Thursday, 1 September 2011

Information is fundamental to life on Earth.

DNA: A primordial information system

The origin and meaning of information

by Tom Thorne
When we use the word information we tend to think of it in sets of defined signs and codings that we use to record content and ideas we come up in our minds. Today I am using text like this one to represent my information and content distributed in this case via the intranet through a series of sophisticated microelectronic techniques of linked devices and protocols that are networked endlessly together. Information is a technique devised by human thought to record, and distribute thinking and content. It uses media to achieve that objective.
However, there is on this planet a natural information encoding system for  living things that we call in our science language Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) made up of two intertwined polymers of nucleotides and held together by sugars, phosphates and ester. How DNA stores information is determined by sequences of amino acids, and proteins and how they are arranged. 
The man made information or thoughts and memes are recorded using alphabets, symbols and mathematical signs to represent ideas. DNA uses biochemistry.
The natural information like DNA coding that is found everywhere on this planet in plants and animals is also information encoding the content that makes up life. It is the same for most life on Earth excluding viruses. DNA records and encodes genetic information.
Information to exist must be encoded and decoded easily.
Information is represented by codes of all kinds. It can be as I said above a technique of a sentient creature or it can be a natural encoding that evolved in nature  as the basis of life. One fact is clear. The information of DNA encoding is the basis of all technique encoding devised by sentient beings on this planet. You can not have one without the other for they are a symbiosis.
There is other information that nature encodes. There is the world of physics which predates DNA or more accurately provides the chemical building blocks of DNA.  There is the physics of the Universe that seem in some cases to defy our attempts to unravel the information system that makes it all work. However we are the first products of this information system capable of trying to understand the making and workings of the Universe using our technique science. The information base of the Universe is still in much debate using sciences that are often closer to philosophy.
Memes are brain ideas that can affect evolution when recorded and distributed by human information techniques.  
So we have information techniques to record our thoughts and memes. We use our DNA devised brains to unravel the natural world which we encode as knowledge using our information techniques. There is a built in bias to our communications and we strive constantly to be accurate and correct discovering the origins of our being.
When DNA was devised in nature that led ultimately to ourselves and our techniques. This process made no attempt to be accurate or correct as humans and other lifeforms evolved. We simply evolved by natural selection over time and DNA came up with us as our information. That seems to be the case. The information of DNA is inaccurate and filled with redundancy and yet that very inaccuracy enabled enough change to occur that ultimately gave rise to  the life on Earth and ultimately a human brain.
This inaccuracy is also expressed in the mechanics of the Universe and it seems that inaccurate information gives rise to very useful outcomes such as the distance this planet is from a sun that is half way through its life cycle. That fact enables DNA  and all life to exist here. 
In that situation DNA arose or at least we think it arose only on this planet. However, everything we do and are was a result of inaccurate and chance happenings to DNA. To unravel these mysteries we devise an information system which we call science. The prized aspect of science is its testing of hypothesis and the accuracy of the work done in its name.
There is no intuition or chance or serendipity in this science information system. It collects data, which can be come information and ultimately knowledge when its proved or linked together with other information until we have a fact or a series of facts that we can prove. Human science is an informational technique that in its protocols of accuracy enables us to understand everything from DNA itself and perhaps even the Universe that gave rise to DNA in the first place.
The Information Age was born when early humans scratched a bone with a mark that recorded the actions of the moon in the night sky.
When it comes to simple human devised information systems such as scratching bones with meaningful markings, and later  hieroglyphics or alphabets,  these systems are used to record important ideas and memes that remain outside of the human brain. It is a system to record thought. Later this same system evolved into a medium of clay tablets, papyrus scrolls, and manuscripts which to pass them on had to laboriously copied and maintained as history.
It becomes more complex when information becomes mechanized through new techniques such as movable type and the information is spread quickly  by easily providing multiple printed copies. This information spreads memes and ideas with greater speed than a scroll or manuscript. It devises multi chaptered books, periodicals and even advertising flyers.
We call our times The Information Age and that may be a good designation for our times. But part of the information age that is really important is the unraveling of DNA and the Human Genome itself. In this sense our times are truly the Information Age because our brains are capable of examining how we came about and how this natural information systems works. Add to this the physics of the Universe and comprehending how within this information system we exist, truly brings new meaning to what we call The Information Age.
© Copyright 2011, Tom Thorne, All Rights Reserved.  DNA animated Gif: Wikopedia
Further Resources
Here is a list of books that examine these issues that I have recently read and found useful. Two are by Richard Dawkins, his good books in my view, and not spoiled by his silly anti religious notions he put out in The God Delusion. 
The James Gleick book The Information is an important volume that reviews the topic of information very well. The Nick Lane book Life Ascending looks at where DNA comes from and how it gave birth to consciousness. 
The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life, Richard Dawkins, A Phoenix Paperback, London, 2004, ISBN: 0-75381-996-1
The Greatest Show on Earth, The Evidence For Evolution, Richard Dawkins, Free Press, New York, London, Toronto and Sydney, 2009, ISBN: 978-1-4165-9478-9, also available as a e-book same ISBN last digit 0 rather than 9.
Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution, Nick Lane, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, London, 2010, ISBN: 978-0-393-33866-9
The Information, A Theory, A History, A Flood, James Gleick, Pantheon Books, New York, 2011, First Edition, ISBN: 978-0-375-42372-7

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