Biological Information
Godfrey-Smith (Peter) & Sterelny (Kim)
Source: Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, 2007-16
Paper - Abstract

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Authors’ Introduction

  1. Since the 1950s, the concept of information has acquired a strikingly prominent role in many parts of biology. This enthusiasm extends far beyond domains where the concept might seem to have an obvious application, such as the biological study of perception, cognition, and language, and now reaches into the most basic parts of biological theory. Hormones and other cellular products through which physiological systems are regulated are typically described as signals. Descriptions of how genes play their causal role in metabolic processes and development are routinely given in terms of “transcription”, “translation”, and “editing”. The most general term used for the processes by which genes exert their effects is “gene expression”. The fates of cells in a developing organism are explained in terms of their processing of “positional information” given to them from surrounding cells and other factors. Many biologists think of the developmental processes by which organisms progress from egg to adult in terms of the execution of a “developmental program”. Other biologists have argued for a pivotal role for information in evolution rather than development: John Maynard Smith and Eors Szathmáry (for example) suggest that major transitions in evolution depend on expansions in the amount and accuracy with which information is transmitted across generations. And some have argued that we can only understand the evolutionary role of genes by recognizing an informational “domain” that exists alongside the domain of matter and energy.
  2. Both philosophers and biologists have contributed to an ongoing foundational discussion of the status of this mode of description in biology. It is generally agreed that the sense of information isolated by Claude Shannon and used in mathematical information theory is legitimate, useful, and relevant in many parts of biology. In this sense, anything is a source of information if it has a range of possible states, and one variable carries information about another to the extent that their states are physically correlated. But it is also agreed that many uses of informational language in biology seem to make use of a richer and more problematic concept than Shannon’s. Some have drawn on the teleosemantic tradition in philosophy of mind to make sense of this richer concept. Other theorists have countered that Shannon’s correlational conception of information is richer than it looks.
  3. A minority tradition has argued that the enthusiasm for information in biology has been a serious theoretical wrong turn, and that it fosters naive genetic determinism, other distortions of our understanding of the roles of interacting causes, or an implicitly dualist ontology. However, this sceptical response is fading, with key sceptics coming to accept a modest but genuine role for informational concepts in the life sciences. Others have taken the critique seriously but tried to distinguish legitimate appeals to information from misleading or erroneous ones.

  1. Introduction
  2. Shannon’s concept of information
  3. Teleosemantic and other richer concepts
  4. The genetic code
  5. Signalling systems
  6. Rejections of informational concepts in biology
  7. Genetic programs
  8. Information and evolution


First published Thu Oct 4, 2007; substantive revision Wed Mar 23, 2016

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