Guest Column

Biosemiotics

By Stephen Pain

Biosemiotics is the study of (evolved) sign relations within a biological context. It is broadly divided into two branches according to the nature of the research undertaken, namely the i) theoretical and ii) practical or applied. In the first branch which numbers probably the majority of biosemioticians, researchers are mainly preoccupied with questions and problems to do with the absolute presuppositions of both biology (life) and semiotics (sign).

The majority of the leading school, the Copehagen-Tartu school, are anti-Darwinist and influenced by the theoretical biology of Jakob von Uexküll a Baltic-German biologist and the triadic sign model of Charles Sanders Peirce. The putative father of biosemiotics, the late Thomas Sebeok sought to synthesise the theories of the two ”sign masters”. He also advocated a convergence of the two presuppositions, one which was suggested by his reading of Peirce. Such a reading and extension of the claims of semiotics has led to conflict with both normative biology and those who support Saussure’s more constrained semiology. My own position has been that of a pragmatist. Firstly while recognising the value of these approaches within the theoretical sandbox, so to speak, I feel that even here at the theorising level they should undergo tests. Whereas in science proper there are various empirical tests based on verification and falsability, there are limited tests for concepts and theories that cross the division between science and metaphysics. The problem has a lot to do with semanticity, or in plainer terms, meaning. Biosemiotics seeks to deal with elements of communication that are dependent upon signification, which requires an enriched conception of information theory beyond the Shannon & Weaver (1948) model. It also has a tendency to promote a near vitalist approach to evolution. This approach though criticised by mainstream biologists is one that distinguishes post-modern science from modern science. With respect to the agenda of biosemiotics, Jencks can be helpful. In his categorisation of modernism and post-modernism, he differentiated modernist science from post-modern science as follows:

Science
Modern Science Post-modern Science
24. mechanistic self-organisng
25. linear non-linear
26. determinism creative, open
27. Newtonian mechanics Quantum/Chaos

(In Jencks, 1992, p.34)

We might note from the defining characteristics of post-modern science that they are derived from the theories of theoretical biologists and scientists like: (24.) Sir D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson, (On Growth and Form (1917)) ; Norbert Wiener (Cybernetics (1948)); Humberto Maturana and Francisco Javier Varela García (Autopoiesis and Cognition (1980)) , (25.) Aleksandr Mikhailovich Lyapunov, (26) Karl Ludwig von Bertalanffy, General System theory (1968); (Gregory Bateson, (Mind and Nature (1979)); (27.) Illya Prigorine , (Order out of Chaos (1978); René Thom (Paraboles et catastrophes (1983)). The theories from these disciplines inform the research and modelling found in biosemiotics. We can also add using Jenck’s categories again, the following dimensions :

Philosophy
Modern Philosophy Post-modern Philosophy
19. monism pluralism
20. materialism semiotic view
21. utopian heterotopian
World View
32. mechanical ecological
33. reductive holistic/holonic
34. separated interconnected
35. hierarchical heterarchical
36. accidental universe anthropic principle
37. anthropocentric cosmological orientation
38. absurdity of “man” tragic optimism

(Jencks, 1992, pp.34-35)

At times, particularly at the “cultural semiotics” end of biosemiotics, some authors have made claims that can be construed as being “creationist”. To avoid these pitfalls, I have drawn up a test of what I call the “propensity to reify”, and used the Shannon & Weaver model as the base from which to measure the various degrees of reification. By reification I mean the turning of abstracts into things. My aim within the biosemiotics community has been to develop working definitions and concepts that can be utilised in models of cognitive states such as the attention or consciousness of meaningful communication. This is essentially an enriched model of the Shannon and Weaver communication theory (1948). According to my theory, the “sign” requires certain neurophysiological structures or processes in order to process incoming information. This was the position of George H. Mead, the sociologist and Morris’s mentor. On this view, the sign relations involved in organisms less complex than the first animals are to be interpreted as either proto-signs, cues or signals. When researchers discuss sign relations between unicellular life forms they are breaking Lloyd Morgan’s canon if they are attributing semiotic activity to them, however it is more likely that they are using semiotic theories in a descriptive function. In the case that they are using semiotics to describe biological phenomena then one would legitimately question whether their theories and models have an explanatory power that extends beyond their parameters and examine the degree of their propensity to reify – the latter a metaphysical test in addition to the usual scientific tests (i.e., verification and falsability),

