Published in European Journal for Semiotic Studies 12(1), 101–120 (2000).


Copy versus translate, meme versus sign: development of biological textuality

Kalevi Kull



There are many processes in organisms which can be described using semiotic terminology. However, it is not always clear whether all these processes indeed have a semiotic nature, whether, e.g., DNA is a set of signs or not. It is possible to see an increase in semiotic freedom when moving from the level of automatic copying (which may not yet be seen as a genuinely semiotic process), via the processes of correction and editing, to biological translation and the developmental processes of organic systems (which seemingly are genuine semiotic processes). Using a set of dual oppositions, several differences between the natural scientific biology and semiotic biology are compared, showing that the latter is a generalisation of the former. In this way we may be able to make a step further in the methods of semiotic analysis of living systems, which at the same time can demonstrate how semiotics may be useful to make biology more scientific in its understanding the living process.

Birds may not violate
the letter of the law of gravity,
but they violate its spirit.

James Barham, 2000


For building semiotic biology — an extended biology —, it is important to know whether (and in what extent) the main biological processes can be fully described via natural scientific notions, or are they essentially including something which requires for their complete understanding to go beyond the limits of natural science — to sign systems studies or semiotics. In this paper, I make an attempt to investigate this in a particular case of the copying versus translating processes, which are quite central for the whole theory of biology (and of semiotics, too), and look through several other oppositions as parallel to the one of copying and translating.

First, I should elaborate the formulation of the question which will be discussed here.

Biology can be seen, in its very large part, as a study of various conversions of patterns — since the conversion of patterns includes:

(a) reproduction of organisms,
(b) replication of nucleic acid molecules,
(c) information transfer from cell to cell, or from a group of cells to another group of cells, in the organism (which is a crucial part of development or ontogeny, and of the organism’s representational abilities),
(d) information transfer from an organism to other (a part of which is animal communication, as studied by ethology),
(e) information transfer from generation to generation (which is inheritance, and evolution).

Many biologists see in all these processes the varieties of (self)reproduction, replication, or copying (of material patterns, or information) — the copying with possibilities of making mistakes, with the influence of noise, differential copying, but still just copying. This has led to the development of the self-reproducing systems models as a theoretical basis for biology.

Despite that, many biologists say that this is not copying, but translating, either metaphorically, or even truly. One who has been particularly strict in arguing against self-reproduction as a fundamental feature of cellular life was H.Maturana (Maturana, Varela 1980; cf. also the critics of the notion of ‘self-reproduction’ by Salthe 1985: 111).

Translating can be seen as a good example of semiosis. And several semioticians claim, that semiosis is just nothing else than real translating (or its analogue) going on in all levels of living. In biosemiotics, the term translation has been used for both communication and developmental processes, i.e. for horizontal and vertical semiosis (Vehkavaara 1998). Lotman (1984: 216) has a remark:

Similarly to the living organism, whose normal contact to the insentient nature means the prevenient ‘translation’ of information into the structural language of biosphere, also the contact of every intellectual being with outward information requires its translation into the sign system.

Thus, the problem is whether it is copying or translating what takes place in the biological realm? And is there a real difference between copying and translating? Could not these be simply small differences in using of the terms in biology and humanities?

Below, I shall look more closely to the opposition of copying and translating, to find out how profound can this distinction be, and whether there can be a stepwise transition between these possible extremes.

It should also be admitted that the above-mentioned conversions of patterns (or information transmission, or copying and translating) are connected with notions, which

(1) define these patterns, like the notions of memory (whether genetic, or neural, or any other), inheritance (either genetic, or biological, or cultural), and text (whether written, or not), and

(2) describe the changes or modifications taking place in the course of information transfer or pattern conversion, like learning, or adaptation, or noise, or mistakes, etc.

Let me remind for the beginning an old story about a rabbi who devoted his whole life for deciphering the Scriptures. He read the Scriptures onwards and backwards, and in diagonal and in any other tricky order, to catch the real hidden meaning. After many years of doing so, the man became old and died from cancer. On his deathbed, he unveiled to his disciples the secret. “At last I have understood the secret of my learning of Scriptures,” he explained. “You know, the cells have learned from myself. The living cells also started to decipher the scriptures of their, that is my, DNA, reading them onwards and backwards and in any other tricky order. That is what happened. That is the truth.” He died then, as it was told, from cancer.

