Three Types of Semiosis

Biosemiotics 2 (1):19-30 (2009)


The existence of different types of semiosis has been recognized, so far, in two ways. It has been pointed out that different semiotic features exist in different taxa and this has led to the distinction between zoosemiosis, phytosemiosis, mycosemiosis, bacterial semiosis and the like. Another type of diversity is due to the existence of different types of signs and has led to the distinction between iconic, indexical and symbolic semiosis. In all these cases, however, semiosis has been defined by the Peirce model, i.e., by the idea that the basic structure is a triad of ‘sign, object and interpretant’, and that interpretation is an essential component of semiosis. This model is undoubtedly applicable to animals, since it was precisely the discovery that animals are capable of interpretation that allowed Thomas Sebeok to conclude that they are also capable of semiosis. Unfortunately, however, it is not clear how far the Peirce model can be extended beyond the animal kingdom, and we already know that we cannot apply it to the cell. The rules of the genetic code have been virtually the same in all living systems and in all environments ever since the origin of life, which clearly shows that they do not depend on interpretation. Luckily, it has been pointed out that semiosis is not necessarily based on interpretation and can be defined exclusively in terms of coding. According to the ‘code model’, a semiotic system is made of signs, meanings and coding rules, all produced by the same codemaker, and in this form it is immediately applicable to the cell. The code model, furthermore, allows us to recognize the existence of many organic codes in living systems, and to divide them into two main types that here are referred to as manufacturing semiosis and signalling semiosis. The genetic code and the splicing codes, for example, take part in processes that actually manufacture biological objects, whereas signal transduction codes and compartment codes organize existing objects into functioning supramolecular structures. The organic codes of single cells appeared in the first three billion years of the history of life and were involved either in manufacturing semiosis or in signalling semiosis. With the origin of animals, however, a third type of semiosis came into being, a type that can be referred to as interpretive semiosis because it became closely involved with interpretation. We realize in this way that the contribution of semiosis to life was far greater than that predicted by the Peirce model, where semiosis is always a means of interpreting the world. Life is essentially about three things: (1) it is about manufacturing objects, (2) it is about organizing objects into functioning systems, and (3) it is about interpreting the world. The idea that these are all semiotic processes, tells us that life depends on semiosis much more deeply and extensively than we thought. We realize in this way that there are three distinct types of semiosis in Nature, and that they gave very different contributions to the origin and the evolution of life

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References found in this work

Uber Sinn und Bedeutung.Gottlob Frege - 1892 - Zeitschrift für Philosophie Und Philosophische Kritik 100 (1):25-50.
Phytosemiotics.Martin Krampen - 1981 - Semiotica 36 (3-4).

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