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Information Theory, Evolution, and the Origin of Life
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  • Page extent: 272 pages
  • Size: 228 x 152 mm
  • Weight: 0.57 kg

Library of Congress

  • Dewey number: 572.8
  • Dewey version: 22
  • LC Classification: QH506 .Y634 2005
  • LC Subject headings:
    • Molecular biology
    • Information theory in biology
    • Evolution (Biology)
    • Life--Origin

Library of Congress Record

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 (ISBN-13: 9780521802932 | ISBN-10: 0521802938)

DOI: 10.2277/0521802938

Manufactured on demand: supplied direct from the printer

 (Stock level updated: 01:58 GMT, 01 September 2015)


Information theory, evolution, and the origin of life

Information Theory, Evolution, and the Origin of Life presents a timely introduction to the use of information theory and coding theory in molecular biology. The genetical information system, because it is linear and digital, resembles the algorithmic language of computers. George Gamow pointed out that the application of Shannon’s information theory breaks genetics and molecular biology out of the descriptive mode into the quantitative mode, and Dr. Yockey develops this theme, discussing how information theory and coding theory can be applied to molecular biology. He discusses how these tools for measuring the information in the sequences of the genome and the proteome are essential for our complete understanding of the nature and origin of life. The author writes for the computer competent reader who is interested in evolution and the origins of life.

Hubert P. Yockey is a former director of the Pulsed Radiation Facility at the US Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland. He is the author of Information Theory and Molecular Biology (1992).

Information theory, evolution,
and the origin of life


The Pitt Building, Trumpington Street, Cambridge, United Kingdom

The Edinburgh Building, Cambridge CB2 2RU, UK
40 West 20th Street, New York, NY 10011-4211, USA
477 Williamstown Road, Port Melbourne, VIC 3207, Australia
Ruiz de Alarcón 13, 28014 Madrid, Spain
Dock House, The Waterfront, Cape Town 8001, South Africa

© Hubert P. Yockey 2005

This book is in copyright. Subject to statutory exception
and to the provisions of relevant collective licensing agreements,
no reproduction of any part may take place without
the written permission of Cambridge University Press.

First published 2005

Printed in the United States of America

Typeface Times New Roman 10.5/13 pt.     System LATEX 2e   [TB]

A catalog record for this book is available from the British Library.

Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data
Yockey, Hubert P.
    Information theory, evolution, and the origin of life / Hubert P. Yockey.
        p.  cm.
    Includes bibliographical references (p. ).
    ISBN 0-521-80293-8 (hardback : alk. paper)
    1. Molecular biology. 2. Information theory in biology. 3. Evolution (Biology) 4. Life – Origin. I. Title.
QH506.Y634    2004
572.8 – dc22         2004054518

ISBN 0 521 80293 8 hardback

It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly for fear of their adversaries, who have the laws in their favor; and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1519), The Prince, Chapter 6.


  Preface page ix
1   The genetic information system 1
2   James Watson, Francis Crick, George Gamow, and the genetic code 8
3   The Central Dogma of molecular biology 20
4   The measure of the information content in the genetic message 27
5   Communication of information from the genome to the proteome 33
6   The information content or complexity of protein families 57
7   Evolution of the genetic code and its modern characteristics 93
8   Haeckel’s Urschleim and the role of the Central Dogma in the origin of life 114
9   Philosophical approaches to the origin of life 149
10   The error catastrophe and the hypercycles of Eigen and Schuster 158
11   Randomness, complexity, the unknowable, and the impossible 164
12   Does evolution need an intelligent designer? 176
13   Epilogue 182
   Mathematical appendix 191
   Glossary 213
   References 219
   Index 251


This book introduces the general reader and the specialist to the new order of things in evolution, the origin of life on Earth, and the question of life on Mars and Europa and elsewhere in the universe. Although there are many fields of biology that are essentially descriptive, with the application of information theory, theoretical biology can now take its place with theoretical physics without apology. Thus biology has become a quantitative and computational science as George Gamow (1904–68) suggested. By employing information theory, comparisons between the genetics of organisms can now be made quantitatively with the same accuracy that is typical of astronomy, physics, and chemistry.

