It is to the credit of the physicist Paul Davies, then, that in this brilliantly vivid little book he is careful to remind the reader that such uses of “information” should be bracketed with provisos, even as he shows what we can do with them. It seems irresistible to say, to begin with, that cells “signal” to one another chemically, or that flocking birds and shoaling fish are exchanging “information” with their neighbours about speed and direction. But things get a lot weirder when Davies applies to biology ideas from thermodynamics and the mathematical theory of information...The informational approach, in Davies’s elegant and lucid exposition, is extremely promising, but it remains highly speculative, as he himself laudably emphasises while offering his own final thoughts on consciousness (as “integrated information”), and the possibility that “laws of nature” themselves evolve through time. Perhaps, he adds, these laws might, in some way not yet understood, be inherently “bio-friendly”.
Davies is a lucid writer and master storyteller and weaves together these threads... Although the concepts can get hard-going at times it is well worth the investment of concentration as there is much in here that is truly mind-blowing... Demon in the Machine begins to unravel slightly when it moots as yet undiscovered “state-dependent information” laws... Why postulate new laws of physics if the present ones haven’t been found to be lacking in explaining biological processes? Nonetheless, this is a cracking read and certainly leaves your brain with a lot of new information to process.
The biggest question posed by The Demon in the Machine is whether bringing information into the equation adds something really new to the laws of nature, beyond current physics and chemistry, which theorists have not yet appreciated. Might some sort of informational laws be at work in complex systems, which somehow favour the emergence and evolution of life? Whatever the answer, Davies has written an important and imaginative book. It is unlikely to change the course of science as much as Schrödinger’s What is Life? in the 1940s, but if it makes biologists more aware of the significance of information theory, it will at the least trigger some interesting new research.