Purpose

Interpretant

Author

Theory

Reification

Minimal/weak

Sender/Receiver

Shannon (1948)

Communication

None

Sender/Receiver

Wiener (1949)

Cybernetics

Smith (2000)

Functional

Low

Interpretant

Williams (1992)

Functional

Theorising

Interpreter S/R

Pain (2006)

Biosemiotic (ii)

Theorising

Interpretant

Hoffmeyer

(1996 )

Biosemiotic (i)

Theorising

Interpretant

Peirce

(1982-93)

Semiotic

Ontological

Innerwelt

Uexküll (1920 )

Neo-vitalist

Ontological

Strong

God

Dembski (1998 )

Intelligent Design

Religious High

In this chart I have followed Godfrey-Smith’s approach to information. (Godfrey-Smith, 2007) In his entry to a companion on the philosophy of biology he dealt with the use of a strong sense of information in biology. By this he meant one that was an “enriched” or qualitative version of the classical Shannon & Weaver model (1948) which was primarily causal and quantitative. The stronger version was one that could be used to tackle the “instructions” (which contained semantic properties and the intentional) involved in genetics and the developmental relations between gene and the whole organism. After looking at functional models he looked at the third approach:

iii: The idea that genes themselves, for the purpose of evolutionary theorising, should be seen as, in some sense, “made” of information. From this point of view, information becomes a fundamental ingredient in the biological world.

This could said to be an example of a “teleofunctional strategy” – a form of compatiblism, Note here that the purpose is restricted to the domain of theorising as is the degree of reification. This is acceptable within the theoretical sandbox so to speak. However, if we look at the following example from Uexküll we can see that it is no longer a case of theorising.

We find that all characteristics of living things are united in a planful unity, and the characteristics of these unities are integrated in a contrapuntal way with the characteristics of other unities. In this way, one gains the impression of all–embracing harmonious Whole, because even the characteristics of non-living things interweave in a contrapuntal way into the Bauplan of the living. P.66 Harrington, (1996). Uexküll (1937)

The distinction between “theorising” and “belief” is extremely important because our attitude differs towards them. In a theory the reified concept of the sign does not have an ontological status but an epistemological one. While in belief, the concept has often a clear ontological one. Uexküll believed in his concept of the Bauplan in the same way as Bergson believed in the vital force. The concept of a plan is of course no different from the creationist’s concept of “intelligent design”. Any usage of the Bauplan is further complicated by its ideological usage in The Biological State, Uexküll‘s template for the German State, one that was anti-democratic and in many instances attractive to the Nazi of the 1930’s. Here I might bring in a Viennese philosopher of biology, Felix Mainx, who contributed an entry to an encyclopaedia of science of which Charles Morris was one of the main editors. After the terrible experience of the Nazi period, Mainx spent a lot of time analysing in detail the wrongs of vitalist biology or “parabiology” as he called it. Certainly, Uexküll’s theory of the Bauplan falls into this category:

The same holds for the concepts “plan”, “constructed plan”, “functional pattern”, and the like. It is characteristic of many parabiological theories that they turn such concepts into things to which they attribute an action on the “substrate” of organic events. (Mainx, p.637)

We can ask whether it is possible to cut off the “transcendental wings” of Uexküll’s theory of biology and keep the functional circle and the key concept of Umwelt? I believe it can be achieved, but only if we demote the claims of the theory and situate it within existing behavioural or ecological sciences.

On the fringes of biosemiotics there are several researchers who have appropriated key concepts from the C-T school and the “sign masters”, and “mixed” them with cultural and political theories from elsewhere. So for example, we find Wendy Wheeler utilising such concepts from Jesper Hoffmeyer in her book, The Whole Creature.