   Spacecraft send messages to Earth as they pass the outer planets – Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto – in spite of the small amount of energy available. Enormous amounts of data and information flow about on the Internet. Huge sums of money are transferred every day. Errors in these communications cannot be tolerated. Claude Shannon (1916–2001) showed that this is accomplished because communication is segregated, linear, and digital so that sufficient redundance can be introduced in communication codes to overcome errors. Furthermore, he showed that these signals, which contain messages, can be measured in bits and bytes, terms that are familiar to computer users.

   Watson and Crick discovered that there is a genetic message, recorded in the digital sequence of nucleotides in DNA, that controls the formation of protein and of course all biological processes. The message in the genetic information system is segregated, linear, and digital and can be measured in bits and bytes. Computer users will notice the isomorphism between the program in computer memories and the genetic message recorded in DNA (Chaitin, 1979).

   The genetic information system is essentially a digital data recording and processing system. The fundamental axiom in genetics and molecular biology, which justifies the application of Shannon’s information and coding theory, is the sequence hypothesis and the digital rather than the analog or blending character (Jenkin, 1867) of inheritance as Darwin (1809–82) and his contemporaries believed (Fisher, 1930).

   Watson and Crick’s solution of the structure of DNA and its application in biology would not have been so important if it had not been for their famously coy remark:

It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a copying mechanism for the genetic material.

(Nature 1953)

A fundamental question in genetics is, how does the cell divide into two cells both containing the same genetics? Here, at one stroke, was the solution nicely framed by reductionism!

   I show in this book that only because the genetic message is segregated, linear, and digital can it be transmitted from the origin of life to all present organisms and will be transmitted to all future life. This establishes Darwin’s theory of evolution as firmly as any in science. The same genetic code, the same DNA, the same amino acids, and the genetic message unite all organisms, independent of morphology.

   The genetic message recorded in the DNA of every living organism is unique to that individual. The relationship and evolution among animals and plants can now be determined by comparing DNA sequences rather than relying on morphology. Genetic information is being applied to genomic medical practice and genetic counseling for the benefit of patients. Sickle- cell anemia is a blood disorder that is an important example of the role of DNA in the placement of amino acids in the sequences of amino acids that form hemoglobin. It is so named because the red blood cells that are normally round are shaped like a sickle. Hemoglobin is composed of four chains of amino acids. Fundamental to this disease, at site 6 in the β chain, glutamic acid is replaced by valine. The identification of this genetic disorder in the structure of hemoglobin with the symptoms of sickle anemia was made by Linus Pauling (1901–94) and is one of his more important discoveries (Pauling, 1949).

   DNA now plays a role in forensics identification that is far more important than fingerprints. Forensics has reached new levels of certainty. A number of guilty people have been convicted, and others, falsely accused by conventional methods, have been vindicated.

   This is a monograph and not an encyclopedia so I have not considered it necessary to call attention to papers I believe did not make an important contribution or those which are incorrect. I have included in the references only those I felt contributed to the point I was making. Some readers may think that I have neglected an important paper here and there. I acknowledge that this may be the case, but there are times when one must hew to the line and let the chips fall where they may.

   This monograph follows my interest in the subject, which was first attracted by the work of Dr. Henry Quastler (1908–63). With his collaboration I organized the Symposium on Information Theory in Biology at Gatlinburg, Tennessee, in October 1956. I am indebted to the late Professor Thomas Hughes Jukes (1906–99), whose strong recommendations resulted in my original papers being published. Many of Professor Jukes’ important contributions to molecular biology have shaped the ideas presented in this book, particularly those concerning the evolution of the genetic code. I am grateful to Dr. Gregory J. Chaitin, whose original and seminal work in algorithmic information theory is reflected throughout the book. I appreciate the efforts of Dr. David Abel and Mr. John Tomlinson, who read the manuscript and made important corrections and comments. My daughter, Cynthia Ann Yockey, edited this manuscript from proposal to final draft and contributed much to improve the clarity and organization of the material. My editor at Cambridge University Press, Dr. Katrina Halliday, organized the review of the manuscript and arranged for the publication. I appreciate her patience during the writing. Without the contribution of these people I would not have been able to write this book. The reference material is up to date as of February 20, 2004.

Hubert P. Yockey
Bel Air, Maryland, USA

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