Donald Forsdyke Indicates the Concept of Information in Biology Predates Claude Shannon

As it was published, I had read Kevin Hartnett’s article and interview with Christoph Adami The Information Theory of Life in Quanta Magazine. I recently revisited it and read through the commentary and stumbled upon an interesting quote relating to the history of information in biology:

Polymath Adami has ‘looked at so many fields of science’ and has correctly indicated the underlying importance of information theory, to which he has made important contributions. However, perhaps because the interview was concerned with the origin of life and was edited and condensed, many readers may get the impression that IT is only a few decades old. However, information ideas in biology can be traced back to at least 19th century sources. In the 1870s Ewald Hering in Prague and Samuel Butler in London laid the foundations. Butler’s work was later taken up by Richard Semon in Munich, whose writings inspired the young Erwin Schrodinger in the early decades of the 20th century. The emergence of his text – “What is Life” – from Dublin in the 1940s, inspired those who gave us DNA structure and the associated information concepts in “the classic period” of molecular biology. For more please see: Forsdyke, D. R. (2015) History of Psychiatry 26 (3), 270-287.

Donald Forsdyke, bioinformatician and theoretical biologist
in response to The Information Theory of Life in Quanta Magazine on

These two historical references predate Claude Shannon’s mathematical formalization of information in A Mathematical Theory of Communication (The Bell System Technical Journal, 1948) and even Erwin Schrödinger‘s lecture (1943) and subsequent book What is Life (1944).

For those interested in reading more on this historical tidbit, I’ve dug up a copy of the primary Forsdyke reference which first appeared on arXiv (prior to its ultimate publication in History of Psychiatry [.pdf]):

🔖 [1406.1391] ‘A Vehicle of Symbols and Nothing More.’ George Romanes, Theory of Mind, Information, and Samuel Butler by Donald R. Forsdyke  [1]
Submitted on 4 Jun 2014 (v1), last revised 13 Nov 2014 (this version, v2)

Abstract: Today’s ‘theory of mind’ (ToM) concept is rooted in the distinction of nineteenth century philosopher William Clifford between ‘objects’ that can be directly perceived, and ‘ejects,’ such as the mind of another person, which are inferred from one’s subjective knowledge of one’s own mind. A founder, with Charles Darwin, of the discipline of comparative psychology, George Romanes considered the minds of animals as ejects, an idea that could be generalized to ‘society as eject’ and, ultimately, ‘the world as an eject’ – mind in the universe. Yet, Romanes and Clifford only vaguely connected mind with the abstraction we call ‘information,’ which needs ‘a vehicle of symbols’ – a material transporting medium. However, Samuel Butler was able to address, in informational terms depleted of theological trappings, both organic evolution and mind in the universe. This view harmonizes with insights arising from modern DNA research, the relative immortality of ‘selfish’ genes, and some startling recent developments in brain research.

Comments: Accepted for publication in History of Psychiatry. 31 pages including 3 footnotes. Based on a lecture given at Santa Clara University, February 28th 2014, at a Bannan Institute Symposium on ‘Science and Seeking: Rethinking the God Question in the Lab, Cosmos, and Classroom.’

The original arXiv article also referenced two lectures which are appended below:

[Original Draft of this was written on December 14, 2015.]


D. Forsdyke R., “‘A vehicle of symbols and nothing more’. George Romanes, theory of mind, information, and Samuel Butler,” History of Psychiatry, vol. 26, no. 3, Aug. 2015 [Online]. Available:

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Chris Aldrich

I'm a biomedical and electrical engineer with interests in information theory, complexity, evolution, genetics, signal processing, theoretical mathematics, and big history. I'm also a talent manager-producer-publisher in the entertainment industry with expertise in representation, distribution, finance, production, content delivery, and new media.

2 thoughts on “Donald Forsdyke Indicates the Concept of Information in Biology Predates Claude Shannon”

  1. Thank you Chris for mentioning my work with reference to the 2015 paper (History of Psychiatry). A correction to the following statement in the paper should be noted:

    “Extreme examples of extracorporeal localization could be rare individuals whose childhood hydrocephaly was thought to have been successfully treated and are functionally normal – one even obtaining a first class degree in mathematics. Yet they are found to have only 5% the normal volume of cerebral tissue (Lewin, 1980). While initially disbelieved, there are now two further reports of relatively normal individuals with such minute brain tissue volumes.”

    There is now only one “further report.” This was published by French neurologists in the Lancet (2007). The second report from neurosurgeons in Brazil (2012) contained, without attribution, a figure containing a cut-and-paste X-ray taken from the French paper. The two figures can be compared on one of my webpages (see here).

    An excellent independent viewpoint has recently been provided by Nahm, Rousseau, and Greyson B (2017; Discrepancy between cerebral structure and cognitive functioning. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 205: 967- 972).

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