The term biosemiotics derives from the Greek root bios (“life”) semeion (“sign”) and suffix –ika (“study of”). Biosemiotics is thus the study of sign processing both within and between living systems.
History and Overview
The contemporary interdisciplinary research agenda of Biosemiotics has its roots in the pioneering work done by the linguist Thomas A. Sebeok (1920–2001) in bringing biologists and semioticians together to develop more fine-grained understandings about animal communication practices – and, in particular, about how those practices might underlie the evolution of human language use (Sebeok 1990, 2001).
Sebeok initially christened his interdisciplinary research project zoösemiotics – “a discipline within which the science of signs intersects with ethology, devoted to the scientific study of signalling behaviour in and across animal species” (Sebeok 1969).
However, as the number of researchers from various fields of study (including zoology, neuroscience, comparative psychology, and even molecular biology) began to grow, the focus of this interdisciplinary enterprise likewise expanded to include the study of signaling processes within organisms, as well as between them. Accordingly, by the 1990s, researchers in this still-developing area of study were using the term biosemiotics to denote the shared research agenda of exploring how signaling processes both internal to, and exchanged between, organisms could be understood as the products of evolutionary adaptation and change (Hoffmeyer 2009).
Much of the early work done in this project sought to build upon the insights of experimental physiologist Jakob von Uexküll (1864–1944) as well as the logician Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914) in the analysis of animal communication systems and display behavior (Favareau 2006). From von Uexküll, whom Nobel Prize winners Konrad Lorenz and Nikolaas Tinbergen called “the father of animal behavior study,” Sebeok and his colleagues incorporated the notions of species-specific sensory worlds and the imprinting of meaning upon stimuli via sensation-action feedback cycles (von Uexküll’s umwelt and functional circle ideas, respectively), while many of von Uexküll’s other pioneering ideas were simultaneously being developed in the sciences of cybernetic feedback control and neural networking (von Uexküll 2010; Kull 2003).
Developing a “scientific logic of sign relations” was the lifework of mathematician, logician, and philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, and many biosemioticians employ Peirce’s nested hierarchy of iconic, indexical, and symbolic relations (Peirce 2010) in their analyses of, respectively, primary sensory experience, object-action association patterns, and higher-level lawful behavior arising from the species-specific ways in which such association patterns are systemically organized. Most notably, Peirce’s sign logic is used by neuroscientist and biological anthropologist Terrence Deacon in his 1997 book The Symbolic Species: The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain, to argue for a view of human language evolution which has its roots in earlier forms of animal sign processes, but which becomes distinctive with the uniquely human ability to create signs that signify not just real-world events and objects, but also signs that signify other signs (Deacon 1997).
With the death of Thomas Sebeok in 2001, the center of gravity for the biosemiotics project shifted to the University of Copenhagen under the auspices of biochemist and molecular biologist Jesper Hoffmeyer and the philosopher of science Claus Emmeche who, along with cybnetician Søren Brier, and the Estonian botanist and theoretical biologist Kalevi Kull, established the Biosemiotics Group at the University of Copenhagen in the early 1990s and who together hosted the first international Biosemiotics conference in 2001. That conference has been held annually, in various cities in Europe and in North America, every year since then, and the field, while still early in its development, now has its own international society, peer-reviewed journal, and book series.
With evolutionary psychology, biosemiotics seeks to productively bring together researchers in the life sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities in order to develop a naturalistic understanding of the use, structure, biology, and evolution of sign processing in living systems (Kull et al. 2009).
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