Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 26, Issue 2, pp 159–176 | Cite as

The transmission sense of information

  • Carl T. Bergstrom
  • Martin RosvallEmail author


Biologists rely heavily on the language of information, coding, and transmission that is commonplace in the field of information theory developed by Claude Shannon, but there is open debate about whether such language is anything more than facile metaphor. Philosophers of biology have argued that when biologists talk about information in genes and in evolution, they are not talking about the sort of information that Shannon’s theory addresses. First, philosophers have suggested that Shannon’s theory is only useful for developing a shallow notion of correlation, the so-called “causal sense” of information. Second, they typically argue that in genetics and evolutionary biology, information language is used in a “semantic sense,” whereas semantics are deliberately omitted from Shannon’s theory. Neither critique is well-founded. Here we propose an alternative to the causal and semantic senses of information: a transmission sense of information, in which an object X conveys information if the function of X is to reduce, by virtue of its sequence properties, uncertainty on the part of an agent who observes X. The transmission sense not only captures much of what biologists intend when they talk about information in genes, but also brings Shannon’s theory back to the fore. By taking the viewpoint of a communications engineer and focusing on the decision problem of how information is to be packaged for transport, this approach resolves several problems that have plagued the information concept in biology, and highlights a number of important features of the way that information is encoded, stored, and transmitted as genetic sequence.


Information Evolution Shannon theory Natural selection Entropy Mutual information 


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Copyright information

© US Government 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of BiologyUniversity of WashingtonSeattleUSA
  2. 2.Santa Fe InstituteSanta FeUSA

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