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Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 43.2 (2000) 252-268

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The Biology of Signification

Jesper Hoffmeyer *


Signification is not a term one often meets in biological literature, and few scientists seem to have paid much attention to the question of how there can possibly be such a thing as signification in the world. According to Webster's Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language (1996), to signify means: "to make known by signs, speech or action" or "to be a sign of." That signification in this sense is constitutive for human life is hard to deny, since the very act of denying it would itself be a linguistic and thus significative act. Being linguistic animals, we are incurably suspended in a world of signification. But language is not the only or even the primary key to the world of signification. Small children do not speak, but it would be absurd to claim that they are not yet conscious about things around them. Most of the time, in fact, our understanding of what goes on is based on the myriad of nonlinguistic signs entering our perceptive fields. Even when our consciousness is not aware of it, our body and brain continue to interpret the world around us, alerting our consciousness only when necessary.

The science devoted to the exploration of this world of signification is called or the theory of signs or semiotics (from the Greek for "sign," semeion). Due to tradition and to the influential work of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, who was exclusively concerned with that peculiar sign system which is language [1], semiotics generally has been considered a part of the humanities, but there seems to be no good reason to believe that only human beings are admitted into the world of signification. The existence of signification therefore challenges biological theory to find out what are the roots for this phenomenon in pre-human nature. This challenge has been met often enough by a reductive strategy, in which semiotic processes are identified as signals unambiguously releasing [End Page 252] well-defined effects. While such a strategy may help in reassuring deep-rooted beliefs in the omnipotence of traditional explanatory strategies of science, it does so at the cost of leaving behind as an illusion our subjective experience of what it feels like to be conscious. Worse yet, it leaves us with a mind-body dualism, which--from an intellectual point of view at least--cannot decently be believed. As pointed out by the philosopher John Searle the experience of being a first-person singularis cannot possibly be explained through third-person discourse [2], or in other words, an "I" cannot be derived from an "it," no matter how complicated an "it" one constructs.

There is an alternative to this dilemma, however, which is to accept that signification in the true sense of the word did not suddenly appear with the human creature, but that it had a natural history of its own, beginning with modest unpersonalized forms of signification, such as the kind of natural preferences we use to call natural laws, for example, the preference of massive bodies for approaching each other. This route to understanding our existence as sentient beings in the universe was suggested more than a century ago by the American scientist and philosopher Charles S. Peirce. In 1963 the American linguist Thomas A. Sebeok took the consequence of this Peircean vision and introduced the term zoo-semiotics, which he later extended in the outlining of a general biosemiotics [3, 4].

The idea that organic (or even cosmic) evolution is basically a natural history of signification was the project I set out to discuss in my book Signs of Meaning in the Universe [5]. 1 In that work I presented a view of the biosphere as a semiosphere, i.e., a sphere surrounding the earth and consisting of communication: sounds, smells, movements, colors, shapes, electrical fields, thermal radiation, waves of all kinds, chemical signals, touching, and so on. (The term semiosphere was first introduced by Yuri Lotman [6], but it is used here in a...


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