This story, in which one can recognise a version of the story about Diotallevi retelled by Umberto Eco (1990: 564-568) in “Foucault’s Pendulum”, has a direct bearing to the understanding of learning and memory, or adaptation and inheritance, in contemporary biology — in a metaphoric way, of course.

E. Jablonka et al. (1998) distinguish between four inheritance systems: epigenetic (EIS), genetic (GIS), behavioral (BIS), and linguistic (LIS). The means of information transmission include, correspondingly, regeneration of cell structures and metabolic circuits (EIS), DNA replication (GIS), and social learning (BIS, LIS), the latter based on symbols. These inheritance systems are transmitting variations from generation to generation, whereas the variations include cellular morphology (EIS), DNA base sequences (GIS), patterns of behavior (BIS), and language structures (LIS). For instance, on the chromatine there are some molecular (methylene) marks, which have a certain relationship to gene expression, and these marks can be, as Jablonka and others have shown, transferred to the daughter cells. This is an example of epigenetic inheritance, which can transfer a message from a generation to generation (along the mother line, by the way), without any change in DNA. These marks, indeed, are reversible, however, they can stand where they are for quite a number of generations.

In addition to this, it is important to admit about the role of the environment. For instance, a pattern of behavior of organisms can vary as dependent on the environment in which these organisms live, which means that particular behavioral forms are connected (or limited) to a particular environment. Thus, for instance, what can be inherited via BIS may be only the behavior used in limited conditions, in the case if this environment holds in its limits. Therefore, the stability of the environmental conditions is a necessary part of the inheritance systems, being itself a carrier of a part of information from generation to generation.

As opposed to genocentric view of biological evolution, the distinguishing between several independent inheritance systems makes it clear that GIS cannot explain all what is going on in evolution. Also, we should consider that the change or stability of the environment (i.e., the environmental information) is itself an obligatory component of the inheritance. The changes in any of these inheritance systems may have evolutionary importance.

The problem of the mechanism of inheritance has been already thought to be clearly and steadily solved for many decades ago. In all the textbooks of biology, one can read its simple mechanism. First, there is an allele, or a new allele, which has a higher fitness, which means that those who carry it have more progeny than the others. Accordingly, in the next generation there will be more specimens who carry the same version of the gene, and more in the following generation, since they compete out the other alleles. Thus, after a while, all organisms of a population carry this new allele.

To give a better (but a grotesque) illustration of this mechanism of evolution, let us look on a human population with its family names. Let there be given a new family name, for instance Darwin, to somebody somewhere at some time. If the carrier of this name has a higher fitness than others, in the next population there will be more individuals with the name Darwin. And so on and so forth, until all the population consists only of Darwins.

That’s exactly the true story of evolution as everybody can read in standard biology course, or at least a quite adequate model of it.

This is an example of how evolution is going on, or is described to go on, according to classical evolutionary population genetics.

Development is seemingly something else. In the case of development, indeed, the genes, or family names, may also change, but this is not the essence or even requirement of development.

The essence of biological development is not the change of genes, but the change in usage of genes. When an organism develops, its genes remain the same, but different genes are in use in young or adult organism, or in their different tissues.

Or if continuing with the example with names, the people of a whole village may develop, learn something new, for instance a new language, they may even change their language, replacing it with a new one, whereas the family names can not be affected in any way. Well, afterwards, the family names, too, may change a bit, fixing the spelling appropriate to the new language. Saying this, I mean, that epigenetic changes can be the first, and the shifts in genes could thus follow.

When the story was telling that cells of a rabbi (or Diotallevi, in Umberto Eco’s novel) learned from the rabbi’s behaviour, then this is exactly analogous to what is shown in the figure drawn by Jablonka et al. (1998). The information transfer has not only one direction (from GIS), but also from LIS-…>GIS->EIS. What is first obtained by LIS, can be later owned in a way by other IS. However, this does not mean any violation of Crick’s postulate.

