By Peter Harries-Jones, co-editor SEED
The articles for Volume 2 of SEED arise from the Second Semiotics, Evolution, Energy conference held at the University of Toronto in October 6, 7, 8/ 2001 entitled “The Integration of Information Processing.” This current issue features a number of papers originally delivered in separate session but which explore common themes, that of the relation of information systems and semiosis to biological transitions and evolution. The first article, by Daniel R. Books, explores information systems in relation to thermodynamic entropy. His discussion of the dynamics of information reiterates the suggestion that evolution is caused by the entropic increase in biological information within genetic phase space. Brooks holds to the general proposition that in a world controlled by the second law of thermodynamics that there are fundamental trade-offs between energy used and energy stored as structure - including both biomass and information systems. Therefore biological information must have energetic cost and both costs and benefits will be displayed in biological transitions and evolution. Since the nature of the organism is most strongly embodied in phylogeny, the history of descent with modification, all evolutionary explanations need to turn to the study of phylogenetics in order to understand costs, benefits and evolutionary strategies employed. Brooks treats phylogenesis as ‘retained history,’ arguing that phylogenesis not only directly documents evolutionary mechanisms but reveals how biological complexity is enabled, thus extending the time period through which evolutionary experiments, leading to evolutionary transitions, can occur.
Jack Maze and Cyril V. Finnegan in their joint paper believe that there are still some problems relating entropy and evolution, particularly that entropy increase still does not account satisfactorily for the ‘relevant force’ that drives the increase of living things. They prefer to tackle this issue from the perspective of ontogenesis, the events an individual organism undergoes from inception to death. They develop an insight of Taborsky that energy flows only through the agency of the transformation of matter. The inference they draw from Taborsky, is that information transfer occurs concomitantly with the flow of energy along energy gradients, thus the organism itself links flows of energy and information as it transforms matter. A testable proposition emerging from this inference is that ontogenetic systems that differ in the flow of energy and will also show differences related to information. Maze and Finnegan consider the phenomenon of ‘emergence’ - common to both ontogeny and phylogeny - and relate ‘emergence’ to experiments with seedlings of Engelman spruce. They argue that if these experiments on emergence among spruce seedlings continue to be confirmed, showing how the flow of energy through an organized system is accompanied by a flow of information, then it may be possible to derive a naturalistic account for irreversible biological change. Despite the success of these experiments on emergence, the link between ontogeny and phylogenesis still remains a daunting task.
Ulanowicz’s article is both a complement to, and a query of the Maze-Finnegan approach through ontogenesis. Semiotic agency seeks to describe some middle realm existing between two extremes of the interpretation of natural order, strict mechanism and pure chance. Ulanowicz argues that Popper’s ‘world of propensities’ embraces this middle ground in that it encompasses organized habitual behaviours among a moderate number of elements that are loosely but significantly coupled. What other aspects of the tacit and semiotic can be derived from semiotic agency in information flow? Moreover can the tacit and semiotic agency be linked to the quantitative aspects of information- theoretic measures, thus yielding a prototype of a ‘quantitative semiotics?’. Ontogeny, he maintains, resembles deterministic behaviour too closely and does not illustrate well the interplay between the organized and the contingent that is characteristic of ecosystems. He considers the ‘world of propensities’ in relation to ‘habits arising’ in ecosystems. Ecosystems are a rich reservoir of semiotic behaviours. They also generate an ecological metaphysics that does not accord with the mechanistic assumptions of the Newtonian worldview. In effect, the ecological dynamic reveals that any one event does not propagate universally and is always constrained by selection processes at other levels. Only rarely does a novel event occur that resonates with existing autocatalyic configuration and is embodied into the kinetic structure. Yet the kinetic structures of biological processes acting within the systems themselves can be said to select in favour of those changes that augment their own selection capabilities. There is, therefore an aspect of self-reference. Ulanowicz works out self selection in autocatalysis demonstrating how it is possible to specify the interplay between the organized and the contingent in a quantitative manner.
