Evolution and Information:
A Theory of Origination
by Robert DePaolo
Darwin’s theory of natural selection comprises the most widely accepted scientific explanation of how organisms originated and evolved over time. While aspects of his theories in Origin of the Species were more complex than some modern characterizations suggest the idea can be whittled down to a kind of reverse causation. While science typically emphasizes the deterministic model – the notion that causes precede effects, natural selection holds that there is no cause, or central theme (biological or otherwise) in the origin and development of species. Instead the process unfolds as follows. First, comes the mutation – which is a function of probability-based errors in traits arising from genetic shuffling with each generation. Then comes the environment – both in terms of its existing state at the time of any give trait/mutation and in terms of its changes over time and impact on the future survival or organisms.
The term ‘environment’ was defined in a broad context by Darwin to include both inter species competition and what he called sexual selection; which refers to females’ preference for males with advantageous traits which they hope will be transmitted to offspring.
There have always been several problems with this theory. One has to do with the competition factor. It is very rare for one species to drive another to the point of extinction. Lionesses will never cause the extinction of zebras – indeed only succeed on a hunt one out of ten times. Arguably, rather than threaten the zebras’ existence, selecting the weakest zebras as prey actually enhances the species, making it more robust and attractive to one another, thus enhancing propagation. In that sense the hunt can ultimately increase the prey population.
Competition can be for resources but this results in extinction only in extraordinary circumstances. Lions, hyenas and vultures compete for the same food sources but the intelligence of each species enables it to obtain meat without directly competing. Vultures wait for scraps or move in when lions have left the vicinity unaware that there is a carcass on which to feed. Hyenas confront lionesses but much of this ends up in a standoff. If hyenas have the advantage of numbers they will feed first. If not, and if the male of the pride is in the area the lions will dominate. But as long as there are still prey in the hunting grounds each will find a way.
A similar caveat applies to sexual selection. No female on earth is prescient enough to determine what traits will prove adaptive in the future. They do not mate in terms of environmental vicissitudes. Rather they mate in terms of what they view as species norms for fitness. In that sense sexual selection is based more on present sense stagnation than future adaptability. While human females can and do change their preferences for males with changing times (in the fifties it was either large pecs or a college degree, in the sixties, a puerile “cute”look and the trappings of “social consciousness”) no other females have such attitudinal malleability. Those factors offer a challenge to natural selection as a prime model of evolution, particularly the basic components of random mutation and environmental selection.
That model assumes there is enough coordination between trait mutations and environmental shifts to keep the phenomenal volume of life on earth flowing. While it makes sense to assume mutations will either be A. irrelevant to survival B. advantageous to survival as juxtaposed on the environment, or C detrimental to the organism’s survival. Yet that hardly comprises a systematic process.
Considering the enormous disparity in timelines within which organisms mutate and the environment changes it seems possible that natural selection has little net effect on organic evolution – that genetics and the ecology are for the most part two ships passing in the night. In other words, like the lioness and the zebra, genetic change probably misses the environmental target most of the time. In that case even the reverse determinism inherent in Darwin’s theory seems hard to defend.
There is another possible explanation, based more on information dynamics than biology and perhaps coincides more closely, and systemically with the origin of life forms.
Systems and complexity…
An information system is one in which there are stabilizing codes to go along with some degree of variability. For example the letter sequence…. ffffff-g-ffffff-g-ffffff-g… has some repetition (the sequence of f’s) and some variability (seen in the letter ‘g’). If the ‘g’ occurred randomly it would not comprise a code, but since it occurs each time after 6 f’s it has variability that falls within the context of the overall information system. In other words variability within structure is the formula for any intact information system including a life form
For any information system to last it must have a central, versatile base of stability so that whatever variations occur will, while causing a slight drift from the main trend, not dissemble the system. When a system has variability it can more effectively deal with change. That is because it’s integrity does not depend on the sustenance of any one element. Thus the more complex the system (that is, the more its capacity to vary without unraveling into entropy) the more resilient it will be. With that in mind a different view of comes into play
In the Beginning…
The first task of life forms was molecular. While protein synthesis, DNA and RNA replication were necessary components of life, it is likely that macro-molecules similar to or the same as those were probably floating around in the methane-based environment of early earth. Back then the days were hot, the nights extremely cold and such drastic changes in temperature would have broken up molecular bindings rather frequently. That means life did not simply appear with the advent of amino acids, proteins and DNA but instead came and went for millions of years without actually forming anything resembling a life system.
If that is true, it seems the crucial factor in the advent and evolution of life might have been the makeup and resilience of the internal organic components (featuring a “threshold stability/variance” information system) that gave the macro molecules via increasing complexity and made them more resilient. With more molecular (integrated) diversity the organic information system could more effectively resist environmental vagaries. This means instead of evolution depending on adaptation to the external environment, it could have arisen in the first instance from a proto-organic insulation capacity: in other words, by developing increasingly separate but interdependent cells and organs that could share and support each other and dilute the effect of environmental intrusions. As the proliferation of cells continued the cellular structures developed a resistance capability and became more “environmentally immune.”
One aspect of this model that seems plausible is that while adherents to natural selection typically think in terms of traits such as coat color, size, strength, the length of fangs, the position of the eyes or tensile grip they seldom consider the complexity of cellular interactions and increased redundancy of organ systems as comprising the prime survival mechanism.
Perhaps having multiple systems work cooperatively to provide nutrition to the cells and keep the organic entity intact – in a way similar to the brain losing cells via post adolescent tissue loss without loss of memory or general intelligence post is the prime physiological function.
In that context the cells of the heart, lungs, digestive system, muscle system, kidneys etc. really are sub components of a general physiological information system, that is, more than “organs’ also encoding mechanisms serving to prevent environmental factors from undoing the information content and systemic integrity of the body. The question is, why such a complex – arguably abstract process exist in the concrete world of biology?
One possible answer lies in the most frequent and insidious cause of extinction for all organisms – disease. Lions won’t extinguish zebras and great white sharks will never drive seals to the brink. But bacteria and viruses can kill millions at once and perhaps that has always been the driving factor in evolution. To the extent that integrated cellular variability deflects the impact on any foreign agent among numerous cells and organs the impact will be less. The target that is moving is hardest to hit and the more information any one entity contains the more resistant to harmful impact it will be. Indeed that very cellular diversity/integrity does something extraordinary for the health and survival of any organism. By redirecting the target of disease it gives the immune system more time to engulf and destroy the intruder.
Because of its ties to information dynamics i will refer to this concept of evolution as a theory of ‘progressive encoding.’ In the course of time the internal organ and bodily transport systems became more diverse, also functionally redundant. Cells with some variety gathered and something held them together – most likely carbon which has the capacity to meld together a variety of molecules. That led to the first step in organic evolution – integrity; so that temperature changes and other factors could not dissemble the original molecular conglomerates. That resiliency/internal protective factor led to a proliferation of complexity (increased information content”worked”) so that while death by predation, earthquake or famine were still possibilities, the real competitor (the bacteria and viruses) were coming under increasing control. This is a speculative notion but perhaps offers a less random alternative to natural selection.