Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 23, Issue 1, pp 27-45

Propagating organization: an enquiry

  • Stuart KauffmanAffiliated withInstitute for Biocomplexity and Informatics, University of Calgary
  • , Robert K. LoganAffiliated withInstitute for Biocomplexity and Informatics, University of CalgaryDepartment of Physics, University of Toronto Email author 
  • , Robert EsteAffiliated withInstitute for Biocomplexity and Informatics, University of Calgary
  • , Randy GoebelAffiliated withDepartment of Computer Science, University of Alberta
  • , David HobillAffiliated withDepartment of Physics and Astronomy, University of Calgary
  • , Ilya ShmulevichAffiliated withInstitute for Systems Biology

Rent the article at a discount

Rent now

* Final gross prices may vary according to local VAT.

Get Access


Our aim in this article is to attempt to discuss propagating organization of process, a poorly articulated union of matter, energy, work, constraints and that vexed concept, “information”, which unite in far from equilibrium living physical systems. Our hope is to stimulate discussions by philosophers of biology and biologists to further clarify the concepts we discuss here. We place our discussion in the broad context of a “general biology”, properties that might well be found in life anywhere in the cosmos, freed from the specific examples of terrestrial life after 3.8 billion years of evolution. By placing the discussion in this wider, if still hypothetical, context, we also try to place in context some of the extant discussion of information as intimately related to DNA, RNA and protein transcription and translation processes. While characteristic of current terrestrial life, there are no compelling grounds to suppose the same mechanisms would be involved in any life form able to evolve by heritable variation and natural selection. In turn, this allows us to discuss at least briefly, the focus of much of the philosophy of biology on population genetics, which, of course, assumes DNA, RNA, proteins, and other features of terrestrial life. Presumably, evolution by natural selection—and perhaps self-organization—could occur on many worlds via different causal mechanisms. Here we seek a non-reductionist explanation for the synthesis, accumulation, and propagation of information, work, and constraint, which we hope will provide some insight into both the biotic and abiotic universe, in terms of both molecular self reproduction and the basic work energy cycle where work is the constrained release of energy into a few degrees of freedom. The typical requirement for work itself is to construct those very constraints on the release of energy that then constitute further work. Information creation, we argue, arises in two ways: first information as natural selection assembling the very constraints on the release of energy that then constitutes work and the propagation of organization. Second, information in a more extended sense is “semiotic”, that is about the world or internal state of the organism and requires appropriate response. The idea is to combine ideas from biology, physics, and computer science, to formulate explanatory hypotheses on how information can be captured and rendered in the expected physical manifestation, which can then participate in the propagation of the organization of process in the expected biological work cycles to create the diversity in our observable biosphere. Our conclusions, to date, of this enquiry suggest a foundation which views information as the construction of constraints, which, in their physical manifestation, partially underlie the processes of evolution to dynamically determine the fitness of organisms within the context of a biotic universe.


Propagating organization Constraints Information Shannon Work Semiosis Adjacent possible