Biosemiotics is the synthesis of biology and semiotics, and its main purpose is to show that semiosis is a fundamental component of life, i.e., that signs and meaning exist in all living systems. This idea started circulating in the 1960s and was proposed independently from enquires taking place at both ends of the Scala Naturae. At the molecular end it was expressed by Howard Pattee’s analysis of the genetic code, whereas at the human end it took the form of Thomas Sebeok’s investigation into the biological roots of culture. Other proposals appeared in the years that followed and gave origin to different theoretical frameworks, or different schools, of biosemiotics. They are: (1) the physical biosemiotics of Howard Pattee and its extension in Darwinian biosemiotics by Howard Pattee and by Terrence Deacon, (2) the zoosemiotics proposed by Thomas Sebeok and its extension in sign biosemiotics developed by Thomas Sebeok and by Jesper Hoffmeyer, (3) the code biosemiotics of Marcello Barbieri and (4) the hermeneutic biosemiotics of Anton Markoš. The differences that exist between the schools are a consequence of their different models of semiosis, but that is only the tip of the iceberg. In reality they go much deeper and concern the very nature of the new discipline. Is biosemiotics only a new way of looking at the known facts of biology or does it predict new facts? Does biosemiotics consist of testable hypotheses? Does it add anything to the history of life and to our understanding of evolution? These are the major issues of the young discipline, and the purpose of the present paper is to illustrate them by describing the origin and the historical development of its main schools.
Upshot: The reader presents a unique collection of the most important works in biosemiotics. It spans 880 pages, describing classical and modern theories, with excerpts from the most significant papers on the topic of biosemiotics, as well as suggesting further reading on the topic.
In the context of the question of the emergence of mind in evolution the present paper argues that the concept of linguistic motivation, through the theory of embodiment in cognitive semantics, can be connected with the concept of motivation in ethology. This connection is established through Lakoff and Johnson’s embodied cognitive semantics on the one hand and on the other hand through the theory of biosemiotics. The biosemiotics used is based on C. S. Peirce´s semiotics and the work of J. von Uexkull. Motivation will in this context be understood as a decisive factor in determining which kind of interpretant a living system constructs when perturbed by a significant disturbance in its signification sphere. From this basis the concept of sign stimuli in Ethology, based on the concept of innate release response mechanism (IRM,) is paralleled with the concept of embodied metaphorical categorization based on the concept of idealized cognitive models (ICM). It is realized that we are dealing with motivation on two different levels, that of the linguistic and that of the perceptual-behavioral level. The connection is made through pragmatic language and sign theory viewing language as getting its meaning through language games integrated in cultural life forms and animals signs to get their meaning through sign games and natural life forms. Further connection is made through the common insight of the significant role of embodiment to create signification through the construction of a signification sphere. The later concept is a Peircian biosemiotic conceptualization of von Uexkull’s orginal Umwelt concept.
This paper presents a critical analysis of code-semiotics, which we see as the latest attempt to create paradigmatic foundation for solving the question of the emergence of life and consciousness. We view code semiotics as an attempt to revise the empirical scientific Darwinian paradigm, and to go beyond the complex systems, emergence, self-organization, and informational paradigms, and also the selfish gene theory of Dawkins and the Peircean pragmaticist semiotic theory built on the simultaneous types of evolution. As such, it is a new and bold attempt to use semiotics to solve the problems created by the evolutionary paradigm’s commitment to produce a theory of how to connect the two sides of the Cartesian dualistic view of physical reality and consciousness in a consistent way. Relevance: This paper relates to cybersemiotics and Maturana and Varela’s theory.
The work of physicist and theoretical biologist Howard Pattee has focused on the roles that symbols and dynamics play in biological systems. Symbols, as discrete functional switching-states, are seen at the heart of all biological systems in the form of genetic codes, and at the core of all neural systems in the form of informational mechanisms that switch behavior. They also appear in one form or another in all epistemic systems, from informational processes embedded in primitive organisms to individual human beings to public scientific models. Over its course, Pattee’s work has explored (1) the physical basis of informational functions (dynamical vs. rule-based descriptions, switching mechanisms, memory, symbols), (2) the functional organization of the observer (measurement, computation), (3) the means by which information can be embedded in biological organisms for purposes of self-construction and representation (as codes, modeling relations, memory, symbols), and (4) the processes by which new structures and functions can emerge over time. We discuss how these concepts can be applied to a high-level understanding of the brain. Biological organisms constantly reproduce themselves as well as their relations with their environs. The brain similarly can be seen as a self-producing, self-regenerating neural signaling system and as an adaptive informational system that interacts with its surrounds in order to steer behavior.
