Biosemiotics is an emerging field of study that provides a new perspective on understanding the different layers of biology. This new outlook views molecular biology and ecosystems as communication, and life processes as interactions mediated by signs. (A sign cannot be defined completely on its own. It exists relative to a system, just like a dot is the letter ‘E’ in the Morse code system, and estrogen is a hormone in relation to an endocrine system.)
This semiotic inquiry was motivated by the limitations of the molecular biology approach. Presently, molecular and organismic biology are two diverging sciences and biosemiotics hopes to bridge these two.
And it believes that signals are the key. These signals may be chemical, visual, auditory, or tactile in nature.
Not too long ago, it was believed that the world is ordered, and causality and determinism form two important aspects of classical physics. However, chaos theory then came along. Chaos (which can be observed in deterministic systems) has important connotations in the biological realm, and is closely linked to biosemiotics as a teaching of signals and signs.
This close relationship between biology and deterministic chaos can be observed in their shared features, such as,
• complexity | interdependence, interactions
• non-equilibrium, irreversible
• sensitivity to initial conditions
The network of information and signals between organisms (as well as within a creature) unveils a nonlinear, emergent, chaotic, and unpredictable facet of biology.
Jakob von Uexküll had the idea of applying a semiotic outlook to studying organisms. He presented the notion of umwelt, which means environment in German. Unlike most ecologists, Uexküll speculated that organisms may not necessarily have the same umwelt even when they share a common environment. Umwelt here refers to a network of signs, as construed by a creature; it can therefore be viewed as a means of communication within a living system, like language. In several cases, it gets partly conveyed through chemical, acoustic, and visual cues.
The concept of umwelt is outlined by Dorion Sagan (son of Carl Sagan) in the introduction of the translated book, A Foray Into the Worlds of Animals and Humans: With a Theory of Meaning:
Nonetheless, information and matter-energy are definitely connected.
Unlike the reductionist approach, which treats signs and messages as metaphors that can be explained through chemical reactions, biosemiotics extends to related fields; it is open to the idea that signs might be more than just cultural commodities. Humans evolved from animals, which implies that culture does have biological origins. We also have several examples of animal behavior and psychology that suggest sign-mediated communication is a significant aspect of life, and should complement human semiotics, something which Thomas Sebeok, a semiotician, boldly suggested in the 1960s.
It is going to be exciting to see what this novel academic pursuit has store for the future, particularly how it will complement natural selection. And yet, with time, we might even discover that some of these ‘new’ visions have been latent in the works of von Baer, N. Wiener, D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, Levi-Strauss, Stuart Kauffman, René Thom, Spemann, Waddington, Brian Goodwin, and several others. Some of these ideas include:
- systems biology | emergent properties , systems/holistic thinking
- mathematical biology
- developmental/epigenetic biology
- structuralism | in governing of species
- improving Darwinism
- mind body problem
- free will
- novel physics | poised realm
Until then, the late Terry Pratchett’s words can describe our stupefaction, “No one knows the reason for all this, but it is probably quantum”.