On semiosis, Umwelt, and
Semiotica, vol. 120(3/4), 1998, pp.
Introduction: on the situation in and around biosemiotics
A cognitive turn in biology can be foreseen very soon. At least, this is an impression
readers of Jesper Hoffmeyer's (1996) book on an approach to biosemiotics may get.
The term 'cognitive turn' in this context is taken from psychological thinking a couple
of decades ago, when the prevailing behavioristic approach was to a great extent
replaced by another model of research, allowing methods and criteria which would not
be accepted by behaviorists as 'scientific'. Since then, developments in psychology
have been very stormy, paradigm changes became a common thing in the science of
mind. In biology, the situation has been much more stolid and unexciting. The sound
achievements of molecular biology have met with little enthusiasm among true
theoreticians. The Darwinian view, in its neo-Darwinian versions, dominates in
universities all over the world. The proponents of the power of natural selection have
developed its logical consequences in regard to society and ego (e.g. in sociobiology by
E.O.Wilson, or gene-ethics by R.Dawkins), and this has cemented the Darwinian
monolith. Opportunistic voices have been rare, and have mainly been restricted to
continental Europe and Russia (e.g., the nomogenetic view of L. Berg, A. A.
Lubischev, S. V. Meyen in Russia, and its parallels in the West - cf. Brauckmann, Kull
1997). However, only a few of these voices have been based on a belief in the methods
developed in the humanities, which have been applied to the solution of biological
problems via the epistemic renewal of methods.
The previous period in biology, when the situation was different from that of
recent decades, belongs, according to its dominant views, to the decades around the turn
of this century (Bowler 1992). Neovitalist views, and different types of autogenetic or
other non-Darwinian theories were in bloom. That was the period, when Jakob von
Uexküll, now hailed as a founder of biosemiotics, started writing his books (Uexküll
1909, 1913, 1920), and when the field called 'theoretical biology' appeared, then akin
more to a philosophy of biology (e.g., Reinke 1901).
For Uexküll, epistemological problems in biology were certainly important. The
sketch of the history of biology as described above, may however give an insight into
why Uexküll (not only because of being a Baltic German, i.e. writing only in German)
was entirely forgotten and re-discovered only in the last decades of this century (Sebeok
1979). Indeed, the frequency of citation of his Umwelt-concept is growing now at an
On the other hand, it is not only a movement in biology towards semiotics
which is taking place. Semiotics is facing biology to no less an extent. Moreover - the
same question of cooperation with cognitive science which has been raised in biology
(Heschl 1990; Wuketits 1991), has also arisen in semiotics (Violi 1996). Thus, all these
aspects are intersecting, and biosemiotics has settled very close to this intersection
However, the question, whether this is an epistemological crisis in biology
which is waiting to be resolved, or whether it is a crisis in theoretical biology and the
theory of evolution, is still open. Biosemiotics is proposing its development and the
renewal of biology, through the semiotic paradigm. In any case, it is a view and an
approach which deserves to be carefully analyzed. In the interests of a wider
perspective, it may be reasonable to do this considering at the same time the ideas
coming from theoretical biology. For instance, Robert Rosen (1991: 13) claimed that
the 'basic reason why biology is hard' is 'because we are fundamentally ill
Walter Elsasser, a theoretical physicist, who has written several remarkable
books on theoretical biology (e.g., Elsasser 1966), attempted to figure out the
fundamental properties of life as different from non-living systems. The main property
to which he tried to find explicit formulation in his latest book (Elsasser 1982) was
called by him 'creativity'. 'I believe that the theoretical arguments are now sufficiently
consolidated so that clarity is greatly enhanced by stating explicitly that a biological
theory in which creativity is an essential ingredient can be constructed along strictly
scientific lines, even though numerous details remain of course to be filled in later'
(Elsasser 1982: vii).