Here we may remind the Baldwin effect, according to which the changes in organism precede the changes in genetic memory, which fix them (Kull 1999; cf. Robinson, Dukas 1999). Organisms can expediently change their functional genome (i.e. the set of expressed or used genes) and keep this in certain conditions for a long time, without any changes on the level of the primary structure of DNA yet, whereas the stochastic mutations may later make these changes irreversible. In other words, that is not natural selection what is usually checking whether a new form is adequate or working or not, but first of all it is organism’s behaviour, the organism itself selecting the appropriate functional genome, which will be later fixed by stochastic genetic processes.

The genetic changes are in their vast majority either stochastic, or duplicate the existing patterns, and thus they either fix the changes via forgetting the other possibilities (the unused genes), or provide new sequences in the form of repeated copies.

Accordingly, this opposition


evolution ó development

stands in the very basis of the biological world-view. As emphasised by S. Salthe (1993: 247), “development, not evolution, could be considered as the central theoretical framework for biology”. Or, e.g., D. J. Depew (1998: 21): “The Darwinian tradition in evolutionary biology, whose most distinctive feature is the idea of natural selection, contrasts with an alternative approach that, for lack of a better phrase, I will call “evolutionary developmentalism”.”

What I’d like to do in the following part of my paper, is to look a bit more closely into this difference. My tool will be a series of oppositions, or versions of the same story, which can be seen as parallel to this one, and illustrating it from several particular aspects. Since this opposition might be one of most crucial for biology — in its left side, there is biology as a natural science, but in the right side, there is semiotic biology (Fig. 1).





































von Baerian

Fig. 1. A set of dual oppositions which may characterise the difference between semiotic biology (column S) and the mechanistic, or natural scientific biology (column M). Although, the notions at S can be seen as generalisations of the ones at M, the latter being as special cases of S.


When I started to become interested in biosemiotics, this was much because I found that my biological views, understanding the evolution and behaviour of organisms, were most close to those biologists who were highly respected in semiotics. Also, there was my early interest to Jakob von Uexküll, and the acknowledgement of Juri Lotman. The sharing of general views, however, did not mean that I used the results of semiotics in my work. Now, when I have turned to semiotics more closely, the second, much more serious, and also more difficult, question arises. Namely, whether semiotics can be applied to biology, whether the semiotic theory of biology is possible, whether semiotic analysis of biological systems is possible, and is it possible to prove that semiotic biology is really better than a non-semiotic one, in the sense that it can do both — to show some inconsistencies or drawbacks of the former biology, and to make biology more scientific. One should remember that Uexküll started to develop his original approach because he saw that the explanations and theories given to the biological phenomena were, according to his view, not scientific enough.

A semiotic approach to biology should be able to propose a step further in biology, i.e. it should be at least in some details more scientific than the approaches it is going to replace (showing some incompleteness or inconsistencies in several fundamental notions of biology, finding some common hidden assumptions which may not hold to be true, providing a scientifically more correct interpretation of biological systems), otherwise it cannot make much sense for biology.


copying ó translating

The title of this paper can interpreted in two very different ways — either the biological texts are those scribed by humans on paper, and we are those who translate or copy them, or the biological texts are the ones of organisms and communities, which translate and copy themselves. I shall use here only the second interpretation.

The next issue is that it would seemingly be better to notice that what is actually meant in biological context is self-copying, self-translating, and self-developing. However, even in the case of a cell self-reproduction, the elementary process of reproducing has a component which reproduces something else. We will talk about this aspect more below.

It is possible to build a row, from automatic copying (which may not require semiosis), via the processes of correction, editing, and translating, towards development of organic living systems. Along this row, semiosity of the processes evidently increases.

Making an automatic copy requires a copying device, however, this can be indifferent towards the content of the object copied.

Replication of DNA — is it more than automatic templating? In principle, theoretically, the genetic memory could also be built on binary basis. Which means that it can be represented like + or - charges meetings: + and + do not fit, - and - neither, but + fits to - , and - fits to + . There is no more memory than between protons and electrons, i.e. just a physical deterministic automatism.

