The principle that Shannon hit upon was fairly simple: redundancy. It is one of the ones on which error-checking modems are based today. Basically, the idea is that the "message" contains extra "bits" which verify the integrity of the message itself, but convey no additional information to the receiver. Shannon realized that there was an important link between probability, communication, and entropy. In the universe, all systems are moving from less probable states (perfect order) toward more probable states (entropic heat equilibrium - total random Brownian motion of all molecules in the system.) Likewise with messages. At the point of transmission, they are in their least probable state (there is only one possible "meaning" that could be derived from them) but along the means of transmission, noise (random "bits") corrupts the message so that multiple meanings of the message are all equally probable. (Hence, on the other hand, the receiver says, "Huh? Say that again?") The game of 'Telephone' is, of course, based on this very principle.
Ever since Maxwell's imaginary demon, physicists have started to slowly realize that information is an important factor in the link between entropy, work, and energy. In Maxwell's imaginary experiment, a demon would open and close a gate (perfectly frictionless, of course - this is a thought experiment) so that slow-moving and fast-moving molecules would be separated, thereby reversing the entropy or disorder of a gas. But there was a problem - the demon would have to be able to see the molecules in order to have the information of which ones were moving fast and which ones were going slow. As Maxwell realized, at this level the photons from the demon's flashlight would affect the motion of the molecules - Heisenberg's uncertainty principle would begin to take effect. Increasing information also increased entropy. Information about a system could help us restore systems to a less probable state (this is what medical knowledge does for human bodies in high states of disorder) but only at a cost of increasing entropy in the universe somewhere else, and contributing thereby to the entropy of the universe as a whole. Living organisms basically do just this - maintaining their own coherence while adding waste products to their environment.
The attempt to apply information theory to biology has occurred in various areas. Herberto Maturana and Francisco Varela lead the group of theoretical biologists who see the immune system as an information-processor (of organismic self-identification) rather than a war-fighting police-state. Maturana and Varela also struggle against representationalism in cognitive science, suggesting that the nervous system is "operationally closed," and the blind tunnels of the neo-Darwinian programme, which fails to see how an organism and its environment are "structurally coupled" and how evolution is essentially an information-exchange process. The neo-Darwinians finally managed to complete their grand synthesis when Lamarck was held at bay with the Weismann Barrier (between germ line and organism) and the "language" of the Mendelian gene was found in the rungs of the ladder of the DNA spiral. The Human Genome project now plumbs this strange tongue, but it is likely to uncover some unpleasant facts that may well doom the academic perch of the neo-Darwinian synthesis.
The neo-Darwinians made it part of their battle cry that evolution is essentially a-teleological. The only operating principles in evolution were mutation of the DNA from radiation (which was essentially random) and adaptation (natural selection eliminating mutations which were unfit.) The twin poles of chance and necessity as described by materialist molecular biologist Jacques Monod. In essence, the neo-Darwinians proposed that mutation was producing an endless random sequence of genetic "messages" and that some censor was standing at the end of the line, killing every one that didn't make "sense," and this explained the complexity and diversity of lifeforms that we see today. (Just like an infinitely large bunch of monkeys sitting at typewriters, with every one failing to produce a Shakespeare opus being shot. ) To deny the intellectual parsimony of this theory was liable to get one declared a Lamarckist, or worse a creationist, and in any case, certainly an unscientific reactionary. Yet there were people who accepted the theory of evolution but saw extreme problems in nature relying on such a "blind" mechanism.
Some like Stephen Jay Gould attempted to "save the appearances," proposing that the neo-Darwinian synthesis was basically correct, but that some other mechanisms might also occasionally be involved, like punctuated equilibria and genetic drift. Others questioned the gradualism of natural selection, suggesting that various types of catastrophism might have caused a much more severe and rapid "selection" process. But the full frontal assault on neo-Darwinism has been led by computer scientists working on the artificial life front. These A-life researchers working on cellular automata programs have begun to realize something critical about organic evolution - that it is not a-teleological precisely because it is algorithmic. Not all possible mutations occur, because the language of DNA, like human language, is redundant , and limits the number of possible "messages" that can be generated through messenger RNA. The ridiculed work of Barbara McClintock on "jumping genes" began to be revived, as some molecular biologists began to realize that genes did more than just "code" for proteins - they also shifted around in the chromosomal sequence (just like words do in sentences while maintaining overall meaning) and, more importantly, governed other genes in that sequence through a grammar of rules for juxtaposition.
Mutation could not randomly "shuffle" around DNA. DNA was self-organizing, and thus likely to preserve certain structures once they had come into being. Some of the new theoretical biologists suggest that it can even orchestrate its own modification, thus bringing the heretical possibility of quasi-Lamarckian purposiveness back into mutation -- and offering explanations of how some organisms in the fossil record retraced their evolutionary steps and escaped evolutionary "blind tunnels" and extinction. The new cognitive biology suggests that nature is throwing dice in the creation of new organisms, but they're heavily loaded; and that the typewriters the monkeys are working on in "typing out" the language of life seem to have certain keys stuck together. Life appears to be based on dissipative structures (relying on nonequilibrium thermodynamics, like the Zhabotinksy Reaction) which are negentropic; life maintains its own self-organization by continually exchanging information with its environment and cybernetic self-monitoring feedback. Rather than a "green scum" on the face of the planet, life on planet Earth seems to be part of its war against entropy and the dissipation of meaning.
