Biosemiotics. An Examination into the Signs of Life and the Life of Signs      


Molecules and information have long been considered the major conceptual players at the core of scientific biology. In the present book it is suggested that both these concepts fail to fully specify what life-processes are all about, namely semiosis – i.e.,  the sign processes by which living organisms must organize their internal and external relations. A sign is not the same thing as a piece of information. It is related to information but only becomes “information” through an act of interpretation. Only when an interpretant is formed (in a cell, in a tissue or, of course, in a brain) does “information” acquire biological meaning. Bio-molecules are always carriers of signs in this sense, and their function in the organism cannot be understood simply through an analysis of their chemistry. The Greek word for ‘sign’ is ‘semeion’ and biosemiotics literally means “the study of living systems from a semiotic (i.e., sign-theoretical) perspective.”

JH 2011

It is the aim of the present book to give a comprehensive account of the state of the art of this new approach to biology, and to explore the scientific landscapes brought to life through a broader application of its core idea. It should be emphasized here that biosemiotics does not imply any denial of the anchoring of biological processes in well-established physical and chemical lawfulness. Rather, it is claimed that life-processes are both part of – and are organized in obedience to –  a semiotic dynamic, and that this fact cannot be omitted from a true science of life.

The book consists of three parts and a postscript. Part one contains a general discussion of the biosemiotic project as a strategy in life science and Part two contains a detailed exposition of biosemiotics as it may be employed in the understanding of life processes at different levels of animate nature. Part 3 addresses the radical consequences that the biosemiotic perspective will have on our thinking in a range of other areas: i.e., the origin of language, ethics, aesthetics, biomedicine, environmental understanding, health, cognitive science and biotechnology. In the Postscript is given a brief account of the historical development of the discipline, as well as a prognosis for its future growth.

A wasp is laying its eggs in a caterpillar larvae. The wasp was attracted to the caterpillar by a pheromone emitted by corn seedlings after being attacked by caterpillars. After hatching the wasp larvae start eating up the caterpillar. In the end a whasp will appear instead of a butterfly, and the corn seedligs will get rid of there parasite.

What happens here is called semetic interaction, that the habit of one species becomes a sign for another species: the corn plant's habit of emitting a volatile component whenever it is munched upon by a catarpiller signals to the insect that a prey is present for oviposition 

Revised March 18, 2013

19© Jesper Hoffmeyer 2013