PublicationsTerminologyRelated SitesOnline DiscussionsSee JournalHome

Biosemiotics is:
  • biology that interprets living systems as sign systems.

that is, to use a few more words,

  • the signification, communication and habit formation of living processes
  • semiosis (changing sign relations) in living nature
  • the biological basis of all signs and sign interpretation

To define biosemiotics as "biology interpreted as sign systems" is to emphasize not only the close relation between biology as we know it (as a scientific field of inquiry) and semiotics (the study of signs), but primarily the profound change of perspective implied when life is considered not just from the perspectives of molecules and chemistry, but as signs conveyed and interpreted by other living signs in a variety of ways, including by means of molecules. In this sense, biosemiotics takes for granted and respects the complexity of living processes as revealed by the existing fields of biology - from molecular biology to brain science and behavioural studies - however, biosemiotics attempts to bring together separate findings of the various disciplines of biology (including evolutionary biology) into a new and more unified perspective on the central phenomena of the living world, including the generation of function and signification in living systems, from the ribosome to the ecosystem and from the beginnings of life to its ultimate meanings. Furthermore, by providing new concepts, theories and case studies from biology, biosemiotics attempts to throw new light on some of the unsolved riddles within the general study of sign processes (semiotics), such as the question about the origin of signification in the universe. Here, signification (and sign) is understood in a very general sense, that is, not simply the transfer of information from one place to another, but the generation of the very content and meaning of that information in human as well as non-human sign producers and sign receivers. Sign processes are thus taken as real: They are governed by regularities (habits, if not laws) that can be discovered and explained. They are intrinsic in living nature, but we can access them, not directly, but indirectly through other sign processes (measurements for instance) - even though the human representation and understanding of these processes (in the construction of explanations) builds up as a separate scientific sign system distinct from the organisms' own sign processes.

Claus Emmeche (first point due to Kalevi Kull in consultation)