Darwin, Genes, and Information

July 13, 2009

Darwin & the New Biology

This article, from MercatorNet, offers a truly fascinating insight into evolutionary biology and humanity.  In brief, the theory Darwing proposed, as natural selection, is hihghly mechanistic.  That is, it reduces all things to the simplest, physical level.  In evolutionary biology, all things are reduced to the genotype.  That is, the fundamental level one refers to understand evolution (in the micro- and macro- sense) is the sequence of nucleotides that make up a gene (or complex of genes).  Natural selsecvtion, then, works on this and only this level.   (This is methodological reductionism)

Natalia López-Moratalla and Esteban Santiago, though, point out a richer, more powerful method to view evolution.  We have learned that what matters in biology is not simply the genes, but the order of gense and how their expressions interact with one another.  In other words, “epigentics” plays a massive role.  Epigenetics refers to the interaction of genes, their proteins, feedback loops, and how one gene can control huge numbers of others as an on  & off switch.  That is to say, it is not only the nucleotide order that matters, but the order of genetic expressions.

That is, the information conveyed matters.  Scientists have compared DNA to an instruction booklet to build a system.  In a sense, that description is even more true: DNA and epigenetics is a massive trove of information.  Major steps in evolution are not mere changes in nucleotidal order, they are changes in how the gnetic information behaves.

Most of life (consider the trillions of bacteria cells that live within your body, many symbiotically) is a closed set of information.  That is, they have a niche and they generally stay there.  This describes not only micro-life (bacteria, archea, and simple eukarya) but also macro-flora & fauna.  Their epigenetic information binds them to a specific niche, region, and relatively set behavior pattern.  Insects, birds, reptiles, amphibians, all have relatively set patterns.  Somspecies do show an ability to learn, but this only further exemplifies my next point.  I will deal with the great exception to this statement and then return to the  mammels.

If , then, our genetics contain a trove of information, what would happen if one species were to become an open-ended question?  In other words, a species whose genetic information expressed itself as a complex, learning, malleable organism that could-with increasing ease- step outside of its original niche and move into other, going so far as to change these new ecosystems to a manner mroe conducive to its own survival?  Then, further, the open-ended question could ponder other questions, even immaterial questions, such as “I” and “Thou.”  Of course, I speak of our own species.  If information drives evolution, then humans are an open question.  We have adapted the world to meet our needs, rather than blindly wait (in a nonpersonal sort of way) for the chance that our information might lend itself to these new domains.

As an aside, I want to try to apply this question to the complex behavior we see in the mammals.  Elephants display complex social patterns.  Whales almost seem to have a language (or at least, improvise symphonies).  Pack mammals (lions, wolves) communicate and learn new ways to hunt.  Dogs and cats seem to understand human moods.  Lets look at dogs, as they are man’s best friend.  Could it be that the major step in domesticating wolves came when humans selected for dogs that most displayed a freedom from fixed behavior?  In other words, do dogs come close to that boundary of being an open question vs a closed sentence?  In broader scope, the mammalian brain seems to have the most plasticity in dealing with its surroundings and niche.

Yet, a stark boundary exists between man and the rest of the mammals: within a lifetime, man can radically redefine not only his environment, but the style or the pattern used to alter the environment.  Chesterton points out in the Everlasting Man, (pg 25 in the link) that though a bird can build a nest, that is all it can do.  He may trill in delight to attract a female, but he does not suddenly erect twigs as a Gothic nest- soaring high above a fibrous floor.  He does not build mud statues of great birds in letters.  It is this boundary that marks off man from every other thing on this earth.  The passing similarities- building nests, walking on feet- do in truth, only point out the raving distinction of the species bound to its behavior and niche (even with a limited or great learning capability) and the people whose minds reflect the world.

This begs a question, then.  How can a species break from the materialistic determined world?  Ontologically, what is this freedom?  How can there be an open question?  If the world is solidly reducible to simple theories, how can there be a renegade species that appears to break every boundary?   Indeed, it takes delight in tackling such boundaries (e.g., discovering the North Pole, breaking greater and greater speed barriers)?  In this post, as a reflection on another article, we considered this capability under the name of information.

However, E.F. Schumacher, in A Guide for the Perplexed, may have been far more precise in saying that ‘z’ or some factor that we cheaply call self-awareness (the arena where freedom becomes operable) builds on ‘y’ what we simplistically call consciousness, and these two factors (along with a mysterious force of life x built with the physical material of the universe, m) define humanity.  Whereas the animals lack ‘z’ (chapter 2).

We call it information, but we don’t really know how that information somehow opens the door for the I to engage the cosmos, alter the earth, and for those astonishing moments of I & Thou.  I struggle to adequately frame the question, for it is the fundamental question of man.  I find it intensely curious to come across a scientific suggestion that acknowledges the possibility that we are not bound by materialist premises.  In some fantastic turn of events, science may finally have found that open window where humanity thunders onto the scene: akin to the beasts, yet terrifyingly different for breaking out of their endless, fixed destinies.

Imagine, for one moment, the dawn of history.  Our first parents look upon one another, and across the howling lonelyness of I, to discover thou.  Walking amidst the dew-dressed grass, Another enters the scene: the Other, the great I AM.


One Response to “Darwin, Genes, and Information”

  1. Stephen Walker said

    Hey Drew,

    Long time no talk, I was just reading over your blog and I have a paper that might be of interest to you. It goes a little deeper in to the process of evolution and describes that the process of selection by consequences is active at multiple levels of selection (i.e., genetic, behavioral, and cultural). It gets into the ontogenic and phylogenic variables that are responsible for complex displays of human behavior. So if you are interested in the paper shoot me an email and I can send it to you.

    Hope all is well,


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