The Use of Information Theory in Biology: Lessons from Social Insects

Biological Theory 1 (3):317-330 (2006)
Abstract
In this paper, I discuss how information theory has been used in the study of animal communication, as well as how these uses are justified. Biologists justify their use of Shannon’s information measures by the work they do in allowing for comparisons between different organisms and because they measure a quantity that is purported to be important for natural selection. I argue that there are problems with both sorts of justification. To make these difficulties clear, I focus on the use of Shannon’s information measures to quantify the amount of information transmitted by the fire ant’s odor trail and the honeybee’s waggle dance. Both of these systems are relatively simple and well understood, and the application of Shannon’s information measure to these systems initially seemed very promising and relatively straightforward. They are therefore particularly suitable for revealing the benefits and difficulties of applying Shannon’s information measures to biological systems in general, and animal communication systems in particular
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