Biosemiotics (from the Greek "bios" meaning "life" and "semeion" meaning "sign") is a growing field that studies the production, action and interpretation of signs in the biological realm. Biosemiotics attempt to integrate the findings of scientific biology and
semioticsrepresenting a paradigmatic shift in the occidental science' view of life, demonstrating that semiosis(sign process, including meaningand interpretation) is its immanent feature. The term "biosemiotic" was first used by Friedrich S. Rothschildin 1962, but Thomas Sebeokand Thure von Uexküllhave done much to popularize the term and field.
Biosemiotics is "biology interpreted as a sign systems study", or, to elaborate, biosemiotics is a study of
signification, communicationand habit formation of living processes
semiosis(changing sign relations) in living nature
* the biological basis of all signs and sign
To define biosemiotics as “biology interpreted as sign systems study” is to emphasize not only the close relation between biology as we know it (as a scientific field of inquiry) and semiotics (the study of signs), but primarily the profound change of perspective implied when life is considered not just from the perspectives of
molecules and chemistry, but as signs conveyed and interpreted by other living signs in a variety of ways, including by means of molecules. In this sense, biosemiotics takes for granted and respects the complexityof living processes as revealed by the existing fields of biology – from molecular biology to brain science and behavioural studies – however, biosemiotics attempts to bring together separate findings of the various disciplines of biology (including evolutionary biology) into a new and more unified perspective on the central phenomena of the living world, including the generation of function and signification in living systems, from the ribosometo the ecosystemand from the beginnings of life to its ultimate meanings.
Furthermore, by providing new concepts, theories and case studies from biology, biosemiotics attempts to throw new light on some of the unsolved questions within the general study of sign processes (semiotics), such as the question about the origin of signification in the
universe. Here, signification (and sign) is understood in a very general sense, that is, not simply the transfer of informationfrom one place to another, but the generation of the very contentand meaning of that information in humanas well as non-human sign producers and sign receivers.
Sign processes are thus taken as real: They are governed by regularities (habits, or natural rules) that can be discovered and explained. They are intrinsic in living nature, but we can access them, not directly, but indirectly through other sign processes (qualitative distinction methods, for instance) -- even though the human representation and understanding of these processes (in the construction of explanations) builds up as a separate scientific sign system distinct from the
organisms’ own sign processes.
One of the central characteristics of living systems is the highly organized character of their physical and chemical processes, partly based upon informational and molecular properties of what came to be known in the 1960s as the
genome. Distinguished biologists, such as Ernst Mayr, have seen these informational aspects as one of the emergent features of life as a process that distinguish life from anything else in the physical world, except, perhaps, man-made computers. However, as the informational teleologyof computer programmes are derived, qua being designed by humans to achieve specific goals, the teleologyand informational characteristics of organisms are intrinsic, qua being evolved naturally, through adaptation processes.
Traditional biology (and
philosophy of biology) has seen such processes as being purely physical and, being influenced by a reductionistand mechanistic tradition, has adopted a very restricted notion of the physical as having to do with only "efficient causation". Biosemiotics is an attempt to use the concepts from semiotics (in the sense of Peirce as the broad logical and scientific study of dynamic sign action in humans as well as elsewhere in nature) to answer questions about the biological emergence of meaning, intentionalityand a psychicworld; questions that are hard 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, in part due to the success of molecular biology, given us highly valuable accounts of the outer aspects of the whole process, but has overseen the inner qualitative aspects of sign action, and lead to a reduced picture of causality. Complex self-organized living systems are also governed by formal and final causality —- "formal" in the sense of the "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; and "final" in the sense of the tendency to take habits and to generate future interpretants of the present sign actions. Here, biosemiotics draws also upon the insights of fields like
systems theory, theoretical biologyand the study of complex self-organized systems.
Particular scientific fields like
molecular biology, cognitive ethology, cognitive science, robotics, and neurobiologydeal with information processes at various levels and thus spontaneously contribute to knowledge about biosemiosis (sign action in living systems). However, biosemiotics proper is not yet a specific disciplinary research programme, but a general perspective on the need for investigating the role that "sign" use plays in life processes, and attempts to integrate such findings, and to build a semiotic foundation for biology. It may help to resolve some forms of Cartesian dualismthat is still haunting philosophy of mind. By describing the continuity between body and mind, biosemiotics may also help us to understand how human "mindedness" may naturalistically emerge from more primitive processes of embodied animal "knowing."
