Where Does Pattee’s “How Does a Molecule Become a Message?” Belong in the History of Biosemiotics?

Biosemiotics 2 (3):269-290 (2009)
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Recalling the title of Yoxen’s classical paper on the influence of Schrödinger’s book, I analyze the role that the work of H. Pattee might have played, if any, in the development of Biosemiotics. I take his 1969 paper “How does a molecule become a message?” (Developmental Biology Supplement) as a first target due to several circumstances that make it especially salient. On the one hand, even if Pattee has obviously developed further his ideas on later papers, the significance of this one springs out right from the title, the journal and date of publication and, of course, its content. On the other, this paper in particular has been somehow rediscovered recently and not only within the frame of biosemiotics (eg, in history and philosophy of biology by E.F. Keller). Following the parallelism with Yoxen’s perspective, I contend that Pattee’s work was relatively influential with respect to a good amount of attempts to rethink living systems within theoretical biology around the 70s. This influence diminished together with the decay or even collapse of those attempts under the impact of molecular biology as it was being developed those years. Eventually, Pattee’s work has been taken up again. Notwithstanding, it is quite clear that Pattee himself was not intending to contribute specifically to Biosemiotics and that he was probably unaware of any such discipline, at least until recently. Then, we should as well ask (as Yoxen wonders with respect to Schrödinger) to which extent Pattee’s influence has been a direct one or rather an indication of the relevance of his ideas and the resonance of his hypotheses with those of biosemiotics. For this task I will sketch a few points of convergence and divergence and examine the work of some authors who either address directly this issue or have contributed significantly to build up the history of Biosemiotics



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