Information as Metaphor:
Biology and Communication
Portland State University
Information has provided a powerful metaphor for explaining the complexities of evolution and its complementary engines, DNA and environment; some of the theorems of information theory (Shannon, 1949) illuminate the constraints on the intergenerational stability of the genome. Dennett (1995) develops the information metaphor into a nontechnical explanation of the fundamental concepts of evolution of biological species, which he then extends to evolution of the ideas, practices, and patterns that constitute culture. However, Oyama (2000) claims that the application of information theory to evolution has sustained misleading dualisms between environment and heredity, material and form. As a communication scholar, one is struck by the parallels to the ambiguous trace left by information theory on our understanding of symbolic communication between and among humans. In both cases information theory has literal and figurative applications to the phenomena of interest, and the conflation of a literal application of the mathematics of information theory with the underlying metaphoric understanding of certain complex phenomena in terms of signal transmission can lead the unwary into errors that obscure as much as they clarify.
In Ritchie (2003) I show how the mathematical concept of statistical probability has become conflated with an epistemological concept of logical probability through a complex series of metaphorical mappings, and I use metaphor analysis to tease these concepts apart and explicate their relationship. In Ritchie (2001), I show how the interpretation of metaphor of