ccr Home Page

Life Preserves Information

Excerpt from Ackley (1996)
Developing ccr over the last five years or so has led me to think that Dawkins' (1995) suggestion, that the origin of life on Earth also marked the origin of information on Earth, is so deeply correct that I must suggest that we may view
Life preserves information
as defining both ``life'' and ``information'' in terms of each other. It is certainly plausible to claim that ``All living systems do an effective job preserving information''. Is it completely absurd to say that ``All effective information-preserving systems are living systems''? We ground out the mutual recursion in cases where we have other prima facie reasons to describe a system as ``living'' or as ``preserving information''---and our understanding of the dual role of DNA, as both an active catalytic controller of chemistry during the existence of a cell and as a passive reaction product during cell copying, provides one such base case.

Such a high-handed approach, while riding roughshod over all sorts of important issues, offers a way to unite ``life is selfish gene-copying'' advocates (e.g., Dawkins, 1989) with ``life is self-production'' advocates (e.g., Maturana & Varela, 1980), viewing copying and maintenance as the two fundamental strategies for preserving information. On some of the standard challenges for definitions of life, the view would include mules, exclude fire, and probably leave crystals on the margin, depending on how much ``information-theoretic'' information we expect to find in a crystal---which won't be much, if the crystal is pure. Impure or semi-crystalline materials, such as, say, integrated circuits, are of course another matter.

On the prospects for life in manufactured computers, the view is that, rather than being an esoteric research topic, that is a prosaic, long-established fact. Popular software programs today are preserving their information spectacularly, with population sizes in the millions and booming; malicious computer viruses are harder to measure though detections of new strains are booming as well (see, e.g., Kephart, 1994). The emergence first of affordable personal computers and now of mass-market computer networking adds urgency to the real research question: With the great flexibility of programmable computers laying before us, what kind of artificial life do we want?


Ackley, D. H. (1996, to appear).
ccr: A Network of Worlds for Research. In Artificial Life V, MIT Press.
Dawkins, R. (1989)
The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press: New York.
Dawkins, R. (1995)
River out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life. BasicBooks, HarperCollins Publishers: New York.
Kephart, J. O. (1994)
A biologically inspired immune system for computers. In Artificial Life IV: Proceedings of the Fourth International Workshop on the Synthesis and Simulation of Living Systems. edited by R. A. Brooks & P. Maes. A Bradford Book, The MIT Press: Cambridge, MA. 130--139.
Maturana, H. R., & Varela, F. J. (1980).
Autopoiesis and Cognition. Reidel: Dordrecht.