On Partitioning

The notion of partitioning is central to understanding information in living systems, and we can use the concept when discussing issues on a number of levels. It has become a pivotal concept in an analysis of the situated analysis of human conduct.

There is no information without partitioning - there is no information in an isolated entity. At least two alternatives are necessary for the possibility of information. A domain is defined by what it is not as well as what it is. In binary partitioning we have one bit of information:

A | B

where " | " may be equivalent to an event

Partitioning in the development of organisms: reaching in infants in movement from global whole body movement to increasingly differentiated movement of arm and hand is an instance of partitioning of the motor sphere. As in other instances of partitioning the motor activities are directed toward organization of the environment. Thus the initial set of partitionings is morphological/postural.

The development of language in the young child is another instance of partitioning - active process of partitioning. In the beginning there may be simply a binary partitioning "doggie" and "mommie". The categories of animals and persons will then be gradually expanded to include different animals (dog, cat, horse) in the "doggie" category and other persons in the "mommie" category in a process of continuing partitioning.

Partitioning in the social sphere.

Let's first present some materials from information theory:

The study of living systems is the study of change, of process, of development. Central to understanding the process of biological change is the notion of "information." Despite the well-worked out concepts of information in communications engineering, the notion is still going through a difficult period of adaptation as a useful concept for understanding living systems.

Information theory was elaborated in the area of communications engineering as part of a solution to achieve maximum efficiency of telephone communications. The resulting mathematical theory of communication was invaluable when rigourously applied to communication problems in engineering, but it has been loosely extended to all communication by living organisms (Shannon, C. & Weaver, W.(1949). A Mathematical Model of Communication. Urbana, IL; University of Illinois Press). An argument may be made that living organisms differ in significant ways from the relatively simple systems that communication theorists were originally working with. Hence, the utility of the information-theory account for research in the life sciences must be re-examined, along with the ways in which it has been extended to living organisms.

Information theory separated the concept of information from thermodynamic considerations as it had been used in physics. Used in statistical treatments of messages moving through channels from sources to receivers

Oyama, S. (1985). The Ontogeny of Information: Developmental Systems and Evolution. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press.>

1. Information as communication:

"What is fundamental to the communications concept of information is its purely statistical nature; content and meaning are not considerations, but predictability is. The amount of information transmitted, that is, depends on the number of alternatives; an event that reduces no uncertainty carries no information. In the same way that a variable becomes a determinant when it accounts for a difference in outcome, a message conveys information when it distinguishes one possibility from another (p. 65, italics added)."
When the system is well-defined, then quantification may be possible. Those factors which do not vary can "neither account for variability nor convey information" (compare to experimental design). The possibility of variation, limits on variation, is constrained by the factors held constant, like controlled variables in an experiment. Constraints reduce degrees of freedom, thereby limiting the variability of variables.

Information Theory and Biological Systems

In biology, this statistical or probability-based interpretation of information is rarely present, and even less so in the human sciences. Communication theory is generally invoked in a very loose manner. For example, in a living organism it is not clearly evident what should be defined as the source, channel and receiver. The source is that which selects symbols from a set and encodes a message. We could argue that any level of analysis constitutes the source - the "zygote...whose DNA is assembled at fertilization, or that the process of reproduction, or the species or the gene pool is the source. The channel might be ontogeny itself."

Biological systems are open systems, unlike the physical systems dealt with by communication theorists. This was an important conceptualization in trying to explain the presence of living systems (order-producing) in a universe that was moving toward entropy. What "open system" implies here is that the "system" consists of multiple levels - organism and its environment. The distinction between organism and environment is blurred...as is the distinction between "levels."

In the relatively closed systems of the information theorist, information may be degraded but not increased. In ontogeny, the system is an open one in which energy is dissipated but complexity increased.

"The engineer's message can only be harmed or lost by transmission, while the ontogenetic "message" is created in transmission (p. 65)."
The receiver's characteristics are an important determinant of the amount of information transmitted. "The significance of any information influencing developmental processes, in other words, whether from genetic transcription or from other events, is defined by the developing system itself."

Information is "a difference that makes a difference."

Information theory is very commonly invoked today in explaining many things - from the physical universe to computers to the brain. It has become a metaphor. In the first part of this section Oyama presents some examples of its use by investigators.

