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New podcast series: The nature of information according to the sciences (launching soon)

Updated: Apr 26

IIMX will be launching our new podcast series soon. In our first episode we be talking to Dr Alexie Papanicolaou. Dr Papanicolaou is an expert in genome bioinformatics and an academic at the Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment, a research institute of Western Sydney University. He's current Deputy Chair of the Early-Mid Career Researchers Forum Executive of the Australian Academy of Sciences. Prior to that he was a specialist researcher at The Max Planck Institute and The University of Edinburgh. You can visit Alexie's exciting genomics website: The Stressed Fruit Fly


The concept of information and the nature of information in the molecular biosciences is a huge topic with many open ontological questions. There are many current methodological, metaphysical, logical, and general philosophical arguments about it. Opinions vary among philosophers of biology and science about realism about information in biological systems, and about the nature of biological information and its transmission in different systems. Some examples are: - There's no real (biological natural) information in biological systems: information is just a useful metaphor that is applied differently across many phenomena and systems (in generational transmission, genotype to phenotype, genetic codes and coding sequences etc.) (Griffiths). - (Biological) information is objectively real, but it is only realised in the presence of an evolved interpreter/receiver/consumer of a signal or message. The meaning of the information is established by evolved function, and/or mechanism, and/or configuration (Millikan, Shea, Rovelli). - Information is real, and it's just the reduction in uncertainty about some source based on some signal (probabilism). - Biological information reduces to signalling and signal dynamics and contents in some way (Godfrey-Smith, Sterelny). - Information is real, and it has a basic physical structural basis like dinosaur footprints, fossils, and emissions from celestial X-Ray sources. Ontic structural realism and reductive reference to physics are ineliminable from consideration. - Information is real, and it's got a structural basis and can be measured in terms of algorithmic complexity theory and minimum description length (Kolmogorov and Chaitin) - Information is established only in the presence of recursive teleonomic autopoiesis in dynamical systems, or on the basis of feedback loops. (Maynard Smith, Wiener, Deacon). - Information is real, but it is specifically about signs and semiotics (Deacon, Sarkar). - Biological information has dynamical, morphological, and conformational features - not just sequential and modular features. (Sarkar) There are other views. Many working scientists do not bother trying to work out metaphysical issues with respect to philosophical clarity, and they're not expected to. Others are very interested in the nature of information, along with the nature of whatever natural phenomena and systems they are studying, and seek to establish hypotheses about it. Scientific metaphysics must listen to what scientists say about what exists and how it exists. It de-emphasises armchair postulates and speculation (or even rejects it.) An overarching (and perhaps positivistic) hope of the scientific metaphysician is that pluralism about the nature of information will either help deliver, or at least allow for, the identification of a unifying or else reductive and objective conception of natural information. Professor Pananicolaou has some fascinating insights on many of these topics, and associated ethical implications.




A Selection of Related Interesting Background Readings


Artiga, M. (2014). Teleosemantics, Infotel-semantics and Circularity. International Journal of Philosophical Studies, 22(4), 583–603.

Barbieri, M. (2002). The Organic Codes. In The Organic Codes. https://doi.org/10.1017/cbo9780511614019

Barbieri, M. (2008a). Biosemiotics: a new understanding of life. Naturwissenschaften, 95(7), 577–599.

Barbieri, M. (2008b). Life is Semiosis The biosemiotic view of Nature. Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy.

Barbieri, M. (2009). A short history of biosemiotics. Biosemiotics. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12304-009-9042-8

Bergstrom, C. T., & Rosvall, M. (2011). The transmission sense of information. Biology and Philosophy. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10539-009-9180-z

Collier, J. (2008). Information in Biological Systems. In Philosophy of Information. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-444-51726-5.50024-8

Deacon, T. W. (2008). Shannon - Boltzmann - Darwin: Redefining information (Part II). Cognitive Semiotics. https://doi.org/10.3726/81605_169

Deacon, T. W. (2010). What is missing from theories of information? In Information and the Nature of Reality: From Physics to Metaphysics. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511778759.008

