Causal Foundations of Biological Information

Professor Paul Griffiths University of Sydney

Project Summary

The lack of a rigorous account of biological information as a proximal causal factor in biological systems is a striking gap in the scientific worldview. This project aims to fill that gap by grounding the idea of biological information in a contemporary philosophical account of causation, and showing that biological information is a substantive causal factor in living systems.

The project is driven by biology (rather than information-theory), and we begin with the most common source of informational ideas in contemporary biology – the coding relation between nucleic acid and protein. Francis Crick's work on the problem of protein synthesis transformed the notion of biological specificity (the ability of biomolecules to catalyse very specific chemical reactions) from a physical concept based on stereochemistry (the three-dimensional shape of molecules) to an informational concept based on the linear correspondence between molecules, most famously in the case of the genetic code. "Information", Crick wrote, "means here the precise determination of sequence, either of bases in the nucleic acid or of amino acid residues in the protein." (1958 p153, his emphasis). We call this sense of information 'Crick information' and in the project we will use a widely supported contemporary philosophical account of causation to both give a rigorous account of 'precise determination', and to show how this idea can be grounded in particular kinds of causal relations.

After operationalising Crick Information, we will extend it to show how it can be applied to the broadest possible range of biological processes. This will include information-processing in gene regulatory networks, epigenetics and the role of the environment in development, and the emergence of de novo information from processes of self-organisation. The unification of these processes under a single account of information will vindicate the idea that biological systems are distinctive amongst physical systems in being informed systems, without subscribing to a narrowly gene-centric view of biological information. 

Project Details

Project Duration

3 February 201421 January 2017

Core Funding Area

Big Questions

Theme

Information

Region of Activity

Oceania

TWCF Number

0063

Amount Awarded

$1,154,261

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