Information theory has become a part of our vocabulary, but it has fit in well with previous categories of explanation.

"One of the problems I will address then, is the idea of developmental information in the chromosomes. What does it explain? What is it information about? What important questions does it or does it not clarify? When is it invoked metaphorically and what could it mean to treat it literally? When, if ever, does it really help us understand how the living world is constituted and what the prospects for that world are? (p. 5)"
We often speak today as if "information" were a third force in the world, with equal status to energy and matter. "Both the initiation and course of biological change are a function of developmental systems, and there is no evidence that our notions of matter and energy exchanges, themselves admittedly evolving, are inadequate to describe them. Adding information to matter and energy is something like speaking of nations exchanging dollars, yen and profits. The third term belongs on a different level. Not another currency, it describes a certain disposition and use of currencies. Just as time or information can, under certain circumstances, "be" money, matter and energy can sometimes "be" information (p. 34-35)."
2. Information as causal control: variations and constraints
(as cause and contingency of) "At present, all that needs to be pointed out is that these exchanges often suggest, whatever the other philosophical biases of the speaker, a "preformationist" attitude toward information. It exists before its utilization or expression. Some views allow assembly of information from a variety of sources, but this in turn implies that it exists in several loci before being collected; such views thus perpetuate the mistake while seeming to correct it. In addition, information is conceived to be a special kind of cause among all the factors that may be necessary for a phenomenon, the cause that imparts order and form to matter. The alternative to such a preformationist attitude toward form is not a classical epigenetic one. Not only did this traditionally require that order arise from chaos, an unsatisfactory solution at best, but it often posited a vitalistic force as well, to effect the recurrent miracle. This brings us full circle to the preexisting form, this time ready to inform the formless, rather than simply waiting to unfold. Instead, it is ontogenesis, the inherently orderly but contingent coming into being, that expresses what is essential about the emergence of pattern and form without trapping us in infinite cognitive regress (where was the pattern before it got here?). A proper view of ontogeny, however, that doesn't simply resolve into one of the old ones, requires that the idea of ontogenesis apply not only to bodies and minds, but to information, plans and all the other cognitive-causal entities...that supposedly regulate their development. Developmental information itself, in other words, has a developmental history. It neither preexists its operations nor arises from random disorder. It is neither necessary, in an ultimate sense, nor a function of pure chance, though contingency and variation are crucial to its formation and its function. Information is a difference that makes a difference, and what it "does" or what it means is thus dependent on what is already in place and what alternatives are being distinguished.(p. 2-3)"
(as cause) "The discovery of DNA and its confirmation of a gene theory that had long been in search of its material agent offered an enormously attractive apparent solution to the puzzle of the origin and perpetuation of living form. A material object housed in every part of the organism, the gene semed to bridge the gap betwen inert matter and design; in fact, genetic information, by virtue of the meanings of in- formation as "shaping" and as "animating," promised to supply just the cognitive and causal functions needed to make a heap of chemicals into a being (p. 12)."
(as cause) "In such information-based treatments of biological processes, then, a transition is quickly made from formal considerations of numbers of alternatives and reduction of uncertainty to the familiar concerns with causal control of development and adaptation. A related transition is that between the restricted analytical use of genetic determination or control as explanation of differences within or across populations (a use that, being based on correlation, is compatible with information theory) and as explanation of kinds of development (maturational, canalized, governed by epigenetic rules) and characters (innate, biological, programmed, phylogenetically derived). This shift from information as a measure of unpredictability to information as an explanation of predictability is frequent and unreflective, and, given the technical legitimacy of terms like "determinant" and "control" in certain contexts, lend a similar legitimacy to their misuse" (p. 67).
Control cannot be identified with one aspect of a process. It is contingent, causally interdependent processes.