By recognition I denote a process which already requires some sort of memory. Considering recognition to be a kind of adaptive matching, I use this term here almost in the same way as G. Edelman (1992: 74), who speaks about the “sciences of recognition, sciences that study recognition systems”.

Whether recognition is required in DNA replication (duplication)? No, because recognition always requires a previously stored pattern. Base pairing in replication — is there a code? No, there is not. Because if we shall call a code something which is not deducible from direct physical forces (laws), this is not. Transcription (DNA® RNA) — is there then a code? No, since this is also a simple base pairing. Translation (RNA® protein)? Yes, there is a code. This is code, because it is a set of frozen patterns, which — despite of really big attempts by many theoreticians in genetics and biophysics — has not been possible to deduce from the laws of physics. But — that is also something what is not, strictly speaking, the reproduction of DNA or genes, but what is a part of the process of development, which means building up the organism, the so-called phenotype.

Building the phenotype on the basis of interpretation of genotype can be named translating only if the phenotype is further used for the producing of next genotype. Actually, this is the case, if we take the phenotype as a process, as a developing organism. Otherwise it would be a dead end.

Thus, the replication of DNA is copying for evolution (in a narrow sense), but it is translating for development (in a broad sense).


determinism ó interpretation

Determinism and interpretation can be seen as principally different forms of processes. It is hopeless to make a deterministic (in Newtonian sense) description of interpretation, even if we add chance it does not help. The reason here is the immense combinatorics. For instance, 20 in the 300th power is the number of variants of a single enzyme (considering its primary structure), which cannot be ever even listed, thus an optimisation problem for enzymes lacking any sense.

Copying is a deterministic process, translating is an interpretational process.

According to what we know for certain today, genetic memory in cells is read-only. It can be copied, but it is not possible for a cell to store any new messages in it. From this, it is conventionally concluded that only genetic changes, and not phenotypic modifications, have an importance for evolution.

However, what the semiotic approach to organisms teaches us, is that the genome does not determine phenotype, but that the organism, in each stage of its development, interprets its genome when producing phenotype, and this interpretation can be shifted depending on the context of Umwelt. The genotype-phenotype interaction is not that of determination — it is interpretation.

In other words, the DNA sequence does not specify many features of organisms. For instance, organisms with identical DNA may vary in gene expression, in their morphology and physiology, in behavior and language. Also, these differences can be inherited over several generations, even if no changes in genotype occur. Emergence of new features in organisms can, therefore, appear due to the changes in any inheritance system or in the environment.


catalytic ó autopoietic

What makes chemical processes in a living body different from any other chemical processes, is that practically all chemical processes in organisms are — as a real surprise for a semiotician — triadic. Substances A and B cannot react with each other and make a product without some C — the third — which is usually an enzyme.

Of course, one can say that no copy of this paper can arise by itself, we also need a xerox machine. But there is more what can be said. Namely — in living systems, the copying device itself becomes a member of translation process in the sense that it is itself a product of translation — which makes the system already not simply catalytic, but autopoietic.


transitive ó non-transitive

Let A be a text of a poem. If B is a copy of A, and C is a copy of B, we can say that C is a copy of A. But if B is a translation of A, and C is a translation of B, then we cannot claim that C is a translation of A. According to transitivity, if A gives B, and B gives C, then A gives C. Neo-Darwinian theory of natural selection, which is also behind the Dawkins’ understanding of inheritance, makes an unspoken assumption that the reproduction is transitive. However, due to the individuality of genomes and phenotypes, reproduction is generally intransitive. If A, B and C mark the primary structure of a particular allele in three sequential generations, the assumption of transitivity is still correct. But if they denote the whole genomes or organisms as phenotypes, this may not hold any more. And since natural selection acts just on phenotypes, a theory requiring the transitivity assumption cannot be very general. Due to the individuality of genotypes, the transitivity should fail even without including the aspects of context — the latter, of course, representing another reason for non-transitivity.