We are here, of course, going against the 'Central Dogma' of molecular biology: nature does no bookkeeping. Once an organism is physically transformed by the environment, there is no way to keep "track" of the change within its cellular structure. Organisms are information-impoverished, plastic to the extreme, but unable to know where they've been or where they're going phylogenetically. Nonetheless, some biologists insist that there are other things going on in evolution besides mere random mutation and blind selection. Symbiosis (cooperative rather than competitive strategies between organisms), saltationism (rapid 'leaps' through evolutionary 'search space'), self-organization (crystallization of stable biological structures), and directed mutation all seem to be part of nature's template for biological life. Alife researchers are beginning to realize that the trick of evolution is to build into the system a means of generating novelty - i.e. keeping life a negentropic open system - and one of those great devices was hit upon epochs ago: sexual reproduction, the best way we have of reshuffling the genomic deck.
The how of organismic information exchange boggles most biologists, who are not prepared to accept the fact that organisms are not closed systems, but are instead bioelectronic transceivers receiving constant electromagnetic 'signals' from their environment. Circadian rhythms and other bodily 'clocks' are synchronized through light's "interface" with the pineal gland - but evidence is mounting that other biological processes (including consciousness itself) are affected by electromagnetic signals from other sources, especially the planet's own geomagnetic field. Rupert Sheldrake's "morphogenetic fields" may explain how certain biological forms repeatedly "crystallize" and are repeated throughout the phylum, and certain atavistic features display how the phylogenetic past is reactivated in the ontogenetic present. Organisms are constantly exchanging electromagnetic information with each other; some have explained the "healing touch" as the natural ability of organisms to exchange information and break down intra-organismic information blockages ("your body should not be like this; instead it should be like this.")
The new info-biology and info-medicine holds some great promise. Some biologists have begun to look at aging in the body and brain as "noise accumulation." Basically, as certain inevitable recopying errors accrue in an organism's DNA, after countless cell reduplications, these errors overwhelm the "signal" of the organism's own self-coherence and it dies. Aging, the entropic fate of every organism, may be reversible, if we start to learn the 'grammar' of DNA; but there is a cost, as we will certainly add to the entropic fate of our planet via our burgeoning overpopulation and production of waste products. Disease might be come to be understood as information blockage, as the organism's "communications channels" are blocked from receiving the proper "signals" from the outside environment. Algorithmic accelerated artificial-life evolution may show how life on this planet made its "breakthroughs." Already, some curious Alife experiments are showing that symbiosis and mutualism are early strategies being adopted by some very uncompetitive cellular automata at the outset of their 'evolution.'
Ultimately, however, we cannot leave the matter there without dealing with the emergence of language, consciousness, and the 'other half' of coevolution. Richard Dawkins suggests that the genes' process of information production originally ruled the biological world, but with the emergence of homo sapiens the memes (units of linguistic-mental information rather than linguistic-genetic information) began their own strategies for selfish proliferation. It was William Burroughs who first suggested that language itself might be a virus, a parasitic piggybacker on the backs of homo sapiens, manipulating him for its own purposes. Noam Chomsky suggests that the human brain is "hardwired" with the fundamental structures for producing language - the crucial adaptation which may have made memetic evolution, a much more rapid and more highly redundant process than genetic evolution, take off in the brain of some distant Paleolithic ancestor. The emergence of spoken, and later written, language, may not be accidents; they may have been structured adaptations to increase biological information exchange and retention. (Perhaps it all started when he ate that mushroom.)
Certainly, one of the main realizations offered to us by the vast corpus of postmodernist literary theory that so many of us run from in horror from is the strange, almost quasi-intentional self-transformation of language. Derrida writes about the "play" of language, of the "unwillingness" of the signifier to remain bound to the signified, and of how writing writes itself through the author. If biology is linguistic, perhaps language is biological. The ancient writers seemed to grasp the nature of language, of the way that its permutations and recombinations were governed by curious webs of metaphor and self-referentiality. They called this protean language argot - the Art Gothique of the cathedral, the goetic art of the magician, the ship Argo which brought Heracles to the Golden Fleece, and the Arc Got or rainbow of light. Not surprisingly, argot was the language of the man of the street - the tongue of vagabonds, gypsies, thieves, highwaymen, pirates, and courtesans. Within the base dross of clever and foul words might be found the philosophical gold of wisdom, if one had the gematriac tools for recombination. This tongue reached its pinnacle in as the Langue D'Oc (Occitan) in the South of France, and is still found in the recorded poems of the troubadours of that time.
If language is an extraterrestrial virus that "invaded" mankind, as Burroughs suggests, perhaps it is a symbiote rather than a parasite. Certainly, the memes have enabled the genes to go to places they have never been before. The memes have shown the genes to themselves and increased the distance of biological information exchange. Biological evolution on planet Earth could only have gone so far without inevitably taxing the limits of the biosphere, but memetic evolution offers the possibility of homo sapiens escaping the gravity well of the planet and possibly taking genetic evolution in new and unprecedented directions. If we define life, heretically, as a process for perfecting the universe's ability to accumulate and preserve information about itself, it may be the case that language represents the universe's best weapon against its own entropic heat death. The snag is if information accumulation is basically a net transfer of entropy outside the system, this will ultimately fail if the universe is a closed system. Unless, of course, the universe is simply the least probable of many coexisting parallel universes.... and its redundant grammar is the laws of physics themselves.
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