The Bitcoin blockchain/DNA metaphor
The Bitcoin network is a bit like biological life, without the Sex
I’ve always enjoyed a good metaphor, even more than a good joke. The best ones help you see something in a new light, and can be stretched farther that you might at first expect.
Here’s one I’ve had fun fleshing out a bit.
Disclaimer: My understanding of DNA is quite basic, my background is in software and not biology, my thinking about DNA is influenced by my experience with Genetic Algorithms. So please point out any errors in the comments.
- DNA is like the Bitcoin blockchain. They are both replicated data stores: DNA in life forms spread across the planet, Bitcoin blockchains in computers running Bitcoin all across the internet. The stored “data” is an accumulation of real world transaction (financial transactions vs genetic transaction via sex, or mutation).
- Biological evolution is similar to the accumulation of blocks and Bitcoin transactions. The data is being changed slowly over time: evolution changes genes and additional transactions and blocks change the blockchain. Both the blockchain (always) and DNA (sometimes) get longer and more complex over time.
- Proof of Work is Survival of the Fittest. Any single replica be modified, mutated, or artificially changed — for Bitcoin through manually editing the local blockchain, for DNA through genetic engineering, breeding, or mutation. But in both cases, for a local change to go global, changes to the data store must pass a very difficult test. In the case of DNA, the changed DNA must result in an organism which is fit to survive and reproduce in the real world. In the case of Bitcoin, the rest of the network must accept the block as legitimate by confirming it with Proof of Work. If local changes were very easily replicated through the global population without such a test, there would be chaos. In Life, Survival really is the ultimate Proof of Work.
- Blockchain forks are akin to speciation; Altcoins are more like biological orders.
- Rogue bitcoin nodes are like failed DNA mutations. The way the system is designed means they don’t pass the test, so they don’t propagate and generally don’t last.
- Bitcoin confirms are like “good” DNA mutations taking hold. These mutations which do pass the test, spread across the network (or through the population’s DNA).
- Both rely on global infrastructure. Bitcoin requires the bitcoin network, and the Internet. And DNA requires the web of life on Earth to supply everything it needs.
- Predation between species is akin to Altcoins taking Market Share from each other. And more market share means a more active blockchain/more reproduction and chances for mutation.
- And finally, both DNA and the Blockchain, are, at their heart, encodings of Truly Epic Tales. In the case of DNA, it is the story of life itself, from the very beginnings, through every layer of evolution and ancestry. In the blockchain, every transaction in Bitcoin’s strange and wonderful history has been immortalized.
Of course the DNA / blockchain metaphor isn’t a rubber dress, it can’t be stretched too far. When DNA mix through sex, the entire length is mixed with their mates DNA, whereas blockchains generally only exchange the most “recent genes”, through the Bitcoin p2p gossip protocol. DNA, being a real world mechanism, might be considered more like a magical machine than an abstract string of data. For all its genius, Bitcoin is infinitely simpler.
Still, the analogy implies an interesting question. At the very beginning of the Bitcoin blockchain, in its Genesis Block, lies the famous message from Bitcoin’s creator:
“The Times 03/Jan/2009 Chancellor on brink of second bailout for banks”
But does our DNA have a message in its Genesis Block, and what might it say? Was there a Nakamoto for the DNA blockchain? Was its Satoshi just the laws of physics?