Information evolution -
in past and future history
Language is certainly an information structure; money and markets are also; as is
music and computer programs and various associated data. Human perceptual and cognitive
skills belong to the same realm of information handling systems, evolved as they have by
some process, most often described in Darwinian terms.
Competition, selection, mutation; is that all there is to it? Over a long period of
time, with replication and reproduction taking terms? How did it all start in clay
structures, in different chemicals symbiotically merging? And without the particular
properties of water and of carbon and carbon based chemistry life and the information that
it depends upon would have been impossible.1
We should not here be engaged in a full blown discussion of intricate arguments as to how
evolution may have come about, we are only and that is not a small order either,
though more restricted concerned with the processes whereby information, and
especially information handling systems, may emerge.
1. The power of spontaneous positive feedback
2. The information power of specialization
3. Information versus our environment
4. Economy in information handling, too
5. How may music be of service to genes?
6. Patterns to economize, and to lead astray
7. Strands to turn evolution into development
About the author
The first proposition is autocatalysis. A catalyst is an agent that promotes,
facilitates, or produces a certain chemical reaction without being part of the end result,
without being consumed. Thus it can be used for the same purpose over and over again.
Let's assume we have just two molecules in some vessel or environment, A and B. If they
are allowed to combine into sets of two also, we may have these two single molecules, plus
AA, BB, AB, and BA, assuming the two latter are structurally different. That's six
different combinations.2 Allowing
for combinations also of three molecules adds another eight, making the total sum of
fourteen. Four molecules admits another power of two to the club, another sixteen,
bringing the sum up to thirty.
Molecules combine and the combinations are dissolved again. But if the combination BAAB
were to catalyze the combining of AA and B to make AAB, then AAB would be privileged.
Assuming that this agent in its turn catalyzes the formation of ABA which makes for a
catalyzed reaction forming BABA, creating a catalytic reaction resulting in AAAAA. Which
we assume would be the catalyst facilitating new production of BAAB. Now we have a closed
loop. Against the background of all random combinations and reactions, this series of
catalytic events is self-reinforcing it is autocatalytic. It will grow and grow in
strength. There has beedn created a privileged route to the formation of certain
combinations of more intricate molecule aggregates.
This is a process of scaffolding, of self-reinforcing processes that is rather general.
In a language, there may be letters or hieroglyphs. These may be combined to make for
words, if the hieroglyphs aren't already words or concepts. The words allow for the
production of sentences, these being combined into novels or theatre pieces or studies in
the nature of information. The scaffolding may take different vistas: we may feel that the
Western letters constitute an economic way to learning but should not forget that a
Japanese can decipher a Chinese script despite the fact that the two languages are
entirely different (and it has been suggested by linguists that the Chinese kanji system
is almost the least suited for representing the structure of the Japanese language) just
because of the inherent meaning of the kanji signs.
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In a society of farmers, no one is specializing very much, though small villages are
formed to facilitate joint defense against intruders, and possibly a feudal structure is
emerging, with the reciprocate provision of protection and some payment in kind. Then,
slowly, some farmers get more specialized in various handicrafts: someone is a good
carpenter, someone can undertake to butcher, having more utensils. The blacksmith is
dependent upon resources such as hydropower and fire.
Specialization turns out to be a self-reinforcing process. Specialists produce
products, not just services: the butcher may make sausages and dry hams, the blacksmith
makes axes, ploughbills, and knives. Learning is taking place, knowledge has to be
transmitted from master to apprentice, tools are being developed in conjunction with the
new craft. But the butcher and the blacksmith have to get their food from other producers
specialists in farming that may now develop into niches such as dairy production,
sheep, oats, wine, or whatever. Markets and towns are emerging,3 a new structure of society, and one that has been caused by
self-reinforcing processes, by scaffolding and by the economy inherent in the
information processing allowed for by the growing specialization.
Specialization equals more information mastered; not by any single individual, but
rather by the system, the market network itself. The basic point is that "information
wants to be free" that the system can accumulate more information the less
controlled it is in the sense that there is a central planning or controlling authority.
That is not to say that there must not be any rules regulating the free information
exchange, the specialization process, and the communication involved.
To facilitate the process, there was, historically, the continuation of a feudal
structure but now with subtly different means and functions. There is the evolution of
something akin to money or monetary instruments, something facilitating economic exchange,
be that salt, pepper, cocoa, or gold. That money is growing more and more abstract, thus
more and more recursive;4 money has
value because it has value because it is money that has... The growing specialization
makes for more varied opinions, judgements, morals, not less, and this growth would seem
to preclude the "ends" forecast to be imminent the end of history, the
end of science.
