John Wilkins, over at Evolving Thoughts has been making a pretty persuasive case that trying to apply concepts like “information” to biology is mostly a waste of time. In Part One, he covers what the concept of information actually is and why it’s such a clunker when it comes to describing biological systems. In Part Two, he defends a view of biology where information is just an abstract way of modeling things, not a property of those things itself.
Wilkins gets a bit technical, but a key take-away point is that defining exactly what we mean by “information” is extremely tricky: there are several complicated formulations of the concept, and they are generally incompatible with each other. We can’t possibly apply the idea of information to biological systems unless we nail down what we are looking for (most Intelligent Design arguments trip up at this very first step: they never specify what they mean by information in the first place).
Even once we’ve done that it’s still not clear exactly what we should be measuring. What is the information of biology? DNA code seems like an obvious candidate, but its clearly an incomplete one: so much of what biology is and how it works is contextual: it assumes certain things about what’s in the cells (including things that have their own evolving RNA code) and what environment those cells will find themselves in. Nor is DNA the only candidate: there are entire gene pools to consider (where arguably most of the information relevant to evolution is best captured), the functional complexity of an organism (which is not simply an expression DNA code), and so on.
Finally, there’s the problem that information may be the wrong model altogether, missing the subtleties that make biology distinctive from computer science. DNA, for instance, isn’t simply information read and then translated by a program. It’s a physical, tangible, and causal object, and its particular chemical properties and reactions are part of the process, rather than deviations or errors in the sole task of record keeping. Biology, the fantasies of creationists about “random processes” aside, is all about complex chains of causality, and those chains extend backwards from our DNA all the way to the origin of life. Any meager measure of “information” is going to simply miss all of that.
With all those difficulties in defining and applying the idea of “information” to biology, it’s little wonder that many pseudo-scientists have gotten accustomed to talking about “information” in much the same way they talk about “energy”: as a sort of cipher for whatever unexplained bit of mysticism they happen to be pushing at the moment. Some woo-mesiters have even claimed that energy is information and vice-versa. This guy even cutely claims that Energy is “In-formation.” Get it?
No? Well, good: there’s nothing much there to get. There’s not even a hint of any understanding of information theory or energy in such babbling (other than “lots of really complex stuff!” and “glowing ball of lifepower!”)
And that’s the real problem with “information”-talk: because it’s such a difficult concept to apply to biological processes, the potential for error and confusion are always high. And if even biologists and information theorists aren’t sure what “information” should mean in terms of biology, you can bet that tossing the term out to laypeople is a recipe for intellectual disaster and creationist exploitation.