How causal analysis can reveal autonomy in models of biological systems

William Marshall, Hyunju Kim, Sara Walker, Giulio Tononi, Larissa Albantakis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

15 Scopus citations

Abstract

Standard techniques for studying biological systems largely focus on their dynamical or, more recently, their informational properties, usually taking either a reductionist or holistic perspective. Yet, studying only individual system elements or the dynamics of the system as a whole disregards the organizational structure of the system-whether there are subsets of elements with joint causes or effects, and whether the system is strongly integrated or composed of several loosely interacting components. Integrated information theory offers a theoretical framework to (1) investigate the compositional cause-effect structure of a system and to (2) identify causal borders of highly integrated elements comprising local maxima of intrinsic cause-effect power. Here we apply this comprehensive causal analysis to a Boolean network model of the fission yeast (Schizosaccharomyces pombe) cell cycle.We demonstrate that this biological model features a non-trivial causal architecture, whose discovery may provide insights about the real cell cycle that could not be gained from holistic or reductionist approaches. We also show how some specific properties of this underlying causal architecture relate to the biological notion of autonomy. Ultimately, we suggest that analysing the causal organization of a system, including key features like intrinsic control and stable causal borders, should prove relevant for distinguishing life from non-life, and thus could also illuminate the origin of life problem. This article is part of the themed issue 'Re-conceptualizing the origins of life'.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number20160358
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences
Volume375
Issue number2109
DOIs
StatePublished - Dec 28 2017

Keywords

  • Autonomy
  • Causality
  • Integrated information
  • Origin of life

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Mathematics(all)
  • Engineering(all)
  • Physics and Astronomy(all)

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