"Biosemiotics" - an encyclopedia entry.

Claus Emmeche (2003): "Biosemiotics", p. 63-64 in: J. Wentzel Vrede van Huyssteen (ed.): Encyclopedia of Science and Religion. New York: Macmillan Reference.


Biosemiotics is a growing field that studies the production, action and interpretation of signs (such as sounds, objects, smells, movements, but also signs on molecular scales normally not perceived by an organism) in the physical and biologic realm, in an attempt to integrate the findings of biology and semiotics (the study of signs and symbols). One goal of biosemiotics is to form a new view of life and meaning as immanent features of the natural world.

Early pioneers of biosemiotics include Charles S. Peirce (1839-1914), Charles Morris (1901-1979), Jakob von Uexküll (1864-1944), Heini Hediger (1908-1992), Giorgio Prodi (1928-1987), Thomas A. Sebeok (b.1920-2001), and Thure von Uexküll (b.1908). Contemporary scholars include the biologists Jesper Hoffmeyer (b.1942), Kalevi Kull (b.1952), Alexei Sharov (b. 1954), and semioticeans Floyd Merrell (b.1937), John Deely (b. 1942), Winfried Nöth (b. 1944), and Lucia Santaella (b. 1944).

One of the central characteristics of living syst ems is the highly organized nature of their physical and chemical processes. These processes are based, in part, on the informational and molecular properties of what came to be known in the 1960s as the genetic code. Some biologists, such as Ernst Mayr, have viewed these properties as processes that distinguish life from anything else in the physical world, except, perhaps, computers. However, although the informational teleology (the goal-directedness based upon a stored informational code) of a computer programme is not an original form of teleology because the programme is designed by humans to achieve specific goals, the teleology and informational characteristics of organisms are intrinsic, because they evolved naturally through evolutionary processes. Traditional biology (and philosophy of biology) regarded such processes as purely physical, adopting a restricted notion of the physical as having to do with only "efficient causation".

Biosemiotics attempts to use semiotic concepts (in the tradition of Peirce who founded semiotics as a logic and scientific study of dynamic sign action in human and non-human nature) to answer questions about the biologic and evolutionary emergence of meaning, intentionality and a psychic world. Such questions are difficult to answer within a purely mechanist and physicalist framework. Biosemiotics see 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 given us highly valuable accounts of the external aspects of the process, but has overlooked the inner qualitative aspects of sign action, leading to a reduced picture of causality.

Complex self-organized living systems are governed by formal and final causality. They are governed by formal causality 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. They are governed by final causality in the sense of their tendency to take habits and to generate future interpretants of the present sign actions. In this sense, biosemiotics draws 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 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 are still haunting philosophers and scientists. By describing the continuity between matter and mind, biosemiotics may also help people to understand higher forms of mind and the variety of religious experiences, although real interaction between biosemiotics and theology has yet to come.


Hoffmeyer, Jesper. (1996): Signs of Meaning in the Universe. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. [special issue of Semiotica vol. 120 (no.3-4), 1998, includes 13 reviews of the book and a rejoinder by the author].

Kull, Kalevi, eds. (2001). Jakob von Uexküll: A Paradigm for Biology and Semiotics. Semiotica 134 (1/4)(2001), special issue.

Sebeok, Thomas A., and Umiker-Sebeok, Jean, eds. (1992): Biosemiotics. The Semiotic Web 1991. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Sebeok, Thomas A.; Hoffmeyer, Jesper; and Emmeche, Claus, eds. (1999). Biosemiotica. Semiotica 127 (1/4)(1999), special issue.

[added:] See also the biosemiotics pages with links in Estonia: http://www.zbi.ee/~uexkull/biosemiotics/, in Copenhagen: http://www.nbi.dk/~emmeche/pr/Gatherings_overview.html, or in USA: http://www.ento.vt.edu/~sharov/biosem/welcome.html

A comment to this web-version of the entry here.