Creativity, as described by Elsasser, bears an amazing likeness to what is called
'semiosis' in many semiotic writings. This notion has a special place in biosemiotics,
since the main problem in biosemiotics is the explanation of the origin of sign, and with
it the origin of semiosis. This means that for biosemiotics, as opposed to classical
semiotics, semiosis cannot be an initial term, since the property denoted by this term is
something which we attempt to construct from biological mechanisms. However, this
does not mean that semiosis should be understood somehow differently in biology than
in other fields of semiotics.
Semiosis has been defined in semiotics in a way which allows to the extension
of its existence down to the first living systems. This is a reason why the semiotic
approach has been acknowledged thus important for biology that several biologists
have independently recognized the semiotic view to be a paradigm for biology
(Hoffmeyer, Emmeche 1991; Eder, Rembold 1992; Kull 1993). In biosemiotics,
biology and semiotics meet, and this makes the field interesting for both sides. Signs
live (Merrell 1994, 1996), exactly like life signs.
If the semiotic and the living are the same, then it follows that the principles of
semiotics should be true for biology, and also, that the laws of biology should be of
interest for semiotics, since these are the laws of the functioning of texts. The notion of
text as developed by Lotman (1986) suits this purpose very well. Organism is a text
'Unfortunately I know how little semioticians know of semiosis and
signification systems', was said by Eco (1988: 15). This also emphasizes the
importance of analyzing the mechanism of semiosis, which is, for biosemiotics,
particularly unavoidable. Progress in applications of the semiotic approach in biology
depends on the power of its theoretical apparatus, which is greatly determined by the
explicity and preciseness of notions developed in biosemiotics.
Among the notions of biosemiotics, there are the three listed in the title of this
paper which propose an important framework for many others, and which seemingly
form a logical series. Below I define them and comment on them in the context of
Hoffmeyer describes a series of properties which (according to his claim) should be the
general properties of living systems. This bears some similarity to the building of a
functional definition of life - something which became unpopular after the discovery of
DNA and the genetic code, but which has made some recovery in recent works on
artificial life theory. However, as Sebeok has guessed, the definition of life may
coincide with the definition of semiosis. Thus, the description of the general properties
of life is at the same time a development in the description of semiosis. The properties
listed and described by Hoffmeyer are endosymbiosis, self-reference, code duality,
availability of receptors, autopoiesis, and several others.
These properties are probably not of equal weight. How they are logically
connected, needs to be carefully investigated. Also, Hoffmeyer has emphasized the
important fact that the view of the duality of gene, and of information, has been lost due
to the boom in molecular biology. What biosemiotics does is to a great extent the
recalling of a more natural way of understanding biological information (and
information at all), which considers both its sides.
According to Lotman, a mechanism consisting of a sender, receiver, and
transmitter of information does not work as a semiotic mechanism, while not embedded
in a semiosphere. Also, biological terminology based on inheritance and reproduction
hardly allows any further generalization due to its strong connection to the molecular
genetic mechanisms which assume the concrete substances responsible for this process.
Therefore, semiotic terminology of text and dialogue, recognition and translation may
be much better suited for the description of isomorphisms between biological and
cultural phenomena. This may be acceptable for both the language of natural sciences
and that of the humanities and arts.
Thus, I define semiosis as a process of translation, which makes a copy of a text,
suitable to replace the original text in some situations, but which is also so different
from the original text that the original cannot be used (either spatially, or temporally, or
due to the differences in text-carrier or language) for the same functions. This
translation process (i.e., semiosis) requires two types of recognition processes. First, the
translation assumes that parts of the original text are recognized (on the basis of pre-
existing memory-text) and as a result new structures are built, whereas a certain
isomorphism between the original and the new text is retained. And second, there is a
recognition process which starts the translation process, which is required for the
existence of the whole process on another level, and which at the same time gives an
intentional dimension to any particular semiosis. I also state that the one carrying out
the translation (the translator, which includes memory) is itself a text, i.e. the result of
some translation process.
From this definition it follows that semiosis always requires a previous semiosis
which produced the translator. Since the translator already recognizes, i.e. matches with
something, the form of which has been stored, i.e. which has previously been matched,
it follows that the current translation process is preceded by some previous translation
process. Also, the text used for translation is the product of a previous semiosis.