This scaffolding, these recursive processes take place within a system. It is not just
the blind mutations, competition, and selection that characterizes Darwinian evolution;
but it is that too. There are computer languages that have been designed so that they can
evolve by themselves, like Lisp, designed for work in Artificial Intelligence. These may
be used for modelling the kind of self-organizing processes and structures that we are
trying to describe in a general way.
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Self-organization seems, as we just said, to be the only way to go for handling vast
amounts of information. This would seem also to apply on our concerns for the environment,
for the impact of mankind on the global ecology. This too may be described in information
notions. Think, for example, of a copper pan, used for the preparation of food. If copper
is growing more scarce, prices that carrier of information in an economy go
up, and there may be substitutes for copper launched, aluminium or whatever.
Copper is thus not necessary, but neither is, at close scrutiny, the pan. We like to
have our food cooked, to make it healthy, perhaps, and to get it tasty enough. The taste,
however, may in some future be generated through information fed into our
nerves directly, so we could make good cooks operate in a world of virtual reality.5 The basic need, besides the pleasure
evolving out of that information package, is for energy to make or work, and that energy
might be provided through other means entirely, healthy certainly, and without any effects
on the nature whatever, just relying upon the most energy efficient production methods and
those least impacting on the ecology.
Biology, language, society, ecology all those examples hint at a series of
hierarchical levels. Sentences become paragraphs, paragraphs chapters, chapters become
The early craft specializations were neither the first nor the last steps on an
evolutionary ladder. Complexity science has been developed in the last fifteen years or so
to attempt to come to grips with the general structures and laws behind self-reorganizing
processes providing there are any such generalities. The basic idea is that at the
most primitive level there are only a few different types of components perhaps
some more than our As and Bs and that these are linked to each other by simple
rules. But it is the shear numbers that cause complexity to evolve from such simplicity.
There would seem to be certain patterns that are recurrent; among the vast space of
diverging possibilities, only a few gain currency with a word from chaos
mathematics, there seem to be attractors, making for a remarkable stability of
development. We can only speculate as to the development of information structures and one
such obvious principle is the one of economy.
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What, for example, could be the origin of music? For an individual to be able to defend
himself or herself, to wield a spear, to throw a stone with precision, against a foe,
human or animal, precision is of paramount importance, i e, some kind of rhythm in the
movement. To trigger the right sequence of motions, it might be done by invoking a
particular rhythm. And so, music is born. Perhaps throwing the stone or the spear turned
on pacing one's steps and dance was born.
The better music is the one that serves some such purpose for survival. That also stays
in the ear, that bears repeating, that is melodious and catching enough. Thus a number of
melodies are created, evolved, refined, weeded out, improved developed and, some,
The same for the telling of stories, stories that evolved to become legends about
heroes but which also served to impart some important lessons, some useful knowledge.
Studies of bards in the former Yugoslavia showed that since they could not conceivably
remember the enormously long stories, with intricate rhyming and alliteration, there were
a number of standard tricks of the trade, ranging from standard epithets (like Homer used
them) to rhythm, rhyme, alliteration,, and, of course, a certain set of characters and a
basic story line.
This is an example of economy as directly applied in a process of imparting
information. Even more economic would be a system that could do without information
handling. It is just too plain easy to see information as a central resource or base for
action or decisions and control everywhere. A simple example serves so as to caution this
view a bit.
Make a puppet with the proportions of a human being. Most essentially, equip the legs
with joints such as those that we have, wrist, knee, hip. Then place the little doll on a
reclining surface. And it will start walking down, somewhat awkwardly perhaps, but
steadily and without any real problems. By the same token, it has been demonstrated that
it is sufficient with just a few neurones to make a robot act like an insect there
may be "less to animal behavior than meets the eye".6
Thus nature offers us a number of ingenious designs that we knew already
which are also extremely economic in the handling of information. We certainly know that
our nervous system displays parts which are autonomous, offering a responsibility sharing
between centralized and decentralized functions, but the walking piece of mechanics shows
that a good design may be for little need to resort on information in the actual execution
of a particular task.
There is thus a tradeoff between design and demand for information handling. We must
steel ourselves against believing that there is the necessity of introducing information
as a basic resource emerging just about everywhere. We must learn to see and to understand
the very tradeoffs involved.
In the case just related there is no information handling involved. In most cases
tradeoffs may be concealed or convoluted. Thus the development of animals with a constant
temperature like the humans' 37°C meant a drastic reduction in the genetic codes: the DNA
program was much reduced. Likewise, mammals have reduced genetic encoding for cultural
endowments the young ones are fed, protected, and taught in a highly protected
environment, first the womb, then the nest.
