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Title of Journal: Biosemiotics

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Springer Netherlands

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A Short History of Biosemiotics

Authors: Marcello Barbieri,

Publish Date: 2009/05/06
Volume: 2, Issue:2, Pages: 221-245
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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.Codes and conventions are the basis of our social life and from time immemorial have divided the world of culture from the world of nature. The rules of grammar, the laws of government, the precepts of religion, the value of money, cooking recipes, fairy tales and the rules of chess are all human conventions that are profoundly different from the laws of physics and chemistry, and this has led to the conclusion that there is an unbridgeable gap between nature and culture. Nature is governed by objective immutable laws, whereas culture is produced by the mutable conventions of the human mind.In this centuries-old framework, the discovery of the genetic code, in the early 1960s, came as a bolt from the blue, but strangely enough it did not bring down the barrier between nature and culture. On the contrary, a ‘protective belt’ was quickly built around the old divide with two arguments that effectively emptied the discovery of the code of all its revolutionary potential. One argument is that the genetic code is a metaphor because it must be reducible, in principle, to physical quantities. The other is that it is the only code that exists in nature, whereas countless different codes exist in culture. This amounts to saying that the real world of codes is culture, not nature, and in this case the genetic code can be regarded as a totally isolated accident that somehow appeared at the origin of life.A few scientists, however, took a completely different approach. Howard Pattee pointed out, in the 1960s, that the discovery of the genetic code means that the cell is a physical system controlled by ‘symbols’, and underlined that this reveals a totally unexpected aspect of nature. At about the same time, Thomas Sebeok started questioning another of our traditional beliefs, the conviction that semiosis exists only in culture, i.e., that only man makes use of signs. Culture must have biological roots, he argued, so there must be some forms of semiosis in the animal world.The idea of a union between 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 it has grown ever since. The present paper is dedicated to a short history of the new field, and to this purpose is divided into two Parts. The first describes the main schools of biosemiotics, whereas the second illustrates their present differences and the conditions for a unified science.The discovery of the genetic code took place between 1961 and 1966 (Nirenberg and Matthaei 1961; Speyer et al. 1963; Nirenberg et al. 1966; Khorana et al. 1966), and immediately inspired the idea of a deep parallel between the genetic code and the codes of language. This idea was expressed in no uncertain terms by George and Muriel Beadle in 1966: “the deciphering of the genetic code has revealed our possession of a language much older than hieroglyphics, a language as old as life itself, a language that is the most living language of all — even if its letters are invisible and its words are buried in the cells of our bodies” (Beadle and Beadle 1966). But was this only a poetic metaphor or can we really say that the genetic code is a true molecular language?A language is based on signs and can exist only in systems that make use of signs, i.e., in semiotic systems. The genetic code would be therefore a real molecular language only if the cell is a real semiotic system, i.e., only if signs, or symbols, exist inside the cell and are instrumental to its functions. This is the great potential implication of the discovery of genetic code, but can we prove it?



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