This turns semiosis into an endless chain - every semiosis comes from semiosis,
or in Peirce's version, omne symbolum de symbolo. The statement is amazingly
isomorphic with Francesco Redi's principle, formulated in the 17th century - omne
vivum e vivo. Or, as it was possible to state several centuries later - every cell comes from
cell. Redi's principle is one of the fundamental laws of life, despite of the fact that it
leaves the problem of the origin of life aside.
A consequence of Redi's principle, or another fundamental feature of the
asymmetric semiotic triad is that each of its three members is a participant in other
semioses, albeit in a different function. For instance, ribosomes in cells are functioning
as translators when making new proteins, but they are themselves products of an other
translation process which synthesizes ribosomes. This makes it evident that organisms
are self-reading texts (Kull 1997).
The existence of two different recognition processes (local and global, in
relation to a particular translation act) in every semiosis can be seen as another way of
describing the existence of two codes in every sign process. The idea of code duality
(using the terminology of analog vs. digital encoding) as important for the mechanism
of semantic information was emphasized and raised by Dretske (1982), being one of the
central topics of his book, and developed in a more biological framework by Hoffmeyer
and Emmeche (1991). Dretske's work was cited in their paper, but in a different
context. Indeed, Dretske as an analytical philosopher is far from following semiotic
views, however, Hoffmeyer himself is one of those who attempts to extend the tradition
The same idea of code duality was claimed by J.Lotman when he wrote (1981:
4): 'a message to be defined as 'text' should be at least dually coded'. Elsasser's statement (1982: 7) is also very close to this, when he writes: 'we
claim in effect that organisms make use of two separate and quite different processes
for information transfer over time'.
An important property of semiosis, which makes it different from physical
processes, is its historicity together with the ability for learning. Any text to be
translated should be at first recognized by a previous text, and the outcome of
translation will influence the recognition process in succeeding generations of
translation. Since all components of semiosis are repeatedly rewritten, both the creation
of new and the forgetting of old becomes possible. According to Lotman (1990: 101):
'symbol serves as a condensed programme for the creative process. (...) A symbol is a
profound coding mechanism, a special kind of 'textual gene''. 'The combination of
translatability-untranslatability (each to different degrees) is what determines the
creative function' (Lotman 1990: 15).
Semiosis, more shortly, could be defined as the appearance of a connection
between things, which do not have a priori anything in common, in the sense that they
do not interact or convert each other through direct physical or chemical processes.
However, as far as the relation between them, once established (by a subject), is
nevertheless intermediated by physical or chemical processes, this infers that the
relation is semiotic as long as it is established through learning.
This also means that there exist entities in the world (like 'meaning' of signs)
which can influence only living systems and not non-living ones. Semiotic phenomena
do not belong to physical reality.
Umwelt is the semiotic world of organism. It includes all the meaningful aspects of the
world for a particular organism. Thus, Umwelt is a term uniting all the semiotic
processes of an organism into a whole. Indeed, the Umwelt-concept follows naturally
due to the connectedness of individual semiotic processes within an organism, which
means that any individual semiosis in which an organism is functioning as a subject is
continuously connected to any other semiosis of the same organism. At the same time,
the Umwelts of different organisms differ, which follows from the individuality and
uniqueness of the history of every single organism.
Umwelt is the closed world of organism. The functional closer, or epistemic
closer is an important and principal feature of organisms, and of semiotic systems. This
has been described by Maturana and Varela (1980) through the notion of
The expressions 'collective Umwelt', or 'swarm's Umwelt', should also be in
accord, since organism can hardly be modeled as a centralized system. However, the
relationship between the Umwelt of organism and the Umwelts of its cells requires
further explanation and more detailed analysis. The whole becomes seen through
functional circles which, for example, include the body of the (swarm-)organism
moving together, in one piece. More generally, there are always at least two aspects
(processes) which participate in making a multitude of pieces into a whole in living
systems: (1) there are many individual processes which take part as steps in a functional
circle, the latter being responsible for the appearance of intentional aspects of behavior,
and (2) the functional circle always includes recognition, a matching of forms (the pre-
existing with the actual), whereas recognition does not work in an algorithmic way (i.e.
bit-to-bit checking) but as a simultaneous compatibility (coherence) of forms (e.g.,
enzymes recognizing their substrates). Thus, the principle of code duality can be
extended to the principle of making wholes, Gestalts.
