Noyce Conference Room
Working Group

All day


Our campus is closed to the public for this event.


Information theory is an extraordinarily rich framework for analyzing the storage and transmission of information. The accurate storage and transmission is obviously an important issue in biology. Consequently, information theory has led to many deep insights into biological processes ranging from cellular functioning through social behavior in animals up to evolutionary dynamics.

In essence, all living organisms maintain a state far from thermal equilibrium by expending energy acquired from the environment; they perform computations to acquire and metabolize energy and enact chemical transformations; they are able to do so because they have meaningful information about the external environment. A bacterium “knows” that chemotaxis can lead it to energetic resources necessary for growth, maintenance, and reproduction; a frog “knows” that it can flick its tongue toward moving dark spots and hope to capture the free energy stored in the form of a volant insect. This meaningful information is acquired in the course of biological evolution, and it is stored in the organism’s genome.

These considerations do not only apply to non-human biological organisms and social groups of such organisms; they also apply to human social systems. After all, human society is a system that maintains a state far from thermal equilibrium in a given environment. Indeed, the basic problem of human history is understanding how and why it has moved further away from equilibrium over time: in other words, why do human societies grow? Usually, this question (when it is asked at all) is approached in terms of increasing control of energy. Our proposition, inspired by a belief in deep connections between physics, biology, and culture, is that the interplay of energy and information might offer a more complete understanding.


Kyle HarperKyle HarperProfessor of Classics and Letters at the University of Oklahoma; Fractal Faculty, SFI
David WolpertDavid WolpertProfessor at the Santa Fe Institute

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