The genetic code was reduced; human brains seem to have shrunk, possibly because of
this development towards more economy. Our brains, by the way, carry a huge handicap:
first, they require a long period to develop before birth, then they depend for nurture
and shelter many more years all of this expenses and vulnerabilities in a hostile
Since we have followed the route of the selfish gene, of genes carrying all what we
inherit, we should add a caution, discovered, tentatively only recently. "But there
are tantalising hints that you inherit something else as well."7 Some evidence suggests that changes in the "instruction
manual" for the actual operations of the genes can sometimes be passed from parent to
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5. How may music be of service to genes?
Evolution in the biological sense is an inherently slow process so we should only
expect cognition and perception to mirror priorities, perhaps stark necessities, in eras
bygone. Let us get back again to music, art, and literature. We must assume that music,
painting, literature would not have developed had they not served some purposes for the
proliferation of our species. Why else would we find art, and fine and technically
sophisticated art at that, in caverns used singularly for this purpose some 30 000 years
ago, or, with the latest finds, even before that? Those paintings were made under the most
excruciating circumstances; still with an acumen that is just stunning.
Music and literature are more difficult to trace but for some remnants of what might
have been musical instruments. A 60 000 year old bone fragment, found in Slovenia, looks
like a flute. Long time before writing was invented, speech developed. Music and poetry
and some other speech habits share the prevalence for rhythm. It would seem as if much the
same faculties were needed for the production of music as were required for speech, and so
we can only try to analyse whether ancient skulls of early humans and their hominid
forebears had the physical abilities to produce sounds, especially vowels. This
presupposes a vocal tract resembling ours, and since this is of soft tissue, there are no
fossils but those leaving sufficient room for such tissue.
Another way of going about the problem is to collect music from different parts of the
world. Music exists everywhere but while there are many similarities, there is no single
feature that all music shares. Most music follows a regular beat but not all. There
is a set of distinct notes everywhere but if the rules that those constitute are broken,
the result may still be regarded as music. So rules are to be broken, but only so much
musical anarchy is tolerated. If a scale is played to a (Canadian) baby twice, changing
one note on the second occasion, then the baby discerns the change more often if the scale
is diatonic, i e, when the notes are unequally spaced in pitch, such as in Western music
than if it is a whole-tone scale.8 The
Slovenian flute (?) fragment displays holes corresponding to a diatonic scale.
It is disputed whether the Neanderthals could manage to speak. Thus current estimates
as to when speech first became possible range from 40 000 to two million years ago; there
is little consensus. An indirect way to reach a conclusion is to assume that speech would
allow for sophisticated collaboration, information sharing and transmission, and the
consequent development and utilisation of new tools, traced by latter day archaeologists.
Such tools indicate the appearance of speech no earlier than 100 000 years ago.
When musicians listen to music or when they make it, they activate the same parts of
the brain (among other areas) as those which are used in conversation. Thus it would seem
that the brain regards music as a form of language. But an untrained musician, whistling a
wordless tune, will activate the right hemisphere equivalent of the left hemisphere area
used for the same persons speech. This specialization on the right and the left hand side
of the brain is poorly understood but it is different between man and woman: women display
it less markedly.
Evolution would normally not create different development paths for men and women,
since the ecology is the same. There is one exception, however, and that is of course
related to the production of offspring. Women can produce only a limited number of
offspring regardless of how many mates they have, and would thus want to mate with the
best available male. A male shares this predilection but may, in addition, increase the
proliferation of his genes by mating with many females, regardless of their
"quality" (remember, this is the selfish gene talking). The end result is male
rivalry, often leading to violence, allowing the females to choose which male to mate
with. Therefore males tend to develop characteristics serving to convince females that
they are "the best".
Through the link "rivalryviolence", researchers have arrived at the
statistics for murder as a proxy for this male tendency to demonstrate his desirability.
