Biological Information, Causality and Specificity - an Intimate Relationship

In Sara Imari Walker, Paul Davies & George Ellis (eds.), From Matter to Life: Information and Causality. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. pp. 366-390 (2017)
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Abstract
In this chapter we examine the relationship between biological information, the key biological concept of specificity, and recent philosophical work on causation. We begin by showing how talk of information in the molecular biosciences grew out of efforts to understand the sources of biological specificity. We then introduce the idea of ‘causal specificity’ from recent work on causation in philosophy, and our own, information theoretic measure of causal specificity. Biological specificity, we argue, is simple the causal specificity of certain biological processes. This, we suggest, means that causal relationships in biology are ‘informational’ relationships simply when they are highly specific relationships. Biological information can be identified with the storage, transmission and exercise of biological specificity. It has been argued that causal relationships should not be regarded as informational relationship unless they are ‘arbitrary’. We argue that, whilst arbitrariness is an important feature of many causal relationships in living systems, it should not be used in this way to delimit biological information. Finally, we argue that biological specificity, and hence biological information, is not confined to nucleic acids but distributed among a wide range of entities and processes.
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