Information and Communication in Living Matter

Biological information is not only instructional but also has to do with ‘valued’ and ‘significant’ information, which puts the receiver in the centre of interest. Bernd-Olaf Küppers, Professor of Natural Sciences, offers a distinct naturalistic view about how crucial semantic levels of information might emerge via evolutionary processes.

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The facts

Ever since the elucidation of the molecular basis of living systems we have known that all elementary processes of life are governed by information. Thus, information turns out to be a key concept in understanding living matter (Küppers 1990). More than that: the flow of information at all levels of the living system reveals the properties of communication. This means that the information stored in the genome of the organism is expressed in innumerable feedback loops – a process through which the genetic information is continually re-evaluated by permanent interactions with the physical environment to which it is exposed. In this way, the living organism is built up, step by step, into a hierarchically organized network of unmatched complexity.

The fact that all phenomena of life are based upon information and communication is indeed the principal characteristic of living matter. Without the perpetual exchange of information at all levels of organization, no functional order in the living organism could be sustained. The processes of life would implode into a jumble of chaos if they were not perpetually stabilized by information and communication. In this article I should like to consider some of the consequences that follow from this for our philosophical understanding of reality.

About “information” and “communication”

In daily usage, these two terms are not always clearly distinguished from each other. Yet even the etymology of the two words indicates that the concepts they refer to cannot entirely overlap. The term “information” – following closely its Latin root informare – denotes primarily the formative, and thus instructive function of a message. In contrast, the word “communication” – derived from the Latin word communicare – denotes the process by which the sender and the receiver of information try to reach a common understanding. The subject of this understanding is a common evaluation of the information exchanged between the sender and the receiver. Alongside this, the bare instruction that the word “information” stands for seems like a command that results in the mechanical, i.e. unilateral transfer of the information from sender to receiver, without any aim of achieving a common or mutual understanding of the “meaning” of the information, being expressed by its operative function.

Thus, if we wish to approach the concept of communication in living matter in its widest sense, we need to examine the relationship between information on the one hand and mutual or common understanding on the other. At the same time, we shall need to demonstrate that concepts such as “information” and “communication” can meaningfully be applied to natural processes at all. The latter task would seem to raise fewer difficulties for the concept of information than it does for that of communication.

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