McLuhan frequently referred to the discovery of DNA by Francis Crick and James Watson and apparently saw it as analogous to his discovery of the medium as the structure of all possible messages.

McLuhan to Barbara Rowes, April 29, 1976

All of man’s artifacts are structurally linguistic and metaphoric. This discovery, unknown to anybody in any culture, would justify a book without any other factors whatever. Remember the Watson autobiography of his discovery of the double helix in the DNA particle? Literally speaking, this breakthrough [of mine] about the linguistic structure of all human artifacts [= the medium is the message] is incomparably larger and deeper-going.1 I am, myself, unable to grasp the implications. Certainly it means that the unity of the family of man can be seen, not [only] as biological, but as intellectual and spiritual.2


The University In The Electric Age, 19643

Today, in the Age of Information, all materials and energy tend to become a form of programmed knowledge. The process of translation, or application, has become easy. The real work now consists in doing something else, namely imagining the present in all its depth. The power of the imaginative grasp of the present seems to have belonged only to artists till now. That is why they seem to have been “ahead of their time”. But their power to seize their own time in depth is also accompanied by a vision of the unused possibilities of their time. They are often inclined to refashion the sensory life of their age as if they were the Life Force providing DNA particles with new programs. Indeed it is not misleading to envisage the artist as Life Force so far as inventing new sensory environments and ground rules is concerned. If new technology is very much in the order of biological extension and mutation, the artist is not without his role in orchestrating such change with the orderly needs of our sensory life. Without this orchestration of established sensory modes with new technological environments, man undergoes progressive alienation from himself.

Toward an Inclusive Consciousness 1967

If the DNA particle is programmed from all eternity, or is totally programmed before anything happens, it’s an all-at-once operation.

McLuhan to Sheila Watson, June 12, 19684

Obtain cover of TV Guide for June 8-14. It is a Dali explanation of the tactile nature of the TV image. Wonderful interview inside, too.

Dew-Line 1.5, November 1968

The twentieth century is not the era of outer but of inner space. Ours is the era of the inner trip and DNA. The outer trip is for tourists only and for the cultivators of the old hardware.  

Dew-Line 1.6 December 1968

The scholastics were oral dialoguers who had memorized all the basic philosophic components needed in their dialogue. Each schoolman had to be an encyclopedia of such lore. They then went to work (operation-research style) to solve new problems by banging old clichés together, much as Watson and his colleagues did in approaching the DNA. problem (see The Double Helix).5

McLuhan in conversation with to Nina Sutton, 19756

You cannot have learning except at the price of creative ignorance. The moment you learn some vast new thing you realize how very ignorant you were up to that moment and so learning is always creating ignorance — it is like discoveries made on DNA particles or something like that — this suddenly reveals to the scientists themselves their ignorance. So discoveries are always creating ignorance.7

  1. Compare from ‘Effects of the Improvements of Communication Media’ (1960): “I would suggest that the penetrative powers of any structure of technology lie precisely here: namely, that the ratio among sight and sound, and touch and motion, offer precisely that place to stand which Archimedes asked for: “Give me a place to stand, and I will move the world.”
  2. Cited in Gordon, Escape into Understanding, p224.
  3. ‘The University In The Electric Age: The End Of The Gap Between Theory And Practice’, University of Toronto Varsity Graduate, 11:3, December 1964.
  4. Letters, 353.
  5. Watson’s Double Helix was published earlier in that same year of 1968.
  6. Barbara Rowes, to whom McLuhan wrote the letter quoted at the head of this post, frequently joined Sutton in her sessions with McLuhan.
  7. The ignorance revealed by discoveries is not only past ignorance. More important is the ignorance revealed by discovery in the present for future investigation. What might be called ‘essential ignorance’ is embedded in all the tenses of time. The ‘rule of thumb’: no light without dark, no dark without light!