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The apparently purposeful nature of living systems is obtained through a sophisticated network of semiotic controls whereby biochemical, physiological and behavioral processes become tuned to the needs of the system. The operation of these semiotic controls takes place and is enabled across a diversity of levels. Such semiotic controls may be distinguished from ordinary deterministic control mechanisms through an inbuilt anticipatory capacity based on a distinct kind of causation that I call here “semiotic causation” to denote the bringing about of changes under the guidance of interpretation in a local .context. Anticipation through the skilled interpretation of indicators of temporal relations in the context of a particular survival project (or life strategy) guides organismic behavior towards local ends. This network of semiotic controls establishes an enormously complex semiotic scaffolding for living systems. Semiotic scaffolding safeguards the optimal performance of organisms through semiotic interaction with cue elements which are characteristically present in dynamic situations. At the cellular level, semiotic scaffolding assures the proper integration of the digital coding system (the genome) into the myriad of analogical coding systems operative across the membranes of cells and cell organelles
Jesper Hoffmeyer: "semiotic scaffolding of living systems"
Semiotic Scaffolding of living systems*
Jesper Hoffmeyer
Department of Biological Chemistry
University of Copenhagen, Denmark
KEYWORDS: Biosemiotics,Emergence, Scaffolding, Anticipation, Sign, Evolution
The apparently purposeful nature of living systems is obtained through a sophisticated
network of semiotic controls whereby biochemical, physiological and behavioral
processes become tuned to the needs of the system. The operation of these semiotic
controls takes place and is enabled across a diversity of levels. Such semiotic controls
may be distinguished from ordinary deterministic control mechanisms through an
inbuilt anticipatory capacity based on a distinct kind of causation that I call here
“semiotic causation” to denote the bringing about of changes under the guidance of
interpretation in a local context. Anticipation through the skilled interpretation of
indicators of temporal relations in the context of a particular survival project (or life
strategy) guides organismic behavior towards local ends. This network of semiotic
controls establishes an enormously complex semiotic scaffolding for living systems.
Semiotic scaffolding safeguards the optimal performance of organisms through
semiotic interaction with cue elements which are characteristically present in dynamic
situations. At the cellular level, semiotic scaffolding assures the proper integration of
the digital coding system (the genome) into the myriad of analogical coding systems
operative across the membranes of cells and cell organelles.
The vision of nature as an intelligible place has nourished confidence in the scientific
project ever since the times of the Enlightenment. One prominent source for this
belief was in Thomas Aquinas' teaching in the 13th century which strongly
emphasized the inner connection between the two great books, the book of God, i.e.,
the Bible, and the book of nature. The will of God manifested itself in his creation as
* Parts of this paper have appeared as: "From Thing to Relation: On Bateson's Bioanthropology” In
Journal of Biosemiotics 3 (in preparation).
Jesper Hoffmeyer: "semiotic scaffolding of living
well as in the Bible and therefore reading the "Book of Nature" was a necessary
supplement to reading of "The Book of God". That God in his benevolence would not
have created nature as an unruly and lawless place seemed obvious to most Christian
thinkers (note 1).
Orderliness does indeed seem to be a widespread property of our universe, but
it should be noticed that: (1) such orderliness need not embrace all phenomena in
nature, and (2) it need not have been instituted in our world from the beginning, but
may as well have appeared in the world through an emergent processes. Strangely
enough, however, many modern scientists do not seem embarrassed by the obvious
Christian metaphysical heritage of science, whereas the idea of emergence, i.e. the
idea that the orderliness we observe in nature has itself emerged through processes
which are not yet effectively understood, is often seen as a smuggling in of
supernatural intervention through the backdoor. It is hard to see, however, why the
belief in an orderly universe as instituted from the beginning (by a benevolent God?)
should be seen as a less supernatural explanation than the belief in orderliness as
something arising by its own "force" in an unruly and largely random universe. Both
ideas are dependent on ontological presuppositions which cannot themselves be
ultimately proven.
The ontology of an emergent universe was explored in the evolutionary
cosmology of the American chemist and philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, who
posited the idea that our universe has an inherent tendency to "take habits" (note 2).