In this ground-breaking synthesis of evolutionary and cultural theory, Wendy Wheeler draws on the new complex adaptive systems and biosemiotics in order that, far from being opposed to nature, culture is the way that nature has evolved in human beings. Her argument is that these evolutionary processes reveal the fundamental sociality of human creatures; and thus she rejects the selfish individualism that is implied both in the biological reductionism of much recent evolutionary psychology, and in the philosophies of neoliberalism. (Back cover)

Wheeler’s principal cultural theories were derived from the writings of the British Marxist literary critic, Raymond Williams and the complex systems theories of philosopher Michael Polanyi. In the “Science Wars” she would probably side with the sociologists and epistemologists of science who have similar views regarding the “Big Science” and its researchers. The aim seems to be twofold, firstly to deconstruct the practices of normative science, and secondly to use theoretical science to bolster and further ideological goals mostly based on classical Marxism. Similarly in the co-authored book, Semiotics Unbounded : Interpretive Routes through the Open Networks of Signs, Susan Petrilli and Augusto Ponzio devote a lengthy section to word and dialogue based on Mikhail M. Bakhtin’s theories of literature which had been profoundly influenced by Kant and Marx:

According to Bakhtin, dialogue is an embodied, intercorporeal expression of the involvement of one’s body with the body of the other – thus, it is illusory to think that the body is individual, separate, and autonomous. An appropriate image of the body is the “grotesque body” (cf. Bakhtin 1965) as it finds expression in popular culture, in the vulgar language of the public realm, and above all in the masks of carnival. This is the body viewed from a biosemiotic perspective, as an organism in its Umwelt, in its vital and indissoluble relation to the world and to the body of other living things, be they human or non-human. (pp.24-25).

The reference here is to Uexküll’s functional circle. We can note in both books the easy transitions made between the two cultures. For example, the transition made from Karl Marx’s political philosophy to complex systems theory of Ludwig von. Bertalanffy implies that Marxist theory is a proto-complex systems theory. In both books the authors are of a leftish political position who wish to attack the neo-liberal economic and political philosophies of the 1980’s onwards. They view reductive science as serving the political establishment which still reveres the individual subject. The interest is therefore not in biology per se, but how biology might be useful in arguing against subjectivity and ultimately the capitalist system that maintains it. While this appropriation in cultural theory is quite common, it is inappropriate in practical sciences, because it implies a teleology other than the enquiry into biological phenomena. One might on this view see the objective of biosemiotics as a dialectical struggle with normative science, a position untenable for anyone who wishes to apply a model of predictive value. There are a number of inherent contradictions in the use of biosemiotics in cultural theory and politics. If we look at Uexküll’s functional circle we see at first a denial of the psychological subject and individual, yet as in Peirce’s interpretant, the systemic entity Innerwelt, functions as an individual interpreter and thus requires referentiality. The origins of the key concepts of the Innerwelt and Bauplan are vitalist and romantic.

For Uexküll the functional circle was “driven” by the Bauplan which was a mixture of Goethe’s theo-nature aesthetics and Kant’s Natur-Philosophie. It had a “will” in the same way as Schopenhauer’s “Will to Live” and Nietzsche’s “Will to Power”. In a letter to the historian, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Uexküll expresses anti-democratic and right-wing views that are in total opposition to contemporary biosemioticians:

The common man does not think with concepts but with very primitive feelings and intuitions. For him, freedom is either the opportunity to rob and plunder or, in the best case, the opportunity to live undisturbed by the state.

It is also not at all fair to demand from him that his Merkwelt [perceptual reality] possess a picture of the state with all its intertwined relationships of parts. The only thing that one may expect is that he carries within him a sufficiently clear picture of his immediate task, and has the will to fulfill it. (Harrington, p.58)

Letter December 20, 1918 (my underlining)

He also in his book Biology of the State (which argues for a monarchy!) and his play-like dialogue, “God or Gorilla” , explicitly attacks the position of Marxists. In some respects, though this is an exaggeration, the appropriation of Uexküll’s theories for cultural ends is similar to favourably quoting the cultural writings of Alfred Rosenberg, another Baltic-German, and an important Nazi ideologue. As far as I can see cultural critics and theoretical biologists have a preference for neo-vitalist and holist psychology, on the grounds that they believed it was opposed to the mechanistic Newtonian/ Darwinian science that they saw as supporting Nazi biology and the Final Solution. This is an error, because neo-vitalism was actually the theoretical driver of the racial theories – it provided the telos – the return to the Whole.