Darwinian ó von Baerian

One of the basic differences between the two approaches concerns the stress on development versus evolution. “Development, not evolution, could be considered as the central theoretical framework for biology. In this case Baer and not Darwin would become the central historical figure in theoretical biology” (Salthe 1993, 247). This opposition seems to be more profound and much more interesting than the one between Darwin and Lamarck. According to the Darwinian view, adaptation to the environment as a result of a struggle for existence and differential reproduction of genotypes is the main issue and mechanism in evolution, whereas the organic form itself provides the main evolutionary trends and innovations according to the embryologist Karl Ernst von Baer’s (1864) approach. The latter has its roots in the views of Leibniz, and later G. Teichmüller, D’Arcy Thompson, J.v.Uexküll, R. Woltereck, and others. This view is close to the structuralist approaches in biology of this century.

The opposition between Darwinian and Baerian approaches has often been seen as concerning only the details of interpretation in relationships between ontogeny and phylogeny. However, as S. J. Gould (1977, 73) writes, “If the goal of evolutionary theory is only to set up a series of pragmatic guidelines for the construction of evolutionary trees, then it makes no difference. But this would be an impoverished notion of evolutionary theory indeed. The two views imply radically different concepts of variation, heredity, and adaptation — the fundamental components of any evolutionary mechanism”.

Thus, the whole biology can be built up either as explaining ontogeny through evolution, like neo-Darwinism does it, or as explaining evolution through ontogeny, which is the essence of von Baer’s paradigm.

An important difference between the Darwinian and Baerian approaches is also that Darwin makes a stress on states (later called phenotypes), whereas von Baer emphasises that the elementary part is a process, a temporal sequence (ontogeny).

According to the historian of biology M. Remmel (1992, 43), “Baer’s principles are a remarkable generalization of the theory of ontogeny. Unfortunately, some traditional evolutionary paradigms including early pure selectionist views of strict darwinism have served as a kind of informational filter restricting the application of the conceptual apparatus of Baer’s principles in biology and paleontology. /../ Baer’s principles stand on the crossroads of three disciplines: taxonomy, embryology and evolutionary biology, making possible certain interdisciplinary logical projections”.


competition ó symbiosis

According to T.A.Sebeok, “the key to semiosis in the microcosmos is symbiosis. This is a quintessentially semiotic concept”. This is because symbiosis presupposes communication. Also, J.Deely (1990, 25) has remarked, that the rise of semiotic interpretation of biology is very much consistent to the understanding, that symbiosis is a crucial process determining the evolution of organisms, like it has been described by L.Margulis, a.o.

J.v.Uexküll (1931: 391) says: “Wohin wir schauen, erblicken wir /../ komplementäre Einpassungen paarweise aufeinander abgestimmter Umwelten”. This emphasis on the reciprocity of interactions in living systems is an important aspect for understanding Uexküll’s views. This concerns, for instance, his approach to the role of symbiosis: “man kann sagen, daß grundsätzlich alle Lebewesen zugleich selbstdienlich und fremddienlich sind” (Uexküll 1973: 322).

Recently, it has been shown that the notion of semiosis or semiotic approach can be applied also to intracellular processes (Florkin 1974, T.v.Uexküll et al. 1993, Hoffmeyer 1996, Pollack 1994, Kawade 1996, Kull 1998b, a.o.). However, while the semiotic boundary is often seen in the beginning of life, it seems more correct to point at the beginning of co-evolution, i.e. at the first symbiosis. I suppose that Ch.Darwin, who paid special attention to sexual selection, together with this foresaw the idea that the reciprocal evolution (co-evolution) of organisms is somewhat principally different from the adaptation of an organism to abiotic environment.

When Darwin wrote his works, the term ‘symbiosis’ was not yet invented (‘symbiosis’ was coined by A. de Bary, 1878). Literally, one can see in this a reason why he had to base his approach on ‘competition’. Also, the ‘mutual aid’ does not appear in the pages of the ‘Origin of species’.

T.v.Uexküll and W.Wesiack (1997: 31) define the symbiotic functional circle, “which is comprised of two subjects in which the one forms the environment of the other’, and in which ‘the behavior of the one subject is immediately translated [K.K.] into biological processes in the organism of the other”.

