Digital River)

`You can treat the genetic code as a dictionary in which sixty-four words in one language (the sixty-four possible triplets of a four-letter alphabet) are mapped onto twenty-one words in another language (twenty amino acids plus a punctuation mark).

The odds of arriving at the same 64:21 mapping twice by chance are less than one in a million million million million million.Yet the genetic code is in fact literally identical in all animals, plants and bacteria that have ever been looked at.

All earthly living things are certainly descended from a single living ancestor.’

(Dawkins in Boyd, Carroll & Gottschall 2010, pp. 61-2)

And so – now, I ask:

Is it just a coincidence – that the genetic code is: G T C A – and – the 4 `key elements’ in any film (or narrative in general) are:

G – Genre(s)

T – Theme(s)

C- Character(s)

A – Action(s) 



Of course: Yes. It is just a random coincidence.

But, still.

Also here is an excellent thought (or whole bunch of thoughts) from Arthur Koestler in The Ghost In The Machine (1967)

`The evolution of life is a game played according to fixed rules which limit its possibilities but leave sufficient scope for a limitless number of variations. The rules are inherent in the basic structure of living matter; the variations derive from adaptive strategies.

In other words, evolution is neither a free-for-all, nor the execution of a rigidly pre-determined computer programme.

It should be compared to a musical composition whose possibilities are limited by the rules of harmony and the structure of the diatonic scales – which however permit an inexhaustible number of original creations. Or it could be compared to the game of chess obeying fixed rules but with equally inexhaustible variations.

Lastly, the vast number of existing animal species (about one million) and the small number of major classes (about fifty) and of major phyla or divisions (about ten) could be compared with the vast number of works of literature and the small number of basic themes or plots.

All works of literature are a variation on a limited number of leitmotivs, derived from man’s archetypal experiences and conflicts, but adapted each time to a new environment – the costumes, conventions and language of the period. Not even Shakespeare could invent an original plot.

Goethe quoted with approval the Italian dramatist Carlo Gozzi (author of Turandot and many other successful works), according to whom there are only thirty-six tragic situations. Goethe himself thought that there were probably even less; but their exact number is a well-kept secret among writers of fiction.

A work of literature is constructed out of thematic holons – which, like homologue organs, need not even have a common ancestor.’

(Koestler 1989, pp. 148-9)

And – for more on holons and holarchies in Film (and in Biology, and – well, everything) – see these 2 posts, here and here.

Comments, always welcome…

PS – And for more on Gozzi and Polti (and their `36 Dramatic Situations’, see: here – ie – Narratology Since Plato.)

Creativity Guy says: Don't Drink And Drive. But if you must drive, try and do Creativity. As that's when most cretive ideas happen (while driving, walking, in the shower, on the john, etc.) Seriously.

Creativity Guy says: “Viola!” (He’s also a musician.)

PPS – I also often wonder if the `junk DNA’ has an `Enigma code’ for making an Enigma Machine (within an organism) and then it can decode all the other information in the genome and `run’ all their programs. 

i.e. Epigenetics.

Much like say, in the book (& movie) `Contact’: First, you send through a decoder key [e.g. an Enigma Code], and then – the `instructions’ for building an Enigma Machine / a cypher-reading computer (e.g. say; cells, and a brain in a body). Build the organic Enigma Machine (e.g. – cells, and a brain in a body), and then you can `read’ the rest of the computer program’s `instructions’ using that computer/Enigma Machine. Biological behaviour is all just digitally-encoded, right..? – Just a whole lot of subroutines.

i.e.: IF [this scenario] THEN [do action.]

e.g. see Evolutionary Psychology (Buss 2012).

Evolved Psychological Mechanisms - (Buss 2012, p.49)

Evolved Psychological Mechanisms – (Buss 2012, p.49)

e.g;: For a squirrel:

10 – IF day-length [today] < day-length [today-1] THEN [find & store [nuts] in [my_tree]]

20 – GOTO 10

[REMARK: ‘And – all for some reason unknown to the squirrel. (But: Mmmm… nuts…!)]

Execute Order 66

Execute Order 66

By the way, the brilliant philosopher (and not just of science, but of life, mainly as all life is doing science) Sir Karl Popper in All Life Is Problem Solving (Popper 1999) noted that plants and animals have knowledge. They therefore have: culture. Culture is information.