Murder rates vary greatly from place to place but regardless of rate, they are mostly
performed by males and they show the same age profile everywhere. The age group most at
risk to become murderers is the one between 20 and 25; then it tails off. This coincides
with the age when men are sexually most potent. It now turns out that musical production
shows an activity curve much resembling this murder curve, with the peak at a somewhat
higher age, 30, according to a thorough study of jazz albums released in the US and Europe
since 1940. Musicians are predominantly male, possibly because their greater predilection
for showing off. Music then serves as a way of demonstrating physical fitness. Singing
loudly requires good health, singing in tune good muscle control, singing many different
songs good memory. Love songs may indeed transfer some other messages than those of their
So we concluded that economy was one factor in human information handling. But then
this drive to show off may lead to a blatant dissipation of energy, of a demonstrative
urge to forgo economy, just for the male to show the abundance of his power. This is the
argument why the peacock carries such a grandiose, but also useless, tail. We learn that
while we may construct such stories which contain more or less likely explanations, we
must be wary not to dream up stories that make for good fairy tales but which have little
or no explanatory power. The point must be that there should be some different ways of
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One avenue to economy would be to organize, to see, to identify patterns, patterns
being a way to reduce information, to compress it into a formula. Thus also why we are
sometimes fooled into seeing patterns where none are; psychologists have proven people
quite gullible to their own ideas about patterns concealed in, e g, a simple series of
numbers. That, by the way, is a popular pastime among practitioners of creativity: where
should we place the next letter, on the upper or on the lower line?
A EF H
On the other hand, that gullibility may lead astray, as the very word connotes. There
is an important law, laid down by Ross Ashby, the law of requisite variety. This law says
that to describe a complex system, the same level of complexity is needed.
This does not say that patterns cannot be found or used to reduce information.
Furthermore, it does not mean that we cannot structure a system hierarchically,
discounting unnecessary detail on levels subsidiary to the level of primary interest to
us. It just implies that we get a distorted view if we discard parts of the complexity on
the level that we are concerned with. The point has been made that the failure of planned
economies was due to disregard for the law of requisite variety. The planning could not
take into account all details, not all relevant details, partially also blinded by
Man as a seeker of patterns thus has to reconcile this instinct with the false allure
of chimera. Evolution bred behavioral patterns that sometimes may be at odds with modern
theory, science, or social organization. It has been regarded as entirely irrational and
primitive, for example, of proceeding like some Canadian Indians when choosing the next
area for the big hunt: throwing old bones to let magic decide the best direction. The
procedure, however, turns out to be an elaborate guarantee that hunting grounds are chosen
entirely at random, which means that there is less risk that the ecology at large will be
upset as it is when fishing, hunting, or deforestation creates such profound changes as to
not prevent the previous balance to be upheld, eventually threatening the whole venture,
possibly a trade, possibly even a culture.
It also turns out that when we handle mechanical tasks like receiving a ball thrown at
us, our movements, which seem automatic, more resemble those of Aristotelian physics than
Newtonian though we know Newton's to be the "correct" one (as long as Einstein's
relativistic effects have not to be taken into account), the Aristotelian some kind of
antique superstition, refuted from Galilei and onwards. The reason our senses react this
way is that if natural second order effects like friction, air resistance, etc are
included in the calculations as they may be in Newtonian physics of course
then the end result is more akin to Aristotle's version than to an ideal Newtonian model.
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So far, we have seen evolution as proceeding in a Darwinian way. There is variation,
competition, weeding out, but there is no progress, just opportunism. David Deutsch,
however, suggests that there are four strands in the fabric of reality that do indeed
point in a direction "forward", even while (as we saw in the previous chapter)
time may be a meaningless dimension in a quantum world.9
Apart from evolution, which may be seen as a more general process also, applying, e g,
with appropriate modifications, on the level of culture, quantum physics is indeed another
important strand of reality, in describing reality. Some results here seem paradoxical,
certainly when looked upon with our macroscopic eyes. If we apply the multi verse model,
introduced in the previous chapter, quantum physics for all its uncertainty is completely
deterministic. It can be so because the constant generation of new parallel universes, the
multi verse, realizing in parallel all those different options endowed in the uncertainty
of an indeterminate quantum state. As we have seen, this is far from classic physics, also
in the sense that while there is chaos the extreme dependence upon initial
conditions for many, perhaps most physical processes in the classic world, there is
no such thing in the quantum world. The spectra of chaos is of course linked to our quest
for knowledge, for gathering reliable information.
The third strand in this fabric is of another type entirely, the advancement of
knowledge in a process most often associated with the name of Karl Popper. When we
encounter a problem, an unresolved conundrum, we hypothesize pace Popper
as to how it may be explained. From our hypotheses, we try to design experiments to
refute or to validate them. So we arrive at a better understanding of the workings of our
world, until the next problem arises, and the next, and the next. The striving for ever
better explanations can be judged as progress: we leave a number of what previously were
enigmas integrated into our growing body of knowledge. Even false starts and hypotheses
eventually refuted thus contribute to our ever more detailed, ever deeper description of
The fourth strand, finally, is the one perhaps most closely associated with information
handling, the fact that there can exist Turing machines simulating all other computers.
