The Thread of Life

Information is the immaterial force of life. About the book "The Thread of Life"

It is rare to meet "hard" scientists talking about the immaterial. They surprise themselves: it is not about religion or spirit, they repeat. What Pierre-Henri Gouyon, Jean-Louis Dessalles and Cédric Gaucherel want to talk to us about is information. Not news from newspapers or TV feeds. No, that which is hidden at the heart of living organisms and their projections, their cultural constructions. This information forms the thread of lifeThis is the title of their new book, which is to be hailed as a rare and courageous foray into a still mysterious world.
Tn the past few years, talented scientists from different backgrounds have met to try to unravel the complex web of life. They discovered the power of information. Pierre-Henri Gouyon is a professor at the Museum of Natural History. He is a biologist, geneticist, specialist in evolution, recognized and prolific. He is the author of an impressive number of books and articles on living things. He is also a fighter who works to defend biodiversity and alert us to the dangers of uncontrolled genetic manipulation. Jean-Louis Dessalles is Senior Lecturer at the University of Paris Saclay. He is both a specialist in language and artificial intelligence. His book To the origins of language is a reference point. Cédric Gaucherel is also an academic, a specialist in ecosystems and their interactions with animal and human life. In particular, he is in charge of research at the Institut national de la recherche agronomique (INRA).
Le pitch of the book collected during the meeting-debate with the authors, organized by UP'Magazine on 3 May 2016,
L'Hôtel de l'industrie (UP' / SEIN partnership) Place Saint Germain des Prés in Paris
What if some living entities are not material? "It is with these words that the authors describe, on the back cover, the primary intention of their book. Are there immaterial living entities, struggling for survival, capable of evolution? For the authors, these immaterial entities are information. « They exist through us, in our genes, in our culture, in our ecosystems... ".

Information of a different nature

For biologists, information is what replicates and forms the fabric of all living organisms. The gene carries the information and transmits it from person to person. In one sense, the gene uses living organisms as vehicles for reproduction. Does this mean that every being is only determined by its genes? No, the authors answer no. They observe that information of a non-biological nature forms organisms and is transmitted not only from individual to individual but from generation to generation.
This information is the thread of life, " which, although not material, has its own existence, which goes beyond that of individuals... ». In trying to decipher this thread of life, the authors know that they are entering an unstable terrain, which could lead them to discover a "new way of life". new logic of nature ». Of course, the notion of information is scientific in nature and there is nothing irrational about their arguments. The authors are scientists who need materiality. But in advancing in the field of information, they are aware of the risk of leaving the world of materiality. They are about to take a step, the same step Newton took when he talked about gravitational forces. « Are we ready to say that life depends on an immaterial substrate, information? "they ask themselves.
This hesitation, this trouble, is found on almost every page. Watching the wolves reintroduce wolves to Yellowstone Park in the United States, they describe how every component of the ecosystem is affected. The demonstration is captivating. Everything fits together and is interdependent, as if the ecosystem has structural components, surviving far beyond the units that make it up. A kind of memory of the ecosystem, a tissue of intangible information.
For the authors, it is obvious that human beings are much more than what is written in their DNA. Certainly DNA matters to many, they hasten to say, as good biologists; but there is something else... Information.
We will have to wait until the third chapter to define this apparently strange concept. The authors are scientists. They will therefore take up the definition that is the most solid for them, that of Shannon. We will regret the limit they set for themselves by restricting the information to one data (data) which passes through pipes, is coded and requires a decoder. Since Shannon, other avenues have been pursued, notably by neuroscientists thanks to the progress made in understanding the brain. But what interests the authors is the " shocking to the biologist ». Indeed, information has an appearance, it has a reality. Yet, in the reverse of all habits, " its appearance is concrete while its reality is not. ». They're forced to make up their minds: " information, despite its immaterial nature, "lives"... ». If they had departed from Shannon's theory, they probably would have agreed to assert that information is not just a sign, as they demonstrate in detail in their book. The information does sign. It sets off a firework of neuronal connections in the brain; this is no doubt also why the authors state that "... the brain is a firework of neuronal connections...". she lives ".

Homo sapiens is an information specialist...

