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Biosemiotics (bios=life & semion=sign) is a growing field that studies the production, action and interpretation of signs in the physical and biologic realms in an attempt to integrate the findings of scientific biology and semiotics to form a new view of life and meaning as immanent features of the natural world. The term "biosemiotic" was first used by F.S. Rothschild in 1962, but Thomas Sebeok has done much to popularize the term and field.

Thus, biosemiotics is
  • biology interpreted as sign systems
or, to use a few more words,

  • the signification, communication and habit formation of living processes
  • semiosis (changing sign relations) in living nature
  • the biological basis of all signs and sign interpretation
To define biosemiotics as “biology interpreted as sign systems” 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 complexity of 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 ribosome to the ecosystem and 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 information from one place to another, but the generation of the very content and meaning of that information in human as well as non-human sign producers and sign receivers.

Sign processes are thus taken as real: They are governed by regularities (habits, if not laws) 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 (measurements 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 genetic code. 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 teleology of computer programmes are derived, qua being designed by humans to achieve specific goals, the teleology and informational characteristics of organisms are intrinsic, qua being evolved naturally, through evolutionary processes.

Traditional biology (and philosophy of biology) has seen such processes as being purely physical and, being influenced by a reductionist and mechanist 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 in nature) to answer questions about the biologic and evolutionary emergence of meaning, intentionality and a psychic world; 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 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 proper is not yet a specific disciplinary research programme, 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 is still haunting philosophy of mind. By describing the continuity between matter and mind, biosemiotics may also help us to understand higher forms of mind.


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