However, “while symbiosis researchers now explore the scope of symbiosis as a general feature of evolutionary change, leading neo-Darwinian evolutionists and ecologists continue to assert that symbiosis is not a general characteristic of evolution” (Sapp 1994, 211).


centrifugal ó centripetal

The ability to form congregations is a very simple and general feature of semiotic systems. This comes from the basic features of recognition of similar and mobility, but this is also a consequence of simple forms of biological translation.

One who has emphasised this aspect is Ulanowicz (1997: 47–48): “Taken as a unit, the autocatalytic cycle is not acting simply at the behest of its environment: it actively creates its own domain of influence. Such creative behavior imparts a separate identity and ontological status to the configuration, above and beyond the passive elements that surround it. We see in centripetality [K.K.] the most primitive hint of entification, selfhood, and id. In the direction toward which the asymmetry of autocatalysis points we see a suggestion of a telos, an intimation of final cause (Rosen 1991).”


decontextualisation ó contextualisation

Here I would like to recall a recent paper by A. Hornborg (1996) on ecological semiotics, in which he has shown that what is harmful for nature, is very often something what has escaped from its context. Like weeds, which have escaped from their natural habitats.

Another example here can be an egoistic gene as introduced by R. Dawkins. If a gene would not be bound by its context to a cell, it would really reproduce like Dawkins has described, and there would be a fight, or competition, between genes. Viruses are exactly this type of genes. Fortunately, the majority of our genes are tightly bound. The competition of genes is something as peculiar as a competition between words in a text.

One more example would be the reproduction of cells in tissues. Usually, in stable tissues, cells are interconnected to each other by intercellulars. In the case of malignant tissues, these intercellulars disappear. Also, the cells in meristems do not have intercellular connections like in adult tissues.


non-textual ó textual

The notion here which requires some explanation is text.

Traditionally, the main components of biological communication are messages. It would lead us to the analysis of messages, which is what has usually been done. But message itself can be something very simple — a simple organic or sometimes also inorganic molecule, or even a photon. These do not carry by themselves any qualities which make them into messages — this happens only due to the features of interpreter. Thus, we have to turn to the analysis of biological interpreters if we want to analyse messages. The situation happens to be different if we start from the text. Since text, particularly if to follow Lotman’s tradition, cannot be simple, and also, text is not a structure, but a process (cf. Baer). Thus, text itself already includes important semiotic features, which makes it the more fundamental notion than message.

Semiosis always includes producing of texts on the basis of some other texts. These texts may be large or small, sometimes containing only few signs. Historicity, intentionality and intertextuality are features of all texts.

The text metaphor has often been used for genetic information, for DNA, RNA and protein sequences. Though, sometimes the whole living organism is considered as a text (on the organism as a text cf. Sebeok 1989: 61, Löfgren 1981, Kull 1998a). However, when doing so we have to consider a broad meaning of the text notion, as applicable to almost all sign systems.

On the other hand, signs are seen as living entities (Anderson 1994; Merrell 1996), or semiosis to be identical to the process of living.

There are many processes in organisms which can be described using semiotic terminology. However, it is not always clear whether all these processes indeed have semiotic nature. This was the question I was asking here, trying to analyse some examples in this framework.

Sign itself, a single sign, does not live, neither a single text. However, they are always connected to, or components of a living system. Culture, though, is a living system. Culture, according to Lotman (1990), is also a text, but never consisting of single language; culture, as well as any living system, is a complex of texts. In a way, culture and organism are analogues (cf. Lotman 1984). This is important to consider when we try to apply semiotic analysis to biological systems.

Thus, also, DNA is not text for evolution, but DNA is (or can be) a text for development.


meme ó sign

Memes (Dawkins 1976) are patterns which can be distributed via copying between individuals, and accordingly, memes can be inherited independently from the genetic inheritance. Meme is just an externalist view to sign, which means that meme is sign without its triadic nature. I.e., meme is a degenerate sign in which only its ability of being copied is remained. Accordingly, the objects of copying are memes, whereas the objects of translation are signs. This is also the difference between memetic and semiotic biology, or between the Dawkins’ and Uexküll’s approaches.

The concept of meme has been already picked up in the fields outside of biology, e.g., denoting with this the slogan-like ideas (Chesterman 1997). The energetic claims of proponents of memetics (Brodie 1996, Blackmore, Dawkins 1999), which say that the concept of replicating memes enables to understand the mind and society, applying the neo-Darwinian mechanism of natural selection on the selection of ideas (Pocklington, Best 1997), has been characterised by S. J. Gould (1997) as the Darwinian fundamentalism.

Thus, on one hand, the controversy between the concept of meme and the concept of sign is strong, they belong to deeply different biological paradigms. On the other hand, both terms denote almost the same thing, and accordingly it would be easily possible to lend mutually the brilliant examples — still emphasising the different sides of the coin, in one case the ability to propagate and compete, with all their consequences, in the other case the relatedness to creativity and symbiosis. However, if organisms would only copy information and not translate, i.e. not change and transform information like it always take place in the process of translation, then they would never be able to predict, to expect, to intend, i.e., to live.


Concluding remarks

These were the stories, — or the versions of the same story. When comparing in this way evolution and development, deterministic and interpretational approach, Darwin’s and von Baer’s theory — do I say that evolution is wrong, and development is a right thing? No, I do not. Because it would be equivalent to the claiming that copying is false, whereas translation is true. This would be an absurd statement.

Describing here this row of parallel oppositions, I tried to show how the natural science and semiotics are related, or, what is almost the same, natural scientific biology and semiotic biology. These are complementary approaches. I do not think that one should, or one can, replace the other. This is a transition, which works in both directions, onwards and backwards, or upwards and downwards.

However, these oppositions are not symmetrical. In all given examples, the comparison is made between more specific and more general. As transitivity is a special case of intransitivity, or decontextual is a special case of contextual, also Darwinian biology is a restricted case of von Baerian biology, and meme is degenerate sign, and copying is degenerate translation. Still, we need both — general theories and special cases.

Thus, we have described two necessary sides of the studies of living systems. Being both important, one can easily notice that they are not equally elaborated in the current biology. Here J. Hoffmeyer (1997) is certainly very right, when he is claiming that there is a great need to develop the semiotic biology, in order to put the understanding on living into a balance.

Describing these oppositions, my aim was also to show, where to search the stepwise differences in semioticity of living systems. There are not just two possible approaches — there is a continuum between them.

There is no single border between the semiotic and non-semiotic world, like it has been put either between living and non-living, or between humans and non-humans (or sometimes a bit elsewhere, for instance so that humans and higher animals stay in one side, and plants and stones in the other side).

Our aim in biosemiotics is, as I can see it, to find out the steps between these worlds. Signs grow. Living systems can have something which might be called aliveness (which is the term used by an Estonian philosopher Uku Masing (1998)), and different organisms may possess different extent of the liveness.

Like a text can be dead or live, dry or rich, scientific or poetic. One cannot replace one with the other. Dead bodies exist together with the living ones, whereas some of living may be dull, or simply sleeping. But important is that the possibility to have less aliveness also means that it is possible to have it more.



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1 A former version of this paper (under the title “Copying, translating, and developing of biological texts”) was presented in the international semiotic meeting in Imatra (Finland) on June 7, 1998.

2 When using the term inheritance for the transmission of linguistic patterns, we need to assume that inheritance may include learning, or adjustment of forms. Thus, the different types of inheritance may include copying and translating in different proportions.

3 A slight difference is that family names are inherited through the father’s line in many European nations, but it is really a detail.

4 A known exception here is reverse transcriptase, an RNA-dependant DNA polymerase which synthesises DNA on an RNA template during the life cycle of retroviruses. However, this does not violate the essence of Crick’s postulate (the central dogma), since it holds that the primary structure of proteins cannot be converted into the primary structure of DNA.

5 Wherever we look, we see /../ the complementary matching of pairwise mutually harmonised (co-ordinated) Umwelts.

6 It can be said that all living beings are at the same time both self-serving and else-serving.

7 I thank Peeter Torop, Tatjana Chernigovskaya, Jesper Hoffmeyer and Alfred Strickholm for their kind and useful comments, and Eero Tarasti for his support.