This chapter outlines a broad theory of sign use in natural and artificial systems that was developed over several decades within the context of theoretical biology, cybernetics, systems theory, biosemiotics, and neuroscience. Different conceptions of semiosis and information in nature are considered. General functional properties of and operations on signs, including measurement, computation, and sign-directed actions are described. A taxonomy of semiotic systems is built up from combinations of these operations. The respective functional organizations and informational capabilities of formal systems and computempiral-predictive scientific models, percept-action systems, purposive goal-seeking systems, and self-constructing systems are discussed. Semiotic relations are considered in terms of Morrisean semiotic triad of syntactics, semantics, and pragmatics. Analysis of statetransition structure is used to demarcate functional boundaries, such as epistemic and control cuts. Capabilities for open-ended behavior, combinatoric and emergent creativity, and umwelt expansion are taken up. Finally, basic problems of neurosemiotics, neural coding, and neurophenomenology are outlined.
The term Umwelt (literally “around-world” or “surrounding-world”), which emerged as an important philosophical and biological term in the early twentieth century, has been defined in various ways. This paper first looks at the German biologist Jakob von Uexküll’s revolutionary notion of the animal’s Umwelt. It then explores the responses to, and critiques of, Uexküll’s notion of Umwelt: that of Ernst Cassirer, the German philosopher of Symbolische Formen (“symbolic forms”), and that of Martin Heidegger, the originator of Dasein (“being-there,” human being). It will be suggested here that, viewed on the synchronic axis of philosophical methods, their perspectives, though different, are fundamentally reinterpretations of the Kantian philosophy of logical form, the Kantian open-and-closed epistemological model. But it will also be suggested that Heidegger, with his hermeneutic circle of “understanding” and “interpretation,” comes closer than Cassirer to a view of the animal’s “around-world” that is congruent with Uexküll’s view of Umwelt.
I will investigate the plausibility of three theses: (1) The Umwelt theory of Jakob von Uexküll, even though his theoretical biology was often characterized as being thoroughly vitalist, can in the context of contemporary science, more adequately be interpreted as a branch of qualitative organicism in theoretical biology. Qualitative organicism is a position which claims, first, a kind of middle road position, that is, on the one hand, there are no mysterious or non-material vital powers in organisms (non-vitalism), but on the other hand, the characteristic properties of living beings cannot be fully accounted for by physics and chemistry because these properties are nonreducible emergent properties (emergentism); second, that some of these emergent pro- perties have an experiential, phenomenal, or subjective character which plays a major role in the dynamics of the living system. Modern bio- semiotics (inspired by C. S. Peirce and Jakob von Uexküll, instituted by Thomas A. Sebeok) is a kind of qualitative organicism. (2) This position sheds light on recent discussions in cognitive science, artificial life, and robotics about the nature of representation and cognition – indeed genuine semiotic questions as they deal with the role of information and signs for any system that has the property of being ‘animal-like,’ that is, systems that move by themselves and seem to be guided by a kind of entelechy or, in modern but shallow terms, a behavioral program. (3) Particularly, qualitative organicism allows us to approach the question of whether a robot can have an Umwelt in the sense that Jakob von Uexküll used the term (a subjectively experienced phenom- enal world) The eventuality of a positive answer to this question, i.e., a claim that a robot indeed can have an Umwelt, seems counterintuitive to the extent that a robot may be seen as – to use a bewildering word – an incarnation of the mechanical and reductionist world picture to which Jakob von Uexküll was so strongly opposed. But certain ideas and concepts may sometimes lead us to unexpected consequences, which threaten our cherished metaphysical assumptions, and we should try to face such questions with an open mind.
This paper reviews Pattee’s ideas about the symbolic domain as a phenomenon related to the self-simplifying processes of certain hierarchical systems, such as the living. We distinguish the concepts of constraint, record, and symbol to explain how the Semantic Closure Principle, that is to say, the view that symbols are self-interpreted by the cell, emerges. Related to this, the notion of complementarity is discussed both as an epistemological and as an ontological principle. In the final discussion we consider whether autonomous systems can exist in which constraints are not symbolically preserved, and if biological symbols can be considered to have a descriptive nature.