Dean Ball, member of the board of directors of The Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization (AHI) and a frequent writer on artificial intelligence, recommends a book on the current state of biology as a partial antidote to some of the nightmare scenarios involving AI.

In his online newsletter Hyperdimensional, Mr. Ball is studying the question of biological risks from AI. He realized he had to rethink the simplistic view he had learned in high school “that our genes are our ‘blueprint,’ providing the ‘code’ to life.”

If DNA is analogous to codes in software, and biology has now become an information science, humans might indeed be able to change existing life forms at will—and develop things like “supercharged, custom-made” biological weapons. But in that case, we should already have advanced much further in a more benign area, drug development, than we have—and “where were all the new drugs?”

As he looked more deeply into recent biology, Mr. Ball learned that genes might not actually be comparable to a blueprint, and biology might really be a much larger puzzle than we know.

Mr. Ball’s piece, “Learning to Love the Inscrutable,” reviews a 2023 book titled How Life Works: A User’s Guide to the New Biology by Philip Ball. Formerly longtime editor at the prominent science journal Nature, Philip Ball has authored books on chemistry, science history, quantum physics, and neuroscience. The book shows, according to Mr. Ball, that we have not “in any meaningful sense” learned biological life’s blueprint—any more than “a dictionary is a ‘blueprint’ for David Copperfield.”

“Sometimes, the classical model of biology we were all taught … really does work,” as, for example, with the operation of insulin, but usually “nature is far fuzzier. Many genes encode far more than one protein, and many proteins are assemblages of smaller proteins (and RNA of various kinds) made from more than one gene. And just what a gene ‘does’ is similarly fuzzy.”

As it turns out, “many biomolecules have context-dependent functions … They don’t ‘do’ a particular thing. Instead, they are involved in complex information processing pipelines … Proteins, RNA molecules of spectacular diversity, and other biomolecules are enmeshed in networks that process incoming information in probabilistic, rather than deterministic, ways.

“It gets even more complex. Some proteins involved in this probabilistic information processing do not even possess structure … and an even larger share … are believed to have significant disordered regions … These proteins’ disorder allows them to be flexible, binding in many different ways with many different potential biomolecular partners.”

How Life Works seems, then, to be “suggesting a new mental model for the cell. Rather than thinking of it as a series of discrete ‘machines’ that do deterministic things … consider instead thinking of it as a densely packed city.

“Looking at a literal city … would you say that a particular resident ‘does’ any one thing … Of course not … a city is comprised of millions of people going about their days, each responding to the information they receive … (a police siren … a friend shouting ‘hello!’ …) in different ways … They may exchange information, and each may be influenced by that information in different ways.”

“The more I study about the world, the more I realize that every complex system works this way. Language. . . Cities. . . Physics. . . Markets. . . the first flexibly intelligent software works this way. And so, of course, do we.”

Mr. Ball, a research fellow specializing in artificial intelligence at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, concludes that those who claim AI is likely to produce terrifying results such as “biological weapons custom-tailored to specific populations or … people” are getting ahead of themselves. “Nature does not give up her secrets easily.”