Life as the Communication of Information
Could the essence of life be not so much the material substrate, but the transfer of information?
At every level, we see life transmitting and receiving information. Organelles send and receive information from the DNA library. Colonies of cells transmit and receive molecular signals to each other. Sperm communicates with egg. Tissues communicate with organs, which communicate with bodies and brains. Groups of organisms transmit and receive information with their multiple senses: birds chirping, wolves howling, elk bugling. Ecological systems communicate. Finally, the master communicators on earth are human beings who can send and receive information across the world in seconds, and even and receive send information through outer space to and from their machines.
Let’s see some examples from the news of living communication.
Neurons: A network is a basic communication system. Networks of nerves synchronize to keep the circadian clock in working order, a press release from UC Santa Barbara explains. “Taking a cue from information theory,” researchers measured the information transmitted in the part of the brain that runs our biological clock. Prof. Linda Petzold wanted to know how it was wired up. “By understanding which cells are communicating as they perform certain tasks, she explained, it is possible to gain insight into how this small organelle of about 20,000 neurons keeps the entire body on a 24-hour clock, regulating essential functions such as sleep, hunger, body-temperature regulation, hormone release and gene expression.”
Trees: The role of “fruit aroma” in attracting animals so that they will aid in spreading their seeds is explored on Science Daily.
“Taken together, our studies demonstrate for the first time that the pleasant aroma that characterizes many ripe fruits may have an important ecological function of mediating the communication between plants and primates that disperse their seeds,” says Omer Nevo, lead author of both publications. “Primates benefit from the ability to easily and reliably identifying ripe fruits. In return, plants are selected to provide odorous fruits that attract primates and promote seed dispersal.”
Ants: Why do ants touch their antennae as they pass each other on their long ant trails? They’re using a “two-way communication system,” Science Daily says. A researcher at the University of Melbourne was surprised: “An ant’s antennae are their chief sensory organs, but until now we never knew that they could also be used to send out information.” They’re not just receptors, in other words, but transmitters, too. “Like everyone else, we assumed that antennae were just receptors, but nature can still surprise us.”
Bats: Bats emit and receive high-frequency auditory signals on their nightly hunts, but they live in a very noisy environment. PhysOrg talks about how they deal with the “constant din” of noise without going deaf.
Dolphins: Researchers in Florida gave dolphins a puzzle to solve. A canister with food required two dolphins to work together to pull on ropes at both ends simultaneously to open the device. New Scientist tells how they heard the dolphins who solved the puzzle employ a special language when working together. Like bats, dolphins use sonar to find prey. “This is the first time that we can say conclusively that dolphin vocalisations were used to solve a cooperative task,” researchers found.
In network theory, the material making up the nodes is not the important thing. What matters is the routing. You could replace the nodes with other materials and still communicate the same information. This points to the centrality of information over matter.
We see similar matter-independent communication with English text. A signal could be spoken to a friend, who types it into a computer, who sends it via electrons to an email server, which bounces it off a satellite to another country, to a person who writes it on a blackboard, who shows it to a pilot that writes it in skywriting, to a deaf person who signs it to a friend that translates it into Chinese… and on and on. It’s the same message. Information supervenes on the material substrate.
John Archibald Wheeler famously quipped, “It from bit.” For an intriguing philosophical look at information as the basic “stuff” of the universe (contra materialism), read William Dembski’s thought-provoking work, Being as Communion.
The information-first view of nature fits the Biblical worldview. God spoke the universe into existence. He called for the newly created earth to bring forth creatures. He communed with Adam and Eve in the garden. He spoke His laws to Moses. He writes morality into our consciences. He inspired His word. Jesus in his incarnation spoke what the Father gave him to say. After his resurrection, he spoke a great commission to the disciples. The gospel comes by hearing; salvation by confessing with the mouth Jesus as Lord. The church is the communion of saints, both locally and universally. In heaven we will have eternal communion with the Lord God almighty, our Creator.