Intelligence = understanding = problem-solving ability. (Velikovsky 2016, see also this paper and this post)

And Popper (1999) was right, about plants and animals having culture. Check this out:

New research on plant intelligence may forever change how you think about plants (2014)

Here is what Popper (1999) said:

`Definitions are not important. And quibbling over words is a menace… We can assert the truth, attain the truth, often enough. But we can never attain certainty… Science is the quest for truth, not for certainty.

Scientists, like all organisms, work with the method of trial and error. The trial is a solution to a problem. In the evolution of the plant or animal kingdom, error, or, to be more precise, the correction of error usually means eradication of the organism; in science it usually means eradication of the hypothesis or theory. The process is thus one of Darwinian selection.

Question: What in the animal realm corresponds to so-called knowledge, to conjecture or hypothesis?

Answer: expectation. Or more precisely: a state of the organism in which it prepares for a change (or no change) in its surroundings. When flowers are in bud, they are in this sense expecting spring weather: they have incorporated the hypothesis or theory [end of p 38] that it is getting warmer. Often enough the theory is false, and the blossom is killed by frost. In this sense there is an infinite amount of innate knowledge in plants and animals…

All organisms are all the time highly active. They actively investigate their environment, look for better living conditions, for a better world. And they themselves actively improve their conditions of life. Life improves the environment for life. It has been doing that for millions of years, and we are the fortunate inheritors. Since this process takes place through trial and (the elimination of) error, there are also many mistakes in our world.

Problems arise together with life; and there are problems only when there are values: for example, evaluations of living conditions. Now I am coming to the end of what I wanted to explain about the theory of knowledge and the philosophy of science. Science begins with problems.

It attempts to solve them through bold, inventive theories. The great majority of theories are false and/or untestable. Valuable, testable theories will search for errors. We try to find errors and to eliminate them. This is science: it consists of wild, often irresponsible ideas that it places under the strict control of error correction.

Question: This is the same process as in amoebas and other lower organisms. What is the difference between an amoeba and Einstein?

Answer: The amoeba is eliminated when it makes mistakes. If it is conscious it will be afraid of mistakes. Einstein looks for mistakes. He is able to do this because his theory is not part of himself but an object he can consciously investigate and criticize…

The method of natural science is the conscious search for errors and correction of them through conscious criticism.’

(Popper 1999, pp. 38-9)

But actually this quote is more to the point: (about plants having knowledge)

`But now let us return to our evolutionary theory of knowledge, to our trivial starting proposition that animals can know something, and to our list of results obtained from, or suggested by, this trivial proposition.

  1. Can only animals know? Why not plants? Obviously in the biological and evolutionary sense in which I speak of knowledge, not only animals and men have expectations and therefore (unconscious) knowledge, but also plants; and indeed all organisms.
  2. Trees know that they may find much-needed water by pushing their roots into deeper layers of the earth; and they know (or the tall ones do) how to grow up vertically. Flowering plants know that warmer days are about to arrive; and they know how and when to open their flowers, and to close them – according to sensed changes in radiation intensity or in temperature. Thus they have something like sensations or perceptions to which they respond, and something like sense organs. And they know, for example, how to attract bees and other insects.
  3. An apple tree that sheds its fruit or its leaves offers a beautiful example for one of the central points of our investigations. The tree is adapted to the seasonal changes of the year… It expects these changes; it is attuned to them; it has foreknowledge of them…
  4. The distinction between adaptation to, or (unconscious) knowledge of, law-like and long-term environmental conditions, such as gravity and the cycle of the changing seasons, on the one side, and adaptation to, or knowledge of, environmental short-term changes and events, on the other side, is of the greatest interest. While short-term events occur in the life of the individual organism, the long-term and law-like environmental conditions are such that adaptation to them must have been at work throughout the evolution of countless generations…
  5. A grazing flock of wild geese is approached by a fox. One of them sees the fox and gives the alarm. It is precisely a situation like this – a short-term event – in which the eyes of an animal can save its life…
  6. All this adaptation is of the nature of long-term knowledge about the environment. And a little thinking will make it clear that without this kind of adaptation, without this kind of knowledge of law-like regularities, sense organs like the eyes would be useless.
  7.  Philosophers and even scientists often assume that all our knowledge  stems from our senses, the `sense data’ which our senses deliver to us… But seen from a biological point of view, this kind of approach is a colossal mistake. For our senses to tell us anything, we must have prior knowledge. In order to be able to see a thing, we must know what `things’ are… For this apparatus is highly active and selective; and it actively selects only what is at the moment of biological importance. But in order to do so, it must be able to use adaptation, expectation: prior knowledge of the situation must be available, including its possibly significant elements. This prior knowledge cannot, in turn, be the result of observation, but the result of evolution by trial and error. Thus the eye itself is not the result of observation, but the result of evolution by trial and error, of adaptation, of non-observational long-term knowledge. And it is the results of such knowledge, derived not from short-term observation, but from adaptation to the environment and to such situations as constitute the problems to be solved in the task of living:  situations that make our organs, among them our sense organs, significant instruments on the moment-by-moment task of living.

(Popper 1999, pp. 61-3)

Science (trial and error) gave you life.It gave you culture (information, even if hard-coded into your brain and cells). It gave you Systems. You are a system. In an ecosystem.


On Systems Theory and Evolution

  1. StoryAlity #70 – Key Concepts in Systems Theory, Cybernetics & Evolution
  2. StoryAlity #70B – The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision (Capra & Luisi 2014)
  3. StoryAlity #70C – Systems Philosophy (Laszlo 1972)
  4. StoryAlity #70C2 – General Systems Theory: Problems, Perspectives, Practice (Skyttner 2005)
  5. StoryAlity #70DThe Evolving Self (Csikszentmihalyi 1993)
  6. StoryAlity #70E – On Human Nature – and Evolutionary Psychology

So – to all anti-science, anti-consilient scholars: knock it off, you ingrates. 

Science is not “just another discourse”. It’s how the multiverse works.

For more, see: StoryAlity#129 – Post-Modernist `Theory’ is dead as disco

P.P.S. – Gattaca… Egad. What an *excellent* consilient film that was! I love that movie. But I love Stanley Kubrick movies more. Well, all of them, after Spartacus.


And – for more detail on the evolutionary systems (or, complexity) view of narrative and bioculture in general, see, this book chapter:

StoryAlity #132The holon/parton structure of the Meme, the unit of culture – and the narreme, or unit of story – book chapter (Velikovsky 2016)

And for a great consilience & creativity & evolution reading list, see:

StoryAlity #71On Consilience in the Arts / Humanities / Communication

Comments, always welcome.


JT Velikovsky

High-RoI Story/Screenplay/Movie and Transmedia Researcher

The above is (mostly) an adapted excerpt, from my doctoral thesis: “Communication, Creativity and Consilience in Cinema”. It is presented here for the benefit of fellow screenwriting, filmmaking and creativity researchers. For more, see https://aftrs.academia.edu/JTVelikovsky

JT Velikovsky is also a produced feature film screenwriter and million-selling transmedia writer-director-producer. He has been a professional story analyst for major film studios, film funding organizations, and for the national writer’s guild. For more see: http://on-writering.blogspot.com/



Buss, D. M. (2012). Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind (4th ed.). Boston: Pearson Allyn & Bacon.

Koestler, A. ([1967] 1989). The Ghost In The Machine. London: Arkana.

Richard Dawkins, reprinted in Boyd, B., Carroll, J., & Gottschall, J. (2010). Evolution, Literature and Film: A Reader. New York: Columbia University Press.

Popper, K. R. (1999). All Life is Problem Solving. London; New York: Routledge.

Velikovsky, J. T. (2016). `The Holon/Parton Theory of the Unit of Culture (or the Meme, and Narreme): In Science, Media, Entertainment and the Arts.‘ In A. Connor & S. Marks (Eds.), Creative Technologies for Multidisciplinary Applications. New York: IGI Global.

Blame It On the DNA


2 thoughts on “StoryAlity #72 – Genetic Theory and Story: G,T,C,A… (coincidence..?)

  1. Pingback: StoryAlity #82 – Pinker on `Evolution and Explanation’ | StoryAlity

  2. Pingback: StoryAlity #153 – Film Production Courses vs. (so-called) `Film Theory’ | StoryAlity

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