The Chicken and the Orphean Egg:
On the Function of Meaning and the Meaning of Function

Claus Emmeche

Center for the Philosophy of Nature and Science Studies

Niels Bohr Institute

Blegdamsvej 17, DK-2100 Copenhagen, Denmark


This article has been published and appears in Sign Systems Studies 30 (1): 15-32, 2002

©This paper is not for reproduction without permission of the author


A central aspect of the relation between biosemiotics and biology is investigated by asking: Is a biological concept of function intrinsically related to a biosemiotic concept of sign action, and vice versa? A biological notion of function (as some process or part that serves some purpose in the context of maintenance and reproduction of the whole organism) is discussed in the light of the attempt to provide an understanding of life processes as being of a semiotic nature, i.e., constituted by sign actions. Does signification and communication in biology (e.g., intracellular communication) always presuppose an organism with distinct semiotic or quasi-semiotic functions? And, symmetrically, is it the case that functional relations are simply not conceivable without living sign action? The present note is just an introduction to a project aiming at elucidating the relations between biofunction and biosemiosis.

Biology has celebrated some major triumphs in the period beginning with Darwinís publication of Origin of Species in 1859 all the way up to 2001, when newspaper headlines proclaimed that the human genome had now been charted. Now that biology has shown us what life is (from a scientific standpoint), what shall we do with biosemiotics?

The biosemiotic project involves looking from a completely different angle at natural biological processes of which, to be sure, we have already gained knowledge through the traditional science of biology and the research fields it includes (molecular biology, cellular biology, ethology, ecology, neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory, etc.). From these disciplines, we have now gained an enormous amount of knowledge of living organisms. At the same time, however, there are gaping holes in this knowledge. It has a dual nature, i.e. on the one hand it comprises a large body of positive facts and theoretical generalizations, even coherent and well-confirmed theories (such as cellular theory and evolutionary theory), but on the other hand it takes the form of non-knowledge. The latter applies, in particular, to the knowledge we have gained of humans as a species by mapping the human genome. This non-knowledge exists at least at two levels.

First of all, there is non-knowledge in the form of holes or white blots on the previously existing theoretical map of biological fields that may be filled in, possibly in the near future. The hope is that more research funds and research hours will be able to fill these holes. For example, now that we have the complete human genome we would also like to map out the complete chimpanzee genome, since the chimpanzee is our nearest biological relative and we hope to gain a better understanding of that kinship. All we need to do is begin the task of DNA sequencing a chimpanzee - a major undertaking to be sure - but one that is fully feasible. In this way, we can continue doing the same with other species. Even today, we have detailed genetic maps of biologistís favourite model organisms (the fruit fly, a nematode worm, the coli bacteria, the yeast cell, and even, in part, the mouse).

Secondly, our biological non-knowledge exists at a level on which we are approaching the limits of what we can expect to know if we simply use existing methods without making theoretical fractures in the established paradigm, i.e. if we simply continue placing more small pieces into the existing puzzle. With regard to certain questions, if non-knowledge at this level were transformed into knowledge, we would probably need to look at them through different theoretical glasses or use a different paradigm, in the precise sense Thomas Kuhn uses this word. Here, a paradigm is not just another theory that may assign a slightly different meaning to the concepts that were previously used, but almost another world, at least for the researcher, i.e., a different set of theoretical tasks, some different values used to determine what constitutes good questions and even for which things a person, as a scientist, can research in the first place. It is on this latter level, in particular, that biosemiotics tackles the problem, using the following fundamental assertion: The traditional paradigm in biology which encompasses a number of experimental methods, normal scientific working procedures, neo-Darwinism and its mathematical population models, etc. alone is not and cannot be sufficient to answer the following key question: How did meaning originate in biological systems? And what is it (if not meaning, i.e. the creation of signs, and semiotic processes in general) that makes biology something special, something that on certain points fundamentally differs from the types of systems studied, for example, by physicists and chemists?

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