On Peirce and the Interpretant

A question which many a semiotician has sleepless nights over, seems quite a simple one, what is a sign? R.G. Collingwood, the British philosopher, in his Metaphysics (1940) advised against asking this kind of question, because the answer necessitates going beyond the absolute presuppositions of any given system. This was the territory of Kurt Gödel and his metasystems analysis. For example, if one asks what is a point in Euclidean geometry, one starts to think of beyond a point and then very quickly thoughts wander towards the Cosmos, and at the blink of an eye, one is in central Asia with a Shaman talking about the One! Charles Sanders Peirce spent many decades in an academic wilderness thinking on the definition of a sign, and very often it took him beyond the semiotic system into discussion of infinity and the like. From a practical point of view, Peirce’s cosmic musings though thought-stimulating, are extremely unhelpful. I think the problem lay in his polymath interests and the period in which he was writing. When we analyse his central dogma, which is the triadic model, one can see that he was trying too hard. He wanted it to function as a tool within a symbolic logic, as a presupposition in a formal ontology, as a basal unit in a semiotic/linguistic system, and even as a existent in a cosmology. He insisted that the primary function of the sign was signification, but for it to operate one has to have referentiality. His notion of the interpretant is reductive in the manner of Rudolf Carnap’s symbolic logic – we could for example look at an ambiguous sentence or signs like:

Woman without her man would be a savage.

And accept it in terms of a symmetrical transitive as:

X-Y = S

This works because the two (obvious) versions would have the same form:

Woman, without her man would be a savage.

M-W =S

And

Woman without her man, would be a savage.

W-M =S

Furthermore, Peirce would see the interpretation as a chain of signs that went on ad infinitum.

W-M =S => M=W = S =>…n

This is conceivable when the system is logical, but in natural semiotics where production of meaning is physical, then one has to consider whether the interpretant in the model comprises of two implied cognitive agents, interpreters/interpretants. Given the asymmetrical form of communication, one would also expect them to be different, i.e. having the values of a sender and receiver. Certainly in the above sentence the “meaning” of the message is weighted differently dependent upon factors like gender, age, and a whole host of other variables. Here one can also comment on its usage in biosemiotics.

When dealing with organisms and biological elements that are at the lowest level of awareness, then there is a tendency to use Peirce’s theory of the sign as a system of symbolic logic – the interpretant without a mind, just functioning in a triadic relationship in the same way as a plus or minus sign operates in mathematics. Those working on this level, also are tempted, as earlier researchers did in the case of the ”germ” and the ”cell”, to discuss the metaphysics of the life process. At this juncture, some biosemioticians find themselves dangerously close to a vitalist position, which is moreorless the position of Peirce. Whereas his correspondent, Victoria Lady Welby, was explicit about her religious belief in her theory of signification, Peirce played cat and mouse with the reader, and this adds to the overall indeterminancy. This is clearly reflected in those that follow Peirce along his Aristotelian route of categorisation, i.e. when he talks of firstness, secondness, and his blessed, thirdness. The problem there is that it should have been formalised more, but Peirce for various reasons, did not undertake that work, instead this was taken up and superseded by Whitehead and Russell, then Wittgenstein and later the Vienna Circle. In turn their work was outmoded by the development of modern computer science – the latter science dictating the worthiness of models intended for applications in the natural sciences. Charles Morris quite literally clipped off the transcendental “wings” of Peirce’s semiotics and should be commended rather than vilified for this service. One should, and this is of course a personal opinion, have a “working” semiotic model which can be easily applied, has descriptive and predictive potential, i.e., a semiotic model that can fill in the lacuna in the classical Shannon & Weaver mathematical model of communication.

Nevertheless, being a pragmatist, there is an argument for maintaining two versions of Peirce’s triad and viewing them along a continuum of awareness. If one is going to discuss the questions of life, it does seem very sensible to do so using his symbolic logic model that has the formal properties of similar systems used by contemporary formal ontologists (influenced no doubt by Peirce). Whereas if one wants to do practical work on animal communication, then it would be better to use the cognitive model. This would nicely echo the branches in biosemiotics and perhaps also the divisions. The members of the Copenhagen-Tartu school have a preference for the S-L model rather than the Cog. Model because they are predominantly interested in relations at a molecular level and in the formation of life, while those working with so-called higher forms of life which have evolved sensory and processing systems (beyond coupled signalling systems) and have primitive CPU, will naturally favour the Cog. Model.

About the Author

Stephen Pain (b.1956) is currently working on a book with Dario Martinelli the zoosemiotician. He has written two articles on animal communication and cognition included in the Introduction to Biosemiotics (2006) and Biosemiotic Research Trends (2007) both edited by Marcello Barbieri. His interest in biosemiotics stemmed from his earlier work with natural argumentation systems (biorhetorics).