According to the basic types of semiosis under study, biosemiotics can be divided into
*vegetative semiotics, or
phytosemiotics; [Witzany, G. (2008). The Biosemiotics of Plant Communication. American Journal for Semiotic Studies 24: 39-56] vegetative semiosis occurs in all organisms at their cellular and tissue level;
*animal semiotics, or
zoosemiotics; animal semiosis occurs in the organisms with neuromuscularsystem.
Charles Peirce(1839-1914) and Charles W. Morris(1903-1979), early pioneers of biosemiotics were Jakob von Uexküll(1864-1944), Heini Hediger(1908-1992), and Giorgio Prodi(1928-1987); the founding fathers were Thomas Sebeok(1920-2001) and Thure von Uexküll(1908-2004).
The contemporary period (as initiated by
Copenhagen-Tartu school) include biologists Jesper Hoffmeyer, Kalevi Kull, Claus Emmeche, Terrence Deacon, Luis Bruni, Alexei Sharov, Søren Brier, Marcello Barbieri, Anton Markos, Howard Pattee, Yair Neuman, Timo Maran, semioticians Martin Krampen, Frederik Stjernfelt, Floyd Merrell, John Deely, Myrdene Anderson, Lucia Santaella, Marcel Danesi, Winfried Nöth, philosophers John Collier, Donald Favareau, Tommi Vehkavaara, Guenther Witzany, "et al".
In 2001, an annual international conference for biosemiotic research (
Gatherings in Biosemiotics) was inaugurated, and has taken place every year since.
In 2004, a group of biosemioticians - Marcello Barbieri, Claus Emmeche, Jesper Hoffmeyer, Kalevi Kull, Anton Markos - decided to establish an international journal of biosemiotics. Under their editorship, the "
Journal of Biosemiotics" was launched by Nova Science Publishersin 2005 (two issues published), and with the same five editors the "Biosemiotics" was launched by Springer in 2008.
International Society for Biosemiotic Studieswas established in 2005. [Favareau, Don 2005. Founding a world biosemiotics institution: The International Society for Biosemiotic Studies. " Sign Systems Studies" 33(2): 481-485.]
*Favareau, D. (2006). The evolutionary history of biosemiotics. In "Introduction to Biosemiotics: The New Biological Synthesis." Marcello Barbieri (Ed.) Berlin: Springer. pp 1-67.
*Emmeche, Claus; Kalevi Kull and Frederik Stjernfelt. (2002): "Reading Hoffmeyer, Rethinking Biology." (Tartu Semiotics Library 3). Tartu:
Tartu University Press.
*Hoffmeyer, Jesper. (1996): "Signs of Meaning in the Universe." Bloomington: Indiana University Press. (special issue of Semiotica vol. 120 (no.3-4), 1998, includes 13 reviews of the book and a rejoinder by the author).
*Kull, Kalevi, eds. (2001). "Jakob von Uexküll: A Paradigm for Biology and Semiotics." Berlin & New York: Mouton de Gruyter. [ = "
Semiotica" vol. 134 (no.1-4)] .
*Jesper Hoffmeyer and Kalevi Kull (2003): Baldwin and Biosemiotics: What Intelligence Is For. In: Bruce H. Weber and David J. Depew (eds.), "Evolution and Learning - The Baldwin Effect Reconsidered". Cambridge: The MIT Press.
*Sebeok, Thomas A., and Umiker-Sebeok, Jean, (eds.) (1992): "Biosemiotics. The Semiotic Web 1991." Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter.
*Sebeok, Thomas A.; Hoffmeyer, Jesper; and Emmeche, Claus, eds. (1999). "Biosemiotica." Berlin & New York: Mouton de Gruyter. [ = "Semiotica" vol. 127 (no.1-4)] .
*Witzany, G. (ed.) (2007). "Biosemiotics in Transdisciplinary Contexts: Proceedings of the Gathering in Biosemiotics 6, Salzburg 2006." Helsinki: Umweb.
* [http://www.biosemiotics.org International Society for Biosemiotics Studies]
* [http://home.comcast.net/~sharov/biosem/welcome.html The Biosemiotics website by Alexei Sharov ]
* [http://www.zbi.ee/~uexkull/biosem.htm Biosemiotics, introduction]
* [http://www.nbi.dk/~emmeche/pr/Gatherings_overview.html Overview of Gatherings in Biosemiotics]
* [http://www.library.utoronto.ca/see/pages/SEED_Journal.html The S.E.E.D. Journal (Semiotics, Evolution, Energy, and Development)]
* [http://www.zbi.ee/~uexkull/ Jakob von Uexküll Centre]
* [http://www.zoosemiotics.helsinki.fi/ Zoosemiotics Home Page]
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