“Humans are strange…We are the aliens,” observes Columbia University astrophysicist, Caleb Scharf, noting that humans are a striking anomaly in the natural world. “We also have a truly outsize impact on the planetary environment without much in the way of natural attrition to trim our influence (at least not yet).
“Like a Sudden Invasion by Extraterrestrials”
“But the strangest thing of all,” notes Scharf for Scientific American, “is how we generate, exploit, and propagate information that is not encoded in our heritable genetic material, yet travels with us through time and space. Not only is much of that information represented in purely symbolic forms—alphabets, languages, binary codes—it is also represented in each brick, alloy, machine, and structure we build from the materials around us. Even the symbolic stuff is housed in some material form or the other, whether as ink on pages or electrical charges in nanoscale pieces of silicon.
“On a geological timescale,” notes Scharf, “the emergence of the human “dataome” –a world of bits built of and for information–is like a sudden invasion by extraterrestrials, or an asteroid impact that precipitates a mass extinction.”
The Biosphere –The Original World Wide Web
‘In the beginning was complex chemistry,” Paul Davies, Regents’ Professor of Physics at Arizona State University and author of The Demon in the Machine, wrote in an email to The Daily Galaxy. “Then – somehow – molecular activity became organized, cooperative, managed by encrypted information. The exquisite dance of hardware and software that resulted,” he replied, “lies at the core of what we call life. Indeed, life is chemistry plus information, all the way from DNA to brains to ecosystems. The biosphere is the original World Wide Web of information.”
“Information,” argues Davies, foreshadowing Scharf, “is a concept that is both abstract and mathematical. It lies at the foundation of both biology and physics. Information, the universal genetic code is the software of life. Scientists are merging the hardware and software narratives into a new theory of life that has sweeping ramifications from astrobiology to medicine.”
Mystery of the First Alphabet –Lost in the Mists of Time
A precondition for information, according to Chris Adami, a theoretical physicist working at the intersection of physics and life sciences, “is the existence of an alphabet, a set of pieces that, when assembled in the right order, expresses something meaningful. No one knows what that alphabet was at the time that inanimate molecules coupled up to produce the first bits of information. DNA is an encyclopedia about the world we live in and how to survive in it.”
Human society observes Davies, “has spawned planet-wide information-processing systems like the World Wide Web. It is thus no surprise that many scientists now choose to define life in terms of its informational properties: ‘a chemical system in which the flow and storage of energy are related to the flow and storage of information’ is the way biophysicist Eric Smith at the Santa Fe Institute expresses it.”
Scharf’s “dataome” has become an integral part of our existence. In fact, he argues, “it may have always been an integral, and essential, part of our existence since our species of hominins became more and more distinct some 200,000 years ago.”
A “New Arrow of Time”
“The transition of our dead physical planet to a living one was accompanied by a new arrow of time: the arrow of adaptive information. Scharf’s ‘dataome’ is a Shannon channel (where encoded information is transmitted reliably) that allows the biological present to communicate with survival lessons from its past” wrote David Krakauer, President and William H. Miller Professor of Complex Systems at the Santa Fe Institute in an email to The Daily Galaxy.
Survival Value for the Species
“It is clear and obvious that we humans have been creating more and more information,” wrote Chris Adami in reply to an email from The Daily Galaxy about Scharf’s hypothesis. “We also know the reason for this: information is that which allows us to make accurate predictions, and we prefer certainty over uncertainty. Furthermore, information is valuable: it has not only survival value (it’s most important component in ancient times). but today it has monetary value.
“Is this avalanche of information “like a sudden invasion of extraterrestrials”, or “like an asteroid impact that precipitates mass extinction”, Adami asks in his email. “I think that is altogether the wrong simile. Information increases our fitness. Even though there are downsides, we use information to extract our planet’s resources which in the long run can be very detrimental to the planet and thus to us, we also have created predictive models about this influence, and those models are being used to change our behavior. What Scharf should be writing about is how information has changed the utility function we use to make risky decisions, and how we can use information to shape that utility function instead.”
One of the Major Transitions in the History of Life
Culture is an essential part of the human adaptation, and as much a part of human biology as bipedal locomotion or thick enamel on our molars, says Rob Boyd, professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University, wrote in reply to an email from The Daily Galaxy about his view of Scharf’s dataome: “There should be no doubt that the accumulation of non-genetically transmitted information in human populations has transformed our species making us a different kind of animal. It is one of the major transitions in the history of life.
“But the devil is in the details,” added Boyd, who focuses on incorporating cultural transmission into the Darwinian theory of evolution, and using the modified theory to understand why humans are such peculiar creatures. “A growing number of researchers have been working on these ideas for several decades, and by now a substantial body of theory and data explicating how cumulative cultural evolution evolved and how it works, and even a scientific society devoted to the topic. Scharf should read Joe Henrich’s “The Secret of our Success” for a lengthy review, or my “A Different Kind of Animal” for a brief account.”
The idea of the dataome is pursued by Scharf in his upcoming book, The Ascent of Information, in which Scharf explores how our relationship with data will affect our ongoing evolution as a species.
Avi Shporer, MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research and Jackie Faherty, Senior Scientist with AMNH via Scientific American, Quanta, and Paul Davies. The Demon in the Machine (p. 180). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.
Image credit top of page –Shutterstock License
Editor, Jackie Faherty, astrophysicist, Senior Scientist with AMNH. Jackie was formerly a NASA Hubble Fellow at the Carnegie Institution for Science. Aside from a love of scientific research, she is a passionate educator and can often be found giving public lectures in the Hayden Planetarium. Her research team has won multiple grants from NASA, NSF, and the Heising Simons foundation to support projects focused on characterising planet-like objects. She has also co-founded the popular citizen science project entitled Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 which invites the general public to help scan the solar neighbourhood for previously missed cold worlds. A Google Scholar, Faherty has over 100 peer reviewed articles in astrophysical journals and has been an invited speaker at universities and conferences across the globe. Jackie received the 2020 Vera Rubin Early Career Prize from the American Astronomical Society, an award that recognises scientists who have made an impact in the field of dynamical astronomy and the 2021 Robert H Goddard Award for science accomplishments.