Disclaimer: I am not a biologist, but I have become interested in biology and related matters over the past couple of years. One reason is obviously the pandemic, so the talk of biology, viruses, mRNA, and the like is everywhere. The other, main, reason is that I think we will not get anywhere interesting in AI unless we understand the concepts of autonomy, self-directedness, integration, and adaptation in even very simple biological systems.
We are increasingly employing information as an explanation of phenomena outside the world of culture and technology — as the central metaphor with which to talk about the nature of life and mind. Molecular biology, for instance, tells us how genetic information is transferred from one generation to the next, and from one cell to the next. And neuroscience is trying to tell us how information from the external world and the body percolates through the brain, influencing behavior and giving rise to conscious experience.
But do we really know what information is in the first place? And is it really a helpful way to think about biological phenomena? I’d like to argue that explanations of natural phenomena that involve information make inappropriate use of our latent, unexamined intuitions about inter-personal communication, blurring the line between what we understand and what we don’t quite have a grip on yet.
Similar sentiments are quoted by Carl Bergstrom and Martin Rosvall:
Biologists think in terms of information at every level of investigation. Signaling pathways transduce information, cells process information, animal signals convey information. Information flows in ecosystems, information is encoded in the DNA, information is carried by nerve impulses. In some domains the utility of the information concept goes unchallenged: when a brain scientist says that nerves transmit information, nobody balks. But when geneticists or evolutionary biologists use information language in their day-to-day work, a few biologists and many philosophers become anxious about whether this language can be justified as anything more than facile metaphor.
Yohan argues that information theory is, on the whole, not an appropriate framework with which to reason about biological information. Carl and Martin argue otherwise, but propose their own framework, what they refer to as the transmission sense of information, which purportedly resolves the issues that trouble “a few biologists and many philosophers.” My goal in this series of posts is to argue that information theory can indeed be applied to biology, but that its proper application needs to be built up from first principles, starting with a serious engagement with its entire conceptual framework. Moreover, I agree with Yohan that digital communication is not the right conceptual schema; instead, we should be talking about control, programmability, and behaviors.