Computers themselves can be used for simulating any number of aspects or workings of our
physical world any number? Yes, Deutsch makes the case that as long as we are
dependent upon physical processes, including the biochemistry of the neurons in the brain,
then it may all be simulated. It may require an enormous computer, but that is another
story. It may be very difficult to design, or to make evolve, the program, but that is
another story. It may take an infinitely long time, and that is not entirely another
story. Perhaps we have to slow down the thinking processes for the participant taken in by
the simulation so as to ascertain that everything seems to be acted out in real time,
allowing for all intricacies of reality, involving all the participant's senses.
So it is not another story, also because there are problems, and then there are
problems; there are phenomena and then there are phenomena. A number of problems turn out
to be tractable, that is, they may require an incredibly fast and powerful and memory rich
computer, but in the end they will be solved. Then there are problems or phenomena of such
a nature that they are intractable, meaning that the time and other requirements
number of computations, requirements for memory capacity grow exponentially. They
are simply growing too demanding for that most general type of computer, the Turing
computer, to handle.
There is a remedy, however, and that is the quantum computer, introduced in the
previous chapter. As we saw, we may use the fact that quantum indeterminacy allows for a
vastly greater amount of information to be handled simultaneously to create computers with
virtually unlimited capacity. Most importantly, where problems produce exponentially
increasing demands on an ordinary Turing computer, this generalized, "quantum Turing
computer" will see no more than a linear increase in demand for time and other
Applying the multiverse view, and accounting for the fact that entanglement of quantum
particles encompasses the whole of the universe, quantum effects combined with the
generalised quantum Turing computer makes for a seemingly bold forecast: the whole world
will, before the heat death of the multiverse, become one giant computer or omniscient
knowledge system. It might even be necessary, since life on Earth may be viable only for
an amazingly short time span, in cosmic terms that is, of another 41 000 years10 (we are currently at mid-life). At
current rates of energy requirements for computing and for information processing
increase, through the evolution of science, the Solar system has been calculated to
sustain 1070 bits, lasting no longer than 5 000 years.
There is no provision for some man made Armageddon, such as a nuclear holocaust or an
environmental catastrophe, in that scenario. It is based on fundamental physics, however,
and it tells something important about what to look for and what to expect in real long
term information and knowledge development. Our descendents, by the way, will not be human
but some kind of intelligent machines, designed by us, and permeating the values that we
hold. In a not too distant future, the claim is, we will discuss "equal rights for
machines" (or robots) in much the same way as was done for women, blacks, and others
from the last century.
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Bengt-Arne Vedin, Metamatic AB, är ansvarig for Ruben Rausings Fond för forskning om
nyföretagande och innovation, ledamot av regeringens Småföretagsdelegation, Teldoks
redaktionskommitté mm. Konsult, föreläsare och skribent. Tidigare adjungerad professor
i innovationskunskap vid Tekniska högskolan i Stockholm. Arbetar för närvarande bl a
med att för Institutet for Framtidsstudier, dit han också ar knuten, kartlägga
"fronten" vad gäller forskning och praxis inom kreativitet och innovation.
Längsta uppdrag: Teldoks redaktionskommitté, största engagemang: Ruben Rausings Fond.
(To the top)
Barrow, John D. & Tipler, Frank
J.: The Anthropic Cosmological Principle. Oxford University Press, Oxford 1996. (Back to the text)
Johnson, George: Fire in the
Mind. Vintage Books, New York NY 1996. (Back to the text)
Stewart, Ian & Cohen, Jack: Figments
of Reality. Cambridge University, Cambridge 1997. (Back to
Dyson, George: Darwin Among the
Machines. (Back to the text)
Barrow, John D. & Tipler, Frank
J.: The Anthropic Cosmological Principle. Oxford University Press, Oxford 1996. (Back to the text)
Graham-Rowe, Duncan: March the
Biobots. New Scientist, 5 December 1998 pp. 26-30. (Back
to the text)
Vines, Gail: Hidden inheritance. New
Scientist, 28 November 1998 pp. 26-30. (Back to the text)
"A sonic boon". The
Economist, June 7th, 1997 pp. 94-97. (Back to the text)
Deutsch, David: The Fabric of
Reality. (Back to the text)
Barrow, John D. & Tipler,
Frank J.: The Anthropic Cosmological Principle. Oxford University Press, Oxford
1996. (Back to the text)
© Bengt-Arne Vedin 1999
Return to Human IT 2/1999