Taken in its broadest or most primitive sense, the Peircean idea of "habit taking" can
be seen as an act of interpretation, i.e. the formation of a mediating link between one
regularity and another, as when a bell is interpreted by a Pavlovian dog to mean food.
Habituation, in other words is semiosis (sign activity) in its most general sense, and
seeing habit taking as a general property of our universe immediately lets us reconcile
our cosmology with the fact that semiotic creatures (such as ourselves) exist on planet
Earth – or, in other words, that there are creatures in this world capable of "making
sense" of their environment, i.e. measuring it and making choices based on such
That measuring processes constitute a central aspect of life processes in
general has been emphasized throughout the work of Howard Pattee (Pattee 1977;
Pattee 1997). Convergently, Stuart Kauffman has recently also discussed natural
Jesper Hoffmeyer: "semiotic scaffolding of living
measuring processes in the context of the "non-ergodicity" of our universe. That the
universe is non-ergodic implies that the universe never has had the time it would have
needed, should its present state of affairs be in any way representative of its in-built
possibilities (Kauffman 2000). The persistent movement of the universe into the next
possible state, or the "adjacent possible" as Kauffman calls it, precludes its ever
reaching a state that depends on statistical likelihood. Instead the universe is
historical, for "history enters when the space of the possible that might have been
explored is larger, or vastly larger, than what has actually occurred" (p. 152).
Kauffman is fully aware that the "burgeoning order of the universe" cannot be
reduced to matter alone, to entropy (or the negation of entropy for that matter), to
information, or to anything that simple. The propagation of organization and the
subsequent growing diversification of the world is enabled in Kauffman's terminology
by autonomous agents and, as we shall see, these agents are in a deep sense semiotic
creatures. For an autonomous agent may be defined quite rigorously as an
"autocatalytic system able to reproduce and able to perform one or more
thermodynamic work cycles" and in his earlier work, Kauffman has shown that such
agents will be expected to self-organize given the kind of system our Earth belongs to
(Kauffman 1993).
However, in Investigations, Kauffman explicitly observes that such a
definition leads to the more intractable questions of "measuring" and "recognition".
For if work is defined as "the constrained release of energy" where will such
“constraints” come from? Minimally, it will take work to produce them, and this is
not all, for: "autonomous agents also do often detect and measure and record
displacements of external systems from equilibrium that can be used to extract work,
then do extract work, propagating work and constraint construction, from their
environment" (Kauffman 2000, 110). Now, since a measurement always implies an
act of interpretation, this immediately brings us to the heart of biosemiotics.
Because the ability to measure is the exclusive property of living systems;
measurements do not take place in ordinary chemical systems. By way of illustration,
let us consider the chemotactic behavior of the E. coli cell. In naturally ocurring
systems, nutrients will not normally be homogenously distributed in space but will
typically be present in certain localities and absent in others. This is the logic behind
the appearance of the chemotactic capacity in early evolution. E coli cells are
Jesper Hoffmeyer: "semiotic scaffolding of living
certainly primitive creatures, but they are, in fact, capable of measuring the
concentration of nutrients they encounter while swimming, and to register any change
in the concentration they might come upon. An eventual change in the concentration
of an edible amino acid will - at least when more profitable nutrient sources are absent
- cause the bacterium to swim upstream toward the source of the amino acid.
This behavior depends upon a sophisticated interaction of some fifty different
proteins that co-operate in executing a comparison of measurements taken at two
successive points in time – as well as in mediating the result of this comparison to the
many aggregates of proteins spread along the surface of the cell that are responsible
for flagellar movements. The collective effect of this co-operative effort is the
establishment of a scaffolding mechanism assuring that the bacterium moves towards
the best available nutrient source – or eventually, if no such nutrients are available,
that it changes its movements into a random search behavior, i.e., tumbling around
itself without a definite direction.