It lives in living organisms and especially in humans. « Homo sapiens is an information specialist... "they say. The particularity that men possess, more than any other species, is language. Many scientists have studied this elaborate function. Some have even imagined that the appearance of language has radically transformed human nature. His brain grew bigger, he was able to transmit instructions to his fellow creatures, invent fire and thus sleep more deeply and safely. He was thus able to dream, to assimilate the knowledge of the waking periods, to increase his capacities and his intelligence. This story, for Pierre-Henri Guyon, is certainly probable, but we have no proof, no trace of it. This is true. What seems more obvious to the authors, and in particular Jean-Louis Dessalles, the language specialist, is that this function is similar to ... delousing in monkeys. Language is used for conversation. The proof? Look at what our contemporaries do on the web or Twitter: they chat, they spread news and rumours. And this, " they love to do it. ». These are certainly the most questionable pages in the book. The thesis that language is used to demonstrate our ability to acquire information to gain prestige and conquer social status obtained in this way by means other than physical strength, this thesis restricts the importance of language and leaves aside its role in gaining a considerable competitive advantage in the evolution of the species. An advantage that precisely allows non-biological information to propagate to sculpt not only humans but also all their technical or civilizational projections.
Information is the breadcrumb trail of evolution ». Information is what unites organizations over time. The authors, eminent naturalists, observe that information has the characteristic of travelling from organism to organism, being stored, transmitted and thus crossing time, beyond the temporal limit of the organisms themselves. « What is maintained throughout the phylogenetic lines is exclusively the information that crosses them, almost without seeing them. "they say.
The information encoded in the genes, which replicates from generation to generation, is well known to biologists. But there is other information, non-biological, non-genetic information, which is also capable of replicating itself and being transmitted from individual to individual across generations and cultures. This non-biological information, which must be called "cultural", Gouyon, Dessalles and Gaucherel seem to approach them with infinite caution. It was not until page 135 of their book that the notion of "cultural" was introduced. memeinvented by Richard Dawkins [The selfish geneOdile Jacob, 1976] be addressed.

The role of memes

The authors return to Dawkins' original definition: the meme is a unit of cultural information that propagates from brain to brain. The book ignores later definitions of meme that were directly derived from the work of neuroscientists. For example, Robert Aunger [The Electric MemeThe Free Press, 2002] or Susan Blackmore [The meme theoryMax Milo, 2006]. They have observed that the meme is not only a unit of information that propagates, it is above all a trigger of meaning, a "...". instigator The "neuronal map", which replicates itself from brain to brain and activates a complex organization of neuronal maps, which are now known to be located in multiple areas of the brain.

READ UP : Researchers create a 3D map of the brain to visualize how we understand language

The main interest of Gouyon, Dessalles and Gaucherel's book is to show us, with numerous examples drawn from the observation of nature, that genes and memes participate together in the thread of evolution. In some cases, it is the genes that take over, in others, it is the memes, these non-biological units of information, that sculpt the living. The authors take up the significant example of lactose tolerance that emerged when humans learned to settle down and practice animal husbandry. A biological mutation (the appearance of lactase, the enzyme that allows milk tolerance) would have thus accompanied a cultural innovation (in this case animal husbandry) to better allow the latter to project itself, to spread.
This story makes us want to know, beyond what we know about genes, how this "cultural" information that jumps from brain to brain, from generation to generation, works; how it relates to genetic structures. Which of the meme or the gene keeps the other on a leash? We are still hungry because the answer given by the authors of the Thread of Life is not complete. In the same way, assuming that the gene is "selfish" and replicates using the living organism as a "vehicle", can we also assume that the meme is "selfish" and replicates to form something larger than the living organism? Here again, one will regret the silence of the authors who, moreover, only very quickly address the digital revolution that appeared a few years ago, many of whom agree that it is a formidable engine for the expansion of memes.
In spite of these silences or omissions, the book The Thread of Life is of great importance. It indisputably establishes the role of biological information and cultural in the living. In 1944, the inventor of quantum mechanics, Erwan Schrödinger, wrote a remarkable little book: What is life? He replied that the foundations of chemistry and the physics of life revolve around a crucial notion that has long been ignored: information. According to him, it is information that makes life special. Pierre-Henri Gouyon, Jean Louis Dessalles and Cédric Gaucherel affirm, at the end of their journey through the mysteries of life, that "... the information is the only thing that makes life special. information is what lives ». There is only one step, which they are hesitant to take, but which could be a giant step; to argue that information, it's life.
Pierre-Henri Gouyon, Jean-Louis Dessalles, Cédric Gaucherel, The Thread of Life. The immaterial face of the living, Odile Jacob, 2016, 240 p. 24.90 €
Photo: The Dream, oil on canvas by Henri Rousseau (1910), New-York, Museum of Modern Art, © Akg Images

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