Semiosphere is the set of all interconnected Umwelts. Any two Umwelts, when
communicating, are a part of the same semiosphere.
Originally, the notion of semiosphere was introduced by Yuri Lotman (1984), a
semiotician who worked in Tartu University, Estonia. His idea was inspired by
Vernadsky's terms biosphere and noosphere (the latter also used by Teilhard de
The semiosphere, as a notion used by Hoffmeyer (who came to it
independently), seems to have a slightly different meaning than the definition given
above. Namely, his expressions (for instance, p. 59: 'the semiosphere imposes
limitations on the Umwelt of its resident populations in the sense that, to hold its own
in the semiosphere, a population must occupy a "semiotic niche"') seem to show that
semiosphere is something which may be partially independent of the organisms'
Umwelts. On the contrary, I think it is entirely created by the organisms' Umwelts.
Organisms are themselves creating signs, which become the constituent parts of the
semiosphere. This is not an adaptation to environment, but the creation of a new
environment. I can see here the possibility for a more positive interpretation of
Hoffmeyer's statement - namely, the concept of ecological niche as it is traditionally
used in biology, can be essentially developed according to the semiotic understanding
of the processes which are responsible for the building of Umwelt.
One has a right to ask whether there could be several semiospheres. If there are
no semiotic processes which connect them, this may be possible, but when
communication takes place between the spheres, they evidently form one and the same
The aims and methods (pretensions and tools) of biosemiotics
The problems which biosemiotics can solve, according to Hoffmeyer, are among the
deepest known in science and philosophy. Hoffmeyer has listed some of them:
(a) to reformulate the concept of information;
(b) to transcend (overcome) the dualism of mind and matter, i.e. the mind-body
problem (p. 69, 94, 124);
(c) to solve the incompatibility of humanities and natural sciences (p. 94);
(d) to unite cultural history to natural history (p. 95);
(e) to give humanity its place in nature (p. 94).
The origin of language, and the origin of consciousness seem to belong to the same
There are so many treatises on these issues that it makes one quite cautious of
accepting a new proposal as being more serious or less hopeless than the previous
I would be a bit less pretentious, to claim that the main problem for biosemiotics
is the explanation of the origin and evolution of sign. Nevertheless, this certainly has
fundamental implications on the problems listed above, and possibly it is simply
another formulation of what was said by Hoffmeyer. All the same, I would like to recall
the words of Wells (1977: 1): 'My fundamental message is a message of caution. We
must beware of claiming too much for semiotics.'
Whether biosemiotics will be able to contribute something to the solution of
these everlasting questions, will depend much on the tools it can propose. As yet, there
are no solutions, only some hints towards them. In the contemporary stage of
biosemiotics, the time is ripe to try to formulate a list of the equipment which
biosemiotics possesses. Hoffmeyer's book provides some hints for this.
Among the tools biosemiotics already possesses, there is a series of notions
formulated by Jakob von Uexküll (Umwelt, Funktionskreis, Ich-tone, a. o.), Thure von
Uexküll, T.A.Sebeok (for instance, endosemiosis), and others. Otherwise, it seems to be
that a small group of people, who identify themselves under the name biosemiotics,
have some intuitions about these possible tools (probably borrowing something from
C.Peirce), plus they share a belief in some statements which they hope will be proved,
(*) semiosis arose together with life, which means with the first cells;
(*) semiosis, symbiosis, and life process are almost identical (or, isomorphic);
(*) life is mainly a semiotic phenomenon, the real elements of life are signs.
Hoffmeyer does not speak directly about providing real tools to go further in a
serious biosemiotic inquiry. However, one can grasp something by trying to figure out
what gives him the audacity to have his say in so difficult a topic. The main method,
probably, is an attempt to apply in all possible cases an approach which assumes that
any innovation, and any biological process, stands on a communicative event,
describable in semiotic terms, i.e. terms like interpretation, translation, dialogue, etc.
