The central dogma of biology holds that genetic information normally flows from DNA to RNA to protein. As a consequence it has been generally assumed that genes generally code for proteins, and that proteins fulfil not only most structural and catalytic but also most regulatory functions, in all cells, from microbes to mammals. However, the latter may not be the case in complex organisms. A number of startling observations about the extent of non-protein-coding RNA (ncRNA) transcription in the higher eukaryotes and the range of genetic and epigenetic phenomena that are RNA-directed suggests that the traditional view of the structure of genetic regulatory systems in animals and plants may be incorrect. ncRNA dominates the genomic output of the higher organisms and has been shown to control chromosome architecture, mRNA turnover and the developmental timing of protein expression, and may also regulate transcription and alternative splicing. This paper re-examines the available evidence and suggests a new framework for considering and understanding the genomic programming of biological complexity, autopoietic development and phenotypic variation. BioEssays 25:930–939, 2003. © 2003 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.