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Marcello Barbieri “A Short History of Biosemiotics”

Barbieri, Marcello 2009. A Short History of Biosemiotics. Biosemiotics 2(2): 221-245.

As a result of Sebeok’s revolution in semiotics, it has been taken almost for granted that the extension of semiosis, first to the animal world and then to the entire living world, is nothing but the extension of the Peirce view of semiosis to life. Sebeok (2001) expressed this concept in no uncertain terms: “Because there can be no semiosis without interpretability—surely life’s cardinal propensity—semiosis presupposes the axiomatic identity of the semiosphere with the biosphere”. (227)

The identification of biological semiosis with Peircean semiosis was advanced also by Jesper Hoffemeyer inSigns of Meaning in the Universe, the book where he condensed his manifesto in the statement that“the basic unit of life is the sign, not the molecule” (Hoffmeyer 1996; Emmeche and Hoffmeyer 1991). There was therefore a genuine continuity from Sebeok to Hoffmeyer, and their biosemiotics, being squarely based on the Peirce’s concept of sign, can be referred to as sign-based biosemiotics, or, more simply, as sign biosemiotics. (227)

[…] Markoš underlined that in human affairs we do observe real change, because our history is ruled by contingency, and entities like literature and poetry show that creativity does exist in the world. He maintained that this creative view of human history can be extended to all living creatures, and argued that this is precisely what Darwin’s revolution was about. It was the introduction of contingency in the history of life, the idea that all living organisms, and not just humans, are subjects, individual agents which act on the world and which take care of themselves. Darwin did pay lip service to the determinism of classical physics, but what he was saying is that evolution is but a long sequence of “just so stories”, not a preordained unfolding of events dictated by immutable laws (Markošet al.2007;Markošet al.2009). (228)

Darwin has shown that the history of life is as contingent as the history of man, and Heidegger has shown that man can create genuine novelties because he can interpret what goes on in the world. From these two insights, Markoš concludes that all living creatures are interpreting subjects, and that all novelties of the history of life were brought into existence by acts of interpretation. (228)

The existence of semiosis in life does not exclude, in principle, the existence of semiosis in inanimate matter, but the unifying idea of Prague was the concept, proposed by Thomas Sebeok, that“life and semioisis are coextensive”, i.e. that “semiosis exists in all living beings and onlyin living beings”. This became ‘the foundational principle’ of biosemiotics, and it was precisely its acceptance that realized the first step towards unification. It must be underlined that this principle is a scientific hypothesis because it isfalsifiable (a single example of semiosis in inanimate matter would immediately falsify it). (230)

Today there are still differences between the schools, but there is also a ‘minimal unity’ in the field because of two basic principles, or postulates, that are accepted by virtually all biosemioticians.
(1) The first postulate is Thomas Sebeok’s idea that “life and semiois is are coextensive”. This implies that semiosis appeared at the origin of life, and sharply differentiates biosemiotics from ‘pansemiotics’ and ‘physiosemiotics’, the doctrines that semiosis exists also in inanimate matter and therefore everywhere in the universe. It also differentiates it from the views that semiosis exists only in animals or only in humans beings.
(2) The second postulate is the idea that signs, meanings and codes are natural entities. This sharply divides biosemiotics from the doctrine of ‘intelligent design’, and from all other doctrines that maintain that the origin of life on Earth was necessarily the product of a supernatural agency. (230)

Code biosemiotics, in conclusion, is distinct from physical biosemiotics because it maintains that copying and coding bring new fundamental observables into existence. A second difference is that it describes the cell as a trinity of genotype, phenotype and ribotype, not as a duality of genotype and phenotype (Barbieri 1981). A third difference is that code biosemiotics recognizes the existence of a new mechanism of evolution (natural conventions), and states that the great steps of macroevolution were produced by the appearance of new organic codes (Barbieri1985, 1998, 2003a). (233)

For a long time it has been assumed that the function of semiosis is to interpret the world, but this is not the whole truth. We must acknowledge that in addition to interpretive semiosis there are two other types of semiosis whose function is not to interpret the world of life but to create it, to bring its objects into existence and to organize them into functioning wholes. Life is essentially about three things: (1) it is about manufacturing objects, (2) it is about assembling objects into functioning structures, and (3) it is about interpreting the world. The discovery that these are all semiotic processes, tells us that life depends on semiosis much more deeply and extensively than we thought on the basis of the interpretive semiotics of Peirce. This approach, in other words, is not wrong, but is too limited, too restrictive. There are three distinct types of semiosis in Nature and interpretive semiosis is only one of them. This is the great difference between the above schools of biosemiotics. Sign biosemiotics is based on the Peircean approach and assumes that semiosis is about interpreting the world. Code biosemiotics is based on the code model and assumes that semiosis is primarily about bringing objects into existence and organizing them into functioning structures. (234)

Hermeneutic biosemiotics, in conclusion, wants to turn biology into a field of the humanities, whereas code biosemiotics wants to keep it within science, because meaning is a natural entity and we must introduce it in science just as we have introduced the concepts of energy and information. And this is not because science is superior to the humanities. It is because organic meaning exists in the organic world just as cultural meaning exists in the cultural world. A true synthesis of biology and semiotics, in short, cannot be the reduction of one to the other. It can only be the realization that there is no unbridgeable divide between them. (235-236)

Any field of research relies on models, and in biosemiotics there are, today, two distinct models of semiosis: one based on interpretation, and one based on coding. They can be summarized in the following way.
(1) The Interpretation model was described in the treatise of Semiotics edited by Posner, Robering and Sebeok, and states that: “The necessary and sufficient condition for something to be a semiosis is that A interprets B as representing C, where A is the interpretant, B is an object and C is the meaning that A assigns to B” (Posner et al. 1997).
(2) The Code model states that: “The necessary and sufficient condition for something to be a semiosis is that A provides a conventional association between B and C, where A is a set of adaptors and B and C are the objects of two independent worlds (Barbieri2003a, 2006b). (236)

Can we say that there has been a real macroevolutionary discontinuity between single cells and animals? To this purpose, let us underline that the mind —or the brain—of animals does not interpret the world but only representations of the world. Any interpretation, in short, is always exercised on internal models of the environment, never on the environment itself. Single cells, on the other hand, do not build representations. They decode the signals from the environment but do not build internal models of it and therefore cannot interpret them. They are sensitive to light, but do not ‘see’; they react to sounds but do not‘hear’; they detect hormones but do not ‘smell and do not ‘taste’ them. It takes the cooperation of many cells which have undertaken specific processes of differentiation to allow a system to see, hear, smell and taste, so it is only multicellular creatures that have these experiences. Only animals, in short, build representations of the world and only these representations allow them to perceive,tofeel, and to interpret the world. The evolution from single cells to animals was far more than an increase in growth and complexity. (236)

Animals became capable of interpreting the world because they could build internal representations of it, and this is a process that single cells simply cannot do. Interpretation is essentially what Peirce called an ‘abduction’, a process that is neither induction nor deduction, but a ‘rule of thumb’ way of creating a link between observations and explanations (Peirce1906). More precisely, animals learned to interpret the world by using the two types of signs that Peirce called ‘icons’ and ‘indexes’. They did not, however, use the third type of sign, the ‘symbols’. Only our species managed to do that, and developed a third type of semiosis that was based on symbolic codes shared by all members of a community, i.e., on language (Deacon 1997). (238)

The evolution of semiosis was characterized therefore by three great innovations: (1) the origin of organic semiosis (the semiotic threshold), (2) the origin of interpretive semiosis (the hermeneutic threshold), and (3) the origin of linguistic semiosis (the cultural threshold). (239)

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