Deacon, T. W. (2015). Steps to a science of biosemiotics. Green Letters. https://doi.org/10.1080/14688417.2015.1072948

Dennett, D. C. (2013). Aching Voids and Making Voids A review of Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter . By Terrence W. Deacon. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. $29.95. xvii + 602 p.; ill.; index. ISBN: 978-0-393-04991-6. 2012. . The Quarterly Review of Biology. https://doi.org/10.1086/673760

Drossel, B. (2001). Biological evolution and statistical physics. Advances in Physics. https://doi.org/10.1080/00018730110041365

Galas, D. J., Nykter, M., Carter, G. W., Price, N. D., & Shmulevich, I. (2010). Biological information as set-based complexity. IEEE Transactions on Information Theory. https://doi.org/10.1109/TIT.2009.2037046

Gilbert, S. F., & Sarkar, S. (2000). Embracing complexity: Organicism for the 21st century. In Developmental Dynamics. https://doi.org/10.1002/1097-0177(2000)9999:9999<::AID-DVDY1036>3.0.CO;2-A

Godfrey-Smith, P. (2000). On the theoretical role of “genetic coding.” Philosophy of Science. https://doi.org/10.1086/392760

Godfrey-Smith, P. (2001). The role of information and replication in selection processes. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 24(3), 538.

Godfrey-Smith, P. (2007). Information in biology. In The Cambridge Companion to the Philosophy of Biology. https://doi.org/10.1017/CCOL9780521851282.006

Godfrey-Smith, P. (2011). Senders, receivers, and genetic information: comments on {Bergstrom} and {Rosvall}. Biology & Philosophy, 26(2), 177–181.

Kogge, W. (2012). Script, Code, Information: How to Differentiate Analogies in the “Prehistory” of Molecular Biology. History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, 34(4), 603–635. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43831448

Millikan, R. G. (1989). Biosemantics. The Journal of Philosophy, 86(6), 281–297.

Mitrokhin, Y. (2014). Two faces of entropy and information in biological systems. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 359, 192–198.

Nizhnikov, A., Ryzhova, T., Volkov, K., Zadorsky, S., Sopova, J., Inge-Vechtomov, S., & Galkin, A. (2016). Interaction of {Prions} {Causes} {Heritable} {Traits} in {Saccharomyces} cerevisiae. PLoS Genetics, 12(12), e1006504. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pgen.1006504

Sarkar, S. (2005a). Maynard Smith, optimization, and evolution. Biology and Philosophy. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10539-005-9017-3

Sarkar, S. (2005b). Molecular models of life: philosophical papers on molecular biology. MIT Press.

Shea, N. (2007). Representation in the genome and in other inheritance systems. Biology and Philosophy. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10539-006-9046-6

Shea, N. (2011). What’s transmitted? Inherited information. Biology and Philosophy. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10539-010-9232-4

Shea, N. (2013). Inherited representations are read in development. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science. https://doi.org/10.1093/bjps/axr050

Smith, J. M. (2010). The concept of information in biology. In Information and the Nature of Reality: From Physics to Metaphysics. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511778759.007

Stegmann, U. (2012). Varieties of parity. Biology & Philosophy, 27(6), 903–918. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10539-012-9331-5

Stegmann, U. E. (2009). DNA, inference, and information. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science. https://doi.org/10.1093/bjps/axn041

Sterelny, K. (2011). Darwinian spaces: Peter Godfrey-Smith on selection and evolution. In Biology and Philosophy. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10539-010-9244-0

Tavernelli, I., Cotesta, S., & Di Iorio, E. E. (2003). Protein {Dynamics}, {Thermal} {Stability}, and {Free}-{Energy} {Landscapes}: {A} {Molecular} {Dynamics} {Investigation}. Biophysical Journal, 85(4), 2641–2649.

Zenil, H., Kiani, N. A., & Tegnér, J. (2016). Methods of information theory and algorithmic complexity for network biology. Seminars in Cell and Developmental Biology, 51, 32–43. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.semcdb.2016.01.011

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