Interesting article - someone posted this on Facebook (sorry, I don't remember who, so I can't give you a plug) - and I have finally gotten around to reading it.
Read the rest of this cool article.
Are signs and meanings just as vital to living things as enzymes and tissues? Liz Else investigates a science in the making
EVERY so often, something shows up on the New Scientist radar that we just can't identify easily. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it a brand new type of flying machine that we are going to have to study closely?
That was our reaction when we first heard about a small conference held in June at the philosophy department of the Portuguese Catholic University in Braga. There, a group of biologists, neuroscientists, philosophers, information technologists and other scholars from all over the world gathered to discuss some revolutionary ideas for developing the hitherto obscure field of biosemiotics.
Unlike most revolutionaries, it soon became clear that this group's goal was not to overturn the established order. They don't attack the current way of doing science- they see its value plainly- but they do believe that for biology to become a more fully explanatory science, it needs a more encompassing framework. This framework needs to be able to explain an under-studied aspect of all living organisms: the capacity to navigate their environments through the processing of signs.
Biology, of course, already concerns itself with information: cell signalling, the genetic code, pheromones and human language, for example. What biosemiotics aims to do is to weave these disparate strands into a single coherent theory of biological meaning.
At first glance, the group seems to have chosen an unfortunate and incomprehensible name for its activity- semiotics is the study of signs and symbols that is most commonly associated with linguistic philosophers such as Ferdinand de Saussure. "Biosemiotics", then, might sound like the name of some arcane mix of biological science and linguistic philosophy. Luckily, though, the true message of biosemiotics is clear: we may do better to stop thinking about the biological world solely in terms of its physical and chemical properties, but see it also as a world made up of biological signs and "meanings".
One of the nascent field's leading lights, Donald Favareau of the National University of Singapore, provides a definition on the group's website. "Biosemiotics is the study of the myriad forms of communications... observable both within and between living systems. It is thus the study of representation, meaning, sense, and the biological significance of sign processes- from intracellular signalling processes to animal display behaviour to human... artefacts such as language and abstract symbolic thought."
To get a better sense of what this means, it is best to go back to the field's roots. Biosemiotics traces its earliest influences to the independent efforts of an Estonian-born biologist in the early 20th century and an American philosopher of the 19th century, who wrote much of his work hidden in an attic to avoid his creditors.
Estonian-born Jakob von Uexküll was an animal physiologist whose 1934 book A Stroll Through the Worlds of Animals and Men: A picture book of invisible worlds - and later works - inspired Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen, who then went on to win a Nobel prize in 1973 for their studies in animal behaviour, or ethology.
Von Uexküll wrote: "If we stand before a meadow covered with flowers, full of buzzing bees, fluttering butterflies, darting dragonflies, grasshoppers jumping over blades of grass, mice scurrying, and snails crawling about, we would be inclined to ask ourselves the unintended question: Does the meadow present the same view to the eyes of so many various animals as it does to ours?"
The International Society for Biosemiotic Studies offers a lot more information for the curious. here is a little more from the main page article offering a definition of biosemiotics.
What is Biosemiotics?
Biosemiotics is an interdisciplinary research agenda investigating the myriad forms of communication and signification found in and between living systems. It is thus the study of representation, meaning, sense, and the biological significance of codes and sign processes, from genetic code sequences to intercellular signaling processes to animal display behavior to human semiotic artifacts such as language and abstract symbolic thought.
Such sign processes appear ubiquitously in the literature on biological systems. Up until very recently, however, it had been implicitly assumed that the use of such terms as "message" "signal" "code" and "sign" was ultimately metaphoric, and that such terms could someday effectively be reduced to the mere chemical and physical interactions underlying such processes. As the prospects for such a reduction become increasingly untenable, even in theory, the interdisciplinary research project of biosemiotics is attempting to re-open the dialogue across the life sciences - as well as between the life sciences and the humanities - regarding what, precisely, such ineliminable terms as "meaning" and "significance" might refer to in the context of living, complex adaptive systems.
The purpose of the International Society for Biosemiotic Studies (ISBS) is to constitute an organizational framework for the collaboration among scholars dedicated to biosemiotic studies, and to propagate knowledge of this field of study to researchers in related areas, as well as to the public in general. Towards this end, the Society will assure the organization of regular meetings on research into the semiotics of nature, as well as to promote the publication of scholarly work on the semiotics of life processes.
Most fundamentally, the Society considers that one of its most important purposes is the promotion of a cross-disciplinary exchange of ideas between researchers who are actively studying any of the myriad forms of organismic sign use found throughout the natural and cultural world. ISBS thus welcomes the membership and collaboration of scholars from all relevant disciplines, including biology, philosophy, ethology, cognitive science, anthropology, and semiotics.