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Derik Hobbs (derikhobbsillustration.com)

The Use and Abuse of ‘Information’ in Biology 

Murillo Pagnotta

Our thinking about ethical and political debates, as well as the everyday existential task of making sense of our lives, are influenced by scientific views about what genes can and cannot do and whether they determine or do not determine who we are. Consider the question of whether homosexuality (or any other characteristic, such as intelligence or body weight) results from genetic factors or upbringing — a question that is often put in terms of whether something is a matter of nature or nurture. Is that even the right question to ask? And why do we assume the disjunction in the first place?

In modern biology, the disjunction between nature and nurture is based on the idea that genes encode information about how the organism will develop — a characteristic or trait is thought of as natural if a gene is present that encodes information about its development. But the meaning of the term “information” is not as simple as it may seem, because biologists use it in different ways. It can mean the statistical correlation between a gene and a phenotype, where variation in a DNA sequence (a gene) regularly corresponds to variation in some behavior or physical characteristic of the organism (the phenotype). Or it can refer to the sense of the term developed in the mathematical theory of communication. But “information” is often used to support a stronger claim about how the genome, consisting of a collection of DNA molecules, constitutes the inherited blueprint that determines the development (and even some aspects of the behavior) of the organism.

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Murillo Pagnotta is a graduate student in the School of Biology at the University of St. Andrews, United Kingdom.

Murillo Pagnotta, "The Use and Abuse of 'Information' in Biology," The New Atlantis, Number 51, Winter 2017, pp. 93–107.