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A Natural History of Information

By Mark C. Mescher

Appears in collection : Secret missives: a journey in natural communication

In this talk, I discuss the role of information in biology from an evolutionary perspective. I will define information as a biological concept and argue that Darwinian evolution is fundamentally an information-centric process. Building on that idea, I will discuss how key transitions in evolutionary history, including the repeated emergence of higher levels of biological organization, were accompanied by changes in the way organisms store and process information. I will further discuss the ways in which different informational systems operating within individual organisms (e.g., genomic, sensory, cognitive, and socio-cultural) interact to adapt organismal phenotypes to their environments on relevant time frames. I will also briefly explore how concepts from Shannon's information theory relate to the broader study of information in biology. Finally, I will discuss the profound implications of the emergence of cumulative culture as an open-ended evolutionary process in humans, including for epistemology (I.e., regarding the scope and content of knowledge that can be constructed by humans) and for the scientific process itself.

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