Philosophy Colloquium
Brett Calcott
Center for Advanced Modeling at John Hopkins University
From Circuits to Signals: A New Perspective on Genetic Information

Understanding how gene regulatory networks work, and how they evolve, is central to understanding the evolution of complex phenotypes. A common way to model these networks is to represent genes as simple boolean logic switches, and networks as complex circuits of these switches wired together. Such models have been used to explore theoretical issues about adaptation and evolvability, and have successfully captured the key workings of well-studied developmental systems.

In this paper, I introduce a model in this same tradition, but one that explicitly incorporates recent philosophical work on signaling systems. The primary work is by Brian Skyrms, who has extended David Lewis’s ideas from “Convention”, placing them in an evolutionary context and connecting them to information theory. Skyrms uses these ideas to show how evolutionary processes can “create information” (and perhaps even proto-meaning). The model thus provides an important bridge between a standard tool for thinking about gene regulatory evolution, and new ideas about evolution of communication, information, and meaning.

I discuss two initial results from exploring this model. First, I show that the models provide a clear way to underwrite some “information-talk” in developmental biology that has been previously dismissed by philosophers. Second, I show how one shortcoming of the Lewis/Skyrms model — the inability to distinguish directive and assertive force — connects to recent ideas about evolvability in gene regulatory networks.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Skinner 1115