Andrade picks up another characteristic of semiotic agents, their intrinsic informational activity being evidently related to shape and form. He defines form as the process that gives rise to the establishment, transfer and conservation of specific sets of non-random interactions that materialize is a specific space-temporal arrangement (pattern). Despite the breakthrough of the molecular biology revolution in the 1950s with its notion that organisms could be reduced to digitally encoded one-dimensional descriptions it is still not clear how the three-dimensional shapes of forms become encoded in one dimension. Andrade argues that it is not possible to understand digitally recorded information without making reference to the whole network of interactions that are characteristic of form. Informational records have a dual nature, both analog and digital. In effect, entropic expansion only takes place in natural informational systems that have code duality (see Hoffmeyer and Emmeche). DNA centred arguments miss the importance of how analog information systems drives evolution in a non-random way towards a higher degree of organization. Using Peirce, he shows how Peirce’s triadic manners of being, Firstness, Secondness and Thirdness, considered in the context of relations between digital and analog informational spaces, overlap and interlock one to another. Combining Peirce with the notion of code-duality, demonstrates that while all possible digitally encoded worlds may have potential meaning, most will remain meaningless unless their corresponding shape or analog version is selected. Code duality is in turn related to the ‘work-actions’ of semiotic agents.
Emmeche poses a fundamental question: given the attempt to understand life processes as being constituted of sign actions does signification and communication in biology always presuppose an organism with quasi-semiotic functions? Symmetrically, are functional relations conceivable without living sign action? In Emmeche’s view the traditional paradigm in biology does not explain how meaning originates in biological systems. Typically biologists will say that ‘genetic information’ is just a metaphor for certain molecular processes that are organized in a certain way. Traditional biologists may well recognize an implicit connection between functional and informational aspects since cell organization could not exist without genetic memory, but choose to interpret this functionally in terms of parts and whole. For biosemiotics, functional processes have the nature of sign production, sign transfer and sign interpretation, while genetic memory is evidently a semiotic code. Biologists must begin to operate with the concept of the organism as both a functional phenomena and as a system of sign processes, since these two processes, the mereological and the semiotic, are both are conditions for our knowledge of nature. The sceptical biologist may query whether everything in the cell has the nature of a sign. Emmeche proposes that any functional process or structure in the cell is ‘biologically meaningful’ where it makes a difference to the cell as a whole, as a system, if that process were blocked or the structure destroyed. This is why biosemiotics insists on a triadic interpretation of reference relationships, that is to say biosemiotics holds to the proposition that any reference in which ‘function’ or functional process includes the organization of the cell, is indeed a triadic reference and semiotic. ‘Sign’ need not be a communicative sign in the normal sense but may instead be purposeful process replete with triadic causality as Peircian semiotics conceptualises. The point of biosemiotics is to identify such triadic causal relationships in organisms and interpret them as instances of abstract semiotic relationships.
Hoffmeyer gives an extensive account of the origin of his and Emmeche’s thinking about code duality. A proposition that became fundamental to their thinking was that the genome could not continue to be a privileged unit in biology, nor could the organism. Instead, life was a property of linked codes carried forward in time by the lineage in its interaction with changing environments. The chain of events which sets life apart from non-life is the unending chain of responses to selected differences which needs two codes, one for action or behaviour and one code for memory. There were several precursors for the idea of code-duality including Gregory Bateson’s drawing of a distinction between analogic and digital and Howard Pattee’s distinction between linguistic and dynamic modes of complex systems. Hoffmeyer and Emmeche’s conception of code duality transgressed the Neumann-Pattee thesis by claiming that the linguistic or symbolic mode, and the dynamic mode, are both semiotic modes; therefore, they posited two different kinds of semiotic coding - digital for the ‘linguistic mode’ and analog for ‘the dynamic.’ Their concept of code-duality should not be taken in the narrow sense of information theory but in the sense of modern semiotics, as a meaning potential enabling certain kinds of meaning to be made in that code. The ‘duality’ is by no means absolute, for analog codes may eventually end up by becoming part of higher order digital codes. However, it is important to recognize that punctuation, which is the core of digitality, is not inherent to the molecule or to biological process but is always conferred by evolutionary processes preparing a contextual setting. Finally, the concept of code-duality advances the idea of Gregory Bateson that evolution, like both animal and human communication, is deeply dependent on paralinguistic and paralogical settings.