What goes on in this measuring sequence is the formation of an interpretant
(here: the change in flagellar movement) that is related to something exterior to the
cell (the distribution of nutrients in the outside environment) in a way that reflects the
historically- and evolutionarily- acquired integration between the sensory system of
the cell to its motoric faculties. In other words, the reason why an interpretant is
formed here and now is that the cell through its evolutionary ancestry has evolved this
particular mechanism for a mediation between its sensoric capacity (e.g., the receptors
at its surface) and its needs (the regularly assured movement towards nutrients).
History thus not only matters to the cell, but literally operates inside the cell through
the structural couplings – or semiotic scaffolds – that it has served to build into the
system. And this is exactly what distinguishes living systems from non-living
systems: the presence in the former of historically created semiotic interaction
mechanisms which have no counterpart in the latter.
This mechanism is so different from anything taking place in the non-living
sector of nature, that it deserves to be distinguished as constituting a special kind of
causation, different from but dependent upon traditional efficient causation. I have
coined the term semiotic causation for this kind causation of bringing about effects
through interpretation (note 3), as when, for example, bacterial movements are
caused through a process of interpretation based on the historically defined needs of a
Jesper Hoffmeyer: "semiotic scaffolding of living
sensitive system (Hoffmeyer 2005).
Of course, such “semiotic causation” cannot in itself execute its effects, but
must always operate through the mechanisms of material efficient causation. The
relation between the two kinds of causation is like the relationship between a court of
law and a sheriff, says Peirce: "Law, without force to carry it out, would be a court
without a sheriff; and all its dicta would be vaporings" (CP 1. 213 (note 4)). Or to
paraphrase Kant: Semiotic causation without efficient causation is helpless, but
efficient causation without semiotic causation is blind. Semiotic causation is the term
for that system of relations that gives direction to the flows of metabolic energy
through a living system and thus to the behavior of an organism (Santaella-Braga
Biosemiotics deals with habit taking in this precise sense, as exhibited by
living cells and the interactive patterns in which they take part, i.e., as organisms or as
supra-individual entities. But whether or not such habituation is a meaningful concept
in the inorganic world, as Peircean cosmology requires, is a metaphysical question
that is not of direct concern to biosemiotics. For it is an empirical scientific fact that
the equivalent of measuring processes do undoubtedly take place in every living
system, and this basic semiotic activity alone amply justifies the study of living
systems as semiotic entities.
Life depends on the fine tuned co-ordination of an astronomical number of
biochemical reactions taking place inside and across different kinds of membranous
structures (Hoffmeyer 1998; Hoffmeyer 1999). The total area occupied by cell
membranes in the human body, for example, has been calculated as one third of a
squared kilometer (Hoffmeyer 2000). Moreover, the area of membranes filling up the
internal space of cells, i.e. the membranes around the mitochondria, endosplasmatic
reticulum, Golgi apparatus, and the many smaller cell organelles, are probably several
orders of magnitude larger than the area of the outer cell membrane itself, resulting in
a total area of membranes in the human body of perhaps 30 km2.
Jesper Hoffmeyer: "semiotic scaffolding of living
These membranes generally are fluid structures that need to be upheld actively
at the expense of metabolic energy. Thus, nothing in this complex arrangement has
any inherent stability, so the maintenance of a living system requires a very intricate
system of dynamic interactions. And while this system is of course powered by
metabolic energy – it must be controlled by semiotic means. This is to say that local
processes must subserve the needs of global functions, and this result can only be
obtained through communicative activity connecting distant parts and different
functional domains of the body (or organism) to each other.
For even inside the single cell - and a human body consists of some 50,000
billion single cells - the task of communicative coordination is not a simple one. A
multitude of pathways for signal transduction are involved in each and every task, and
one major problem to avoid is the possibility of so-called signal transduction “cross-
talk” interfering with the transfer of messages, i.e., the prevention of signal molecules
destined for one distinct pathway becoming interpreted as relevant by other pathways
(see Bruni 2003; and this volume for a discussion of the intricate semiotics of signal
The semiotic coordination of the processes described here makes up the
branch of biosemiotics called endosemiotics, i.e. the semiotics of processes taking
place inside the organism. Exosemiotics, on the other, hand is the term used for
biosemiotic processes going on between organisms, both between and within species,
as well as for the semiotic processes connected with the interpretation of abiotic
markers in the environment, as when migratory birds make use of stellar
configurations in order to find their way. That these endo- and exo- prefixes have thus
come to refer to the two sides of the borderline around bodies, is an terminological
distinction only and should not be taken to signify any privileged role in biosemiotics
for either side of the interface, or boundary. In fact, semiotics is in principle always
connected with some kind of inside-outside interaction.
