Biosemiotics is a growing field that studies the production, action, and interpretation of signs (such as sounds, objects, smells, movements, but also signs on molecular scales normally not perceived by an organism) in the physical and biologic realm in an attempt to integrate the findings of biology and semiotics (the study of signs and symbols). One goal of biosemiotics is to form a new view of life and meaning as immanent features of the natural world.
Early pioneers of biosemiotics include Charles S. Peirce (1839–1914), Charles Morris (1901-1979), Jakob von Uexküll (1864-1944), Heini Hediger (1908-1992), Giorgio Prodi (1928-1987), Thomas A. Sebeok (1920-2001), and Thure von Uexküll (b.1908). Contemporary scholars include the biologists Jesper Hoffmeyer (b.1942), Kalevi Kull (b.1952), Alexei Sharov (b. 1954), and semioticians Floyd Merrell (b.1937), John Deely (b. 1942), Winfried Nöth (b. 1944), and Lucia Santaella (b.1944).
One of the central characteristics of living systems is the highly organized nature of their physical and chemical processes. These processes are based, in part, on the informational and molecular properties of what came to be known in the 1960s as the genetic code. Some distinguished biologists, such as Ernst Mayr, have viewed these properties as processes that distinguish life from anything else in the physical world, except, perhaps, computers. However, although the informational teleology (i.e., god-directedness based on the stored informational code) of a computer program is not an original form of teleology because the program is designed by humans to achieve specific goals, the teleology and informational characteristics of organisms are intrinsic because they evolved naturally through evolutionary processes. Traditional biology has regarded such processes as purely physical, adopting a restricted notion of the physical as having to do with only "efficient causation." Biosemiotics attempts to use semiotic concepts to answer questions about the biologic and evolutionary emergence of meaning, intentionality, and a psychic world. Such questions are difficult to answer within a purely mechanist and physicalist framework. Biosemiotics sees the evolution of life and the evolution of semiotic systems as two aspects of the same process. The scientific approach to the origin and evolution of life has given us highly valuable accounts of the external aspects of the process, but has overlooked the inner qualitative aspects of sign action, leading to a reduced picture of causality.
Complex self-organized living systems are governed by formal and final causality. Such systems are formal in the sense of their downward causation from a whole structure (such as the organism) to its individual molecules, constraining their action but also endowing them with functional meanings in relation to the whole metabolism. Systems are final in the sense of their tendency to take habits and to generate future interpretants of the present sign actions. In this sense, biosemiotics draws upon the insights of fields like systems theory, theoretical biology, and the physics of complex self-organized systems.
Particular scientific fields like molecular biology, cognitive ethology, cognitive science, robotics, and neurobiology deal with information processes at various levels and thus spontaneously contribute to knowledge about biosemiosis (sign action in living systems). However, biosemiotics is not yet a specific disciplinary research program, but a general perspective on life that attempts to integrate such findings, and to build a new foundation for biology. It may help to resolve some forms of Cartesian dualism that are still haunting philosophers and scientists. By describing the continuity between matter and mind, biosemiotics may also help people understand higher forms of mind and the variety of religious experiences, although real interaction between biosemiotics and theology has yet to come.
See also Biology; Causation; Emergence; Semiotics
hoffmeyer, jesper. signs of meaning in the universe, trans. barbara j. haveland. bloomington: indiana university press, 1996.
kull, kalevi, ed. jakob von uexküll: a paradigm for biology and semiotics. special issue of semiotica 134, no. 1/4 (2001).
sebeok, thomas a., and umiker-sebeok, jean, eds. biosemiotics. the semiotic web 1991. berlin and new york: mouton de gruyter, 1992.
sebeok, thomas a., hoffmeyer, jesper, and emmeche, claus, eds. biosemiotica. special issue of semiotica 127, no. 1/4 (1999).
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