What is Biosemiotics?

The discovery of the genetic code took place between 1961 and 1966, and almost immediately inspired the idea of a deep link between biology and semiotics. In 1968, Howard Pattee proposed for the first time the idea that the cell is a self-replicating system controlled by symbols, and in 1974, Marcel Florkin coined the term ‘biosemiotics’ for the study of semiosis (the production of signs) at the molecular level. At about the same time, a parallel development was taking place in the humanities. The idea that animals have feelings, psychologies and even minds has been entertained in various ways throughout the centuries, but for a long time is has been taken almost for granted that only man is a semiotic animal, i.e., that only man makes use of signs. That idea was explicitly challenged for the first time in 1963, when Thomas Sebeok suggested that animal communication is also based on signs, and in 1972 he proposed the term ‘zoosemiotics’ for the new science of animal semiosis. The idea of a union of biology and semiotics – what today we call biosemiotics – started in this way, in the 1960s, with two independent enquiries, one on the genetic code and the other on animal semiosis, and has grown ever since. Other proposals appeared in the years that followed and gave origin to different schools of biosemiotics. They are: (1) the physical biosemiotics proposed by 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 operated by Thomas Sebeok and by Jesper Hoffmeyer, (3) the code biosemiotics of Marcello Barbieri and (4) the hermeneutic biosemiotics of Anton Markoš. Biosemiotics, in short, has been the object of various lines of research that have evolved in parallel and independently until they finally converged, in the early 2000s, into a unified discipline. The differences between the initial approaches have not completely disappeared and there is a genuine pluralism in the field, but also a common goal. What all schools of biosemiotics have in common is the idea that semiosis is fundamental to life, that all living systems are semiotic systems. Today, the main challenge of biosemiotics is the attempt to naturalize not only biological information but also biological meaning, in the belief that codes are fundamental components of the living world. This implies, among other things, that the history of life has been shaped by the appearance of new codes, from the genetic code, that marked its origin, all the way up to the codes of language that made us human. This in turn suggests that the great events of macroevolution were associated with the appearance of new organic codes, and that it was new codes that brought genuine novelties into existence. Biosemiotics has become in this way the leading edge of the research on the fundamentals of life, and is a young exciting field on the move, with the ultimate goal of bringing about a real unity of nature and culture.