Information Theory: Evolution as Information Transfer


One of the reasons the theory of evolution is controversial is the claim that pure chance produces information. That is, randomly generated events are somehow selected for survival and continuous complex development (Darwinian evolution). The theory is understandably popular because, if correct, it would answer a lot of questions. The problem is that we don’t see randomly generated events producing complex mechanisms in the life around us. We are, however, asked to believe that this Modern Synthesis (SM) is true on the grand sweep of evolutionary time.

Over the years, it has become apparent that evolution happens in many ways. including horizontal gene transfer between unrelated species, epigenetic inheritance of genes that changed during our parents’ lifetimes, and convergent evolution – where very different life forms end up with very similar mechanisms in reason for the pursuit of a common goal. Efforts to incorporate these processes into the theory of evolution are sometimes referred to as the Third Way or Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (SEE).

A new model of evolution is based on the theory of information, itself interesting because information is governed by different rules of matter and energy. For example, it is created by excluding possibilities, it is relational and not causal, and it is not reduced by being shared. It is also intangible. For example, Einstein’s bomb equation, e = mc2had a huge impact on the world, but in itself it is an intangible idea.

The information can be stripped of any material and appear in a variety of media: I could phone you and tell you the winning lottery number or send you an e-mail or letter about it or discuss it on the radio or television. Very different material supports; same information.

Reinterpreting evolution as information transfer will lead to both different questions and different answers.

The authors of a new open access paper, marine researcher Rasmus Skern-Mauritzen and forester Thomas Nygaard Mikkelsen, say they understand information is intangible. Here is the summary of their information continuum evolution model:


1. Information is intangible in nature but must have a physical form to exist.

2. Legacy information can be found in many forms.

3. Forms have divergent properties and information can change physical form over time.

4. We suggest the term “hereditary” to designate the sum of inherited information and its forms.

5. The substrate of natural selection is immaterial information.

6. The information continuum model is a simple heuristic model that allows the study of evolution and natural selection without conceptual restrictions imposed by the properties of the individual components of the heritome.

7. The conceptual nature of the information continuum model allows it to serve as an interdisciplinary platform for collaboration between the natural and social sciences.

Here is their summary:

Summary: Most biologists agree that evolution depends on inherited information shaped by natural selection. This apparent consensus could be seen as indicating agreement on the forces that shape evolution, but heated discussions reveal discrepancies in how evolution is viewed. The prevailing modern synthesis (SM) paradigm holds that evolution occurs through random changes acting on genomic inheritance. However, studies in recent decades have revealed that evolutionary heredity also includes DNA methylation, RNA, symbionts, and culture, among other factors. This has fueled a demand for a broader evolutionary perspective, for example from proponents of Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (EES). Despite fundamental disagreements, the different viewpoints agree that natural selection occurs through the dissimilar perpetuation of hereditary information. However, neither the MS nor the ESS dwell at length on the nature of hereditary information. We do – and conclude that the information itself is unimportant. We then argue that the quality on which natural selection now operates is also unimportant. Based on these notions, we arrive at the Information Continuum Model (ICM) centered on the information of evolution. The ICM asserts that hereditary information is embedded in various physical forms (DNA, RNA, symbionts, etc.) representing a continuum of evolutionary qualities, and that information can migrate between these physical forms. ICM leaves the theoretical exploration of evolution free from the limitations imposed by the individual physical forms in which hereditary information is embedded (eg genomes). The ICM offers us a simple heuristic model that adds explanatory dimensions to be taken into account in the evolution of biological systems.

Skern-Mauritzen R, Mikkelsen TN. The information continuum evolution model. Biosystems. Nov 2021;209:104510. doi: 10.1016/j.biosystems.2021.104510. Published online August 18, 2021. PMID: 34416317.

You can also read: Why AI can’t save us from ourselves – if evolution is any guide. The thoughts of the famous evolutionary theorist EO Wilson help us to understand. If selfishness and the feeling of superiority are really the engine of humanity, AI could only be a source of problems. (JR Miller)


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