Thus, through the totality of life processes in the world, a semiosphere is
created that envelops the earth in much the same way the atmosphere, hydrosphere or
biosphere envelops the planet (Hoffmeyer 1996; Hoffmeyer 1997) (note 5). This
semiosphere truly is a sphere like the atmosphere, the hydrosphere or the biosphere, in
that it penetrates these spheres for living organisms and consists in communication:
Jesper Hoffmeyer: "semiotic scaffolding of living
sounds, odors, movements, colors, electric fields, waves of any kind, chemical
signals, touch, etc.
The concept of the semiosphere adds a semiotic dimension to the more well-
known concept of the biosphere, emphasizing the need to see life as belonging to a
shared universe of sign activity through which cells, organisms and species all over
the planet interact in ways that we still hardly understand. And yet every single
species (including humans) has only limited access to this semiosphere, because each
species’ capacity for sensing and interpreting potential cues in its surroundings, i.e. its
interpretance (note 6), has evolved to fit a particular ecological niche. Put in the
terminology of Jacob von Uexküll, each species is confined to its own limited
Umwelt, or “internal model” with which individuals of a species constructs an
understanding of its surroundings.
Moreover, the semiosphere poses constraints and boundary conditions upon
the Umwelts of various species populations, since each are forced to occupy specific
semiotic niches, which is to say that each will have to master different sets of visual,
acoustic, olfactory, tactile and chemical signs in order to survive in the semiosphere.
It is thus entirely possible that the semiotic demands made upon species’ populations
are often a decisive challenge to their success. If this is so, then ecosystem dynamics,
for example, shall have to include a proper understanding of the semiotic networks
operative in ecosystems.
The network of semiotic interactions by which individual cells, organisms,
populations, or ecological units are controlling their activities can thus be seen as
scaffolding devices assuring that an organism’s activities become tuned to that
organism’s needs. And just as the scaffold raised to erect a building will largely
delimit what kind of building is raised, so too do the semiotic controls on biological
activities delimit when and how such fine-tuned activity should take place. To
conceptualize and analyze the myriad of semiotic scaffolding mechanisms operative
at and across different levels in natural systems is the core subject matter of
Jesper Hoffmeyer: "semiotic scaffolding of living
Semiotic scaffolding operates by assuring performance through semiotic interaction
with cue elements that are characteristically present in dynamic situations such as the
catching of prey, invading host organisms, or mating. The significance of dynamic
scaffolding in the human sphere has been pointed out already by the Russian
psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who was probably the first to emphasize the importance
during child development of scaffolding, i.e. experiences with external supporting
structures (including linguistic ones). At crucial developmental moments, adults help
give the child the experience of successful actions that child alone would not be able
to produce (Vygotsky 1986). Some obvious examples include physically supporting
the first few faltering steps of a near-walker, or supporting a baby in water to allow
for swimming movements.
A striking case of a linguistic scaffolding is when a child is "talked through" a
tricky challenge by a more experienced agent and thereby succeeds in solving a
problem which was otherwise beyond its abilities (such as learning to tie his or her
shoelaces). Later, when the adult is absent, the child may often conduct a similar
dialogue with herself – in which case the speech sounds serve as an external memory-
scaffold to guide the difficult activity and to avoid errors. In such cases "the role of
language is to guide and shape our own behavior - it is a tool for structuring and
controlling action, not merely a medium of information transfer between agents"
(Clark 1997, 195).
In turn, the concept of scaffolding was later taken up and further developed
within the fast-growing segment of robotics research concerned with so-called
autonomous agents (e.g., Brooks 1993; Hendriks-Jansen 1996; Clark 1997).
Autonomous agents are mobile robots