(as commodity)"In an increasingly technological, computerized world, information is a prime commodity, and when it is used in biological theorizing it is granted a kind of atomistic autonomy as it moves from place to place, is gathered, stored, imprinted and translated. It has a history only insofar as it is accumulated or transferred. Information, the modern source of form, is seen to reside in molecules, cells, tissues, "the environment," often latent but causally potent, allowing these entities to recognize, select and instruct each other, to construct each other and themselves, to regulate, control, induce, direct and determine events of all kinds. When something marvelous happens, whether it be the precise choreography of an "instinctive" behavior or the formation of an embryonic structure, the question is always, Where did the information come from? Was it already in the animal or the developing tissue, or did it have to be put in through learning or perhaps some embryological organizer? Was selection or instruction responsible? Is this a phylogenetic or an ontogenetic adaptation? (Was the information acquired by the species or must it have been acquired through individual experience?) The ease with which extreme nature and nurture positions are parodied ensures that no one will stand behind either straw man. No one really argues, that is, either that livers and ideas are literally int he cell or that organism are devoid of structure, pristine pages on which anything at all may be written (and even a page has structure!). Or. to put it in negative terms, no one contends that either developmental conditions or the genes are totally irrelevant to development. Any locution that dissociates one from the straw man even minimally, however, seems to offer protection from criticism. Encoded potential and biological constraints, then allow everyone to return to work, the pesky conceptual issues behind them, peace apparently restored (p. 1-2).
(as constituted by the developmental system)" In fact, the habit of thinking about phylogeny and ontogeny as alternative processes whereby information enters the organism is the very frame on which our endless nature- nurture disputations are woven. Nativism and empiricism require each other as do warp and weft. What they share is the belief that information can preexist the processes that give rise to it. Yet information "in the genes" or "in the environment" is not biologically relevant until it participates in phenotypic processes. Once this happens, it becomes meaningful in the organism only as it is constituted by its developmental system. The result is not more information but significant information (p. 13).
(as constituted by the developmental system) "The significance of any information influencing developmental processes...whether from genetic transcription or from other events, is defined by the developing system itself (p. 66)."
(contingency of) "Chromosomal form is an interactant in the choreography of ontogeny; the "information" it imparts or the form it influences in the emerging organism depends on what dance is being performed, when, where and with whom (p. 22)."
("as difference that makes a difference") "The "informational" significance of any developmental influence, as we have seen, depends on the state of the entire developmental system, including genes, phenotype and relevant aspects of surround, and on the level and the type of analysis. Developmental state is a kind of temporal slice through the life cycle. It carries the evidence of past gene transcriptions, mechanical influences inside and outside the organism, results of past activities, nutrition or the lack of it, and so on, and it has certain prospects for change. If we are guided by the notion of information as the difference that makes a difference, then what developmental interactant makes a difference depends on what is developing, and how. Understanding ontogeny becomes partly a matter of charting the shifts from one source of change (including intraorganismic processes) to another, as one interaction alters the developmental system in a way that provides transition to the next. Equally important are the means whereby stability is achieved. In addition, the organism can be investigated at the behavioral, physiological or other level, and comparisons made between a system and itself at an earlier time, among members of the same species, between a species and its phylogenetic ancestors or its contemporary relatives; again, what makes a difference depends on what question is being asked.
Some traditional nature-nurture questions can thus be restated in terms of developmental systems. The benefit of this restatement is that it makes clear what is really being asked, and therefore what would constitute an answer. The mischief of the nature-nurture complex was that it conflated questions and answers both, so that an apparently spontaneous change in behavioral patter, for example, was attributed to the genes, and thus concluded to be unchangeable in the individual, to be universal in the species, to show cross-species identity. Conversely, a cross-species resemblance was taken to mean that no learning had taken place, that no learning would have an impact, that the trait was more real than others that did not show such resemblance. To gain information we need to specify a context and a set of possibilities. It is in this sense that organisms generate information (Klopfer, 1969, 1973, p. 27), and it is in much the same sense that scientists do. Events do not carry already existing information about their effects from one place to the next, the way we used to think copies of objects had to travel to our minds for us to perceive them. They are given meaning by what they distinguish. This why a gene has different effects in different tissues and at different times, why a stimulus calls out different responses, including no response, at different times or in different creatures, and why an observation that is meaningless or anomalous at one stage of an investigation or to one person becomes definitive under other circumstances. A difference that makes a difference at one level of analysis, furthermore, may or may not make a difference at another. This is, in fact, the key to understanding apparent spontaneity...(p. 143-144).

Problems in moving from Information Theory as applied to communications (simple systems) to living systems.

The "open system."
The "complex system."

Back to top
Back to Roadmarks Main Page
Back to Home Page

E-Mail: Laurence E. Heglar, PhD