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Information Theory: Evolution as the Transfer of Information

Information follows different rules from matter and energy, which might change the way we see evolution

One reason that the theory of evolution is controversial is the claim that sheer randomness produces information. That is, randomly generated events are somehow selected for survival and continuing complex development (Darwinian evolution). The theory is understandably popular because, if correct, it would answer a great many questions. The problem is, we do not see randomly generated events producing complex mechanisms in the life around us. We are asked, however, to believe that this modern synthesis (MS) is true over the grand sweep of evolutionary time.

Over the years, it has become evident that evolution happens in a number of ways. including horizontal gene transfer between unrelated species, epigenetic inheritance of genes that changed during our parents’ lifetimes, and convergent evolution — where vastly different life forms end up with very similar mechanisms as a result of pursuing a common goal. Efforts to incorporate these processes into evolution theory are sometimes called the the Third Way or extended evolutionary synthesis (EES).

A new model of evolution relies on information theory, which is itself interesting because information is governed by different rules from matter and energy. For example, it is created by ruling out possibilities, it is relational, not causal, and it is not reduced by being shared. It is also immaterial. For example, Einstein’s bomb equation, e = mc2, had a huge impact on the world but by itself, it is an immaterial idea.

Information can be stripped of all matter and appear in a variety of media: I could phone and tell you the winning lottery number or send you an email or a letter about it or discuss it on radio or TV. Vastly different material media; same information.

Reinterpreting evolution as a transfer of information 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 make clear that they understand information to be immaterial. Here is the Summary of their Information Continuum Model of evolution:


1. Information is immaterial by nature but must have a physical form to exist.

2. Inherited information may be found in many forms.

3. The forms have divergent properties and information may over time change its physical form.

4. We suggest the term ‘hereditome’ to refer to 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 evolution and natural selection to be investigated without conceptual restrictions imposed by the properties of individual hereditome components.

7. The conceptual nature of Information Continuum Model enables it to serve as an interdisciplinary platform for collaboration between natural and social sciences.

Here’s their abstract:

Abstract: Most biologists agree that evolution is contingent on inherited information shaped by natural selection. This apparent consensus could be taken to indicate agreement on the forces shaping evolution, but vivid discussions reveal divergences on how evolution is perceived. The predominant Modern Synthesis (MS) paradigm holds the position that evolution occurs through random changes acting on genomic inheritance. However, studies from recent decades have revealed that evolutionary inheritance also includes DNA-methylation, RNA, symbionts, and culture, among other factors. This has fueled a demand of a broader evolutionary perspective, for example from the proponents of the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (EES). Despite fundamental disagreements the different views agree that natural selection happens through dissimilar perpetuation of inheritable information. Yet, neither the MS, nor the ESS dwell extensively on the nature of hereditary information. We do – and conclude that information in and of itself is immaterial. We then argue that the quality upon which natural selection acts henceforth is also immaterial. Based on these notions, we arrive at the information-centric Information Continuum Model (ICM) of evolution. The ICM asserts that hereditary information is embedded in diverse physical forms (DNA, RNA, symbionts etc.) representing a continuum of evolutionary qualities, and that information may migrate between these physical forms. The ICM leaves theoretical exploration of evolution unrestricted by the limitations imposed by the individual physical forms wherein the hereditary information is embedded (e.g. genomes). ICM bestows us with a simple heuristic model that adds explanatory dimensions to be considered in the evolution of biological systems.

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

You may also wish to read: Why AI can’t save us from ourselves — if evolution is any guide. Famous evolutionary theorist E. O. Wilson’s reflections help us understand. If selfishness and a sense of superiority are really the driving force of humanity than AI could only be a source of problems. (J. R. Miller)

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Information Theory: Evolution as the Transfer of Information