This is like a heuristic principle in these days of biosemiotics, and we will see where it
may lead us. In addition, there are already decades of work and experience behind this
belief (expressed, for instance, in the works of Tembrock (1971), Florkin (1974), and
Besides these notions, i.e. the contemporary terminology of biosemiotics and a
belief into the communicative (dialogic) nature of life, there are also some other
heuristic principles among the tools of biosemiotics already available. Let me try to
describe some of them.
The principle according to which the dyadic causal connections, or signal-
response interactions, are not those having much importance in living systems; instead,
all biological interactions work by recognition, i.e. by reading what is out there and if
recognizing then responding according to the previously stored "image" of the
recognized and translating its message into some product or behavior, which is actually
a new message. Thus, the connections are triadic.
The interconnection of analogous and digital, or horizontal and vertical, or
ecological and genetic, or morphological and informational, or bodily and mental,
should exist in every single biological process, and thus, as shown by Hoffmeyer, this
may broaden the views in many areas of biology.
The functional circles (Funktionskreise) which primitive organisms obtained, do
not usually disappear but develop towards more complicated ones. Thus, it is very
improbable that a functional circle once created will disappear; in the course of
contradictions met by organisms, these circles are augmented by new elements, made
more complex, but still retain their old content. This is why the living conditions of
mammal-like reptiles (synapsids, p. 116) can explain some features of their much later
The way towards the explanation of intelligent behavior may not come from
mechanisms showing the behavior of wholes, rather from the mechanisms using
swarms as a basic notion. This looks like a replacement of populational thinking, so
popular for neo-Darwinian biology, by thinking in swarms.
On one hand, a very high level of informational complexity exists from the very
beginning of living systems (more complex than any scientific description has achieved
so far), and on the other, there are stepwise trends of increasing semiotic freedom,
trends from pre-sign to sign, from prosemiosis to semiosis, from simple triadic
processes to language and culture.
A living system is a multi-level self-organizing anarchic (chaotic) hierarchy of
communicative systems or swarms. That is to say, there are many subsystems which
can solve a conflict or contradiction if it arises, and they all function as semiotic
Any simple semiotic function is a result of a quite complicated mechanism if
described in mechanical terms. This means that simple explanations are possible for
complex systems like life. This seems to be one of the most provocative aspects of
biosemiotics, making it a candidate for a new theory of general biology - without
losing anything except unnecessary details, it wants to provide a simple language for
the description of phenomena which have been very complex and difficult for
Biosemiotics, if it is a paradigm for biology, should mean a different approach in all
branches of biology. It cannot restrict itself to the re-interpretation of existing
knowledge (like a philosophy of biology), with the application of a new terminology. It
is a way of thinking, experimenting and describing for both theoretical and empirical
biology. For Uexküll, Umweltforschung was, first of all, an experimental science, the
detailed physiological description and analysis of functional circles, the investigation of
sensors and effectors of organisms together with the codes which connect them both
inside and outside the organism. The semiotic approach has raised this problem and
makes this work meaningful. However, the problem of what the semiotic approach
should mean for experimental biology, is still almost uninvestigated in contemporary
From the point of view of sociology of science, biosemiotics, according to the impact
made by Hoffmeyer, seems to be a child of the cultural movement, related somehow to
the values of methodological anarchism and love of symbiosis, holism and critics of
neo-Darwinism. However, my belief is that it should be combined with the results of
theoretical biology, as we understand it at the end of the 20th century, with the
understanding of complex systems, chaos, recursive mathematics etc. When combining
all these tools, biosemiotics may indeed build the bridges it has started to
Acknowledgements. I thank Sabine Brauckmann, Sergey Chebanov, Claus Emmeche, Jesper
Michail Y. Lotman, Thomas A. Sebeok, and Alexei Sharov for discussions on several problems
in this article. And special thanks to Jesper Hoffmeyer for his creative book.
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