Signals that make a difference


Calcott, B., Pocheville, A., & Griffiths, P. (2020). Signals that make a difference. The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 71(1), 233–258. Retrieved from


Recent work by Brian Skyrms offers a very general way to think about how information flows and evolves in biological networks—from the way monkeys in a troop communicate to the way cells in a body coordinate their actions. A central feature of his account is a way to formally measure the quantity of information contained in the signals in these networks. In this article, we argue there is a tension between how Skyrms talks of signalling networks and his formal measure of information.

Although Skyrms refers to both how information flows through networks and that signals carry information, we show that his formal measure only captures the latter. We then suggest that to capture the notion of flow in signalling networks, we need to treat them as causal networks. This provides the formal tools to define a measure that does capture flow, and we do so by drawing on recent work defining causal specificity. Finally, we suggest that this new measure is crucial if we wish to explain how evolution creates information. For signals to play a role in explaining their own origins and stability, they can't just carry information about acts; they must be difference-makers for acts.