Software as an Organism

Can we correctly describe software as an organism?

I believe that we can make a compelling argument to do exactly that. To achieve this, I first intend to run through analogies that will describe some of the correlations between software and biological life, which may help to explain why we would want to endeavor on such an exercise in the first place. If we can agree on this, then we can explore some more compelling arguments to use this terminology, which I hope will lead us to some conclusions that will forward the way we think about, design, and build software.

When you run software, you experience to the phenotype generated by the software code. Therefore, to use biological terms, the source code is analogous to DNA, and the executing binary is analogous to the physical manifestation of that DNA after it develops in the environment where that DNA happens to be situated (typically an egg cell of some size and shape).

Of course, this may be a flawed analogy. DNA, after all, is more of a recipe than a blueprint. Source code may be more of a blueprint than a recipe. For example, there is no DNA dictating exactly how to build an eye, which we could remove, insert into an egg cell, and grow only that eye. Rather, the DNA tells the original egg cell to divide in such a way that there is a slight difference between the two resulting cells chemically. In these two new cells, the slight differences trigger the reading of slightly different DNA strands from this cookbook, producing two cells each that are, again, slightly differentiated. This process continues until a single cell has been chemically prepared enough to be the precursor to an eye, which enables the reading of the DNA that specifies the design of that eye. In effect, you have a recipe for creating the chemical environment necessary to generate an eye and read additional components of the DNA that direct any variations in eye design that the chemical variation is designed to support.

We generally conceive of software, on the other hand, as much more of a blueprint. A menu item exists because software code specifically dictates that the computer should draw a menu item there, with the following attributes. However, this way of thinking about it may be too simplistic. How many times have you had one computer operation work repeatedly, but suddenly, on one occasion, this operation no longer works? Maybe the computer does not draw that menu item for some reason. (We can seldom explain that reason without a healthy dose of knowledge and some time with a debugger.) The phenotype of that software has now changed because of changes in the electronic (as opposed to chemical) environment surrounding that software! At commercial software companies, we see this sometimes with bug fixes. We fix one piece of software, which may fix one problem but alters the electronic environment for all other software. Suddenly, this other software (which depended on a particular electronic environment – which it may or may not be aware of) stops working and begins to exhibit a different phenotype despite no change whatsoever in the underlying source code.

Of course, this is not nearly enough evidence to consider software itself an organism. Rather, most could probably agree that we can define life as something that is able to perpetuate itself. DNA is the basis of all known life precisely because it is so efficiently and accurately able to replicate itself. To some extent, we can see some software that is able to replicate itself – think of a computer virus. The problem with computer viruses is that they are so very efficient at replicating themselves. However, you do not typically think of a program such as Microsoft Word replicating itself wildly. If we dig a bit deeper, however, we can see a better comparison. DNA, in and of itself, really is not that terribly useful. As soon as you introduce enzymes which are able to read that DNA and duplicate it, then you have a powerful self-replication system. (You further need the ability to read the DNA, create RNA, and generate proteins if you want that DNA to exhibit a phenotype. Otherwise, life as we know it would be nothing more advanced than a huge number of strands of DNA floating around in the primordial ooze.) These enzymes are an agent. Another example of an agent providing the means of replication is with an actual (not computer) virus. Many times, they are nothing more than a simple strand of DNA, optimized for entering host cells and utilizing their resources to replicate. They cannot replicate without a host cell. Most software, similarly, does not replicate itself. However, you can use a host (such as a CD burning facility, or a web site) to generate copies of the source code, and thereby spawn additional instances of that phenotype.

So, at its root, both DNA and source code are a code (one digital with 2 permutations, the other with 4 permutations) that can be read in a certain environment to exhibit a phenotype, and furthermore can be replicated to perpetuate their own lives over time. To me, that means that we have a kind of non-biological organism. Conceiving of software in this way allows us to open our minds to many of the things that we have discovered in the biological realm, which we can potentially leverage to improve our analogous software. Most interesting to me is the concept of evolution.

Comments (4)

  1. MSDNArchive says:

    Nice post Chris. Your last sentence is the one that provides the stronger analogy, in my opinion – evolution.

    The fact that one can apply evolutionary principles to software engineering, e.g. Genetic Algorithms is a powerful constribution to this idea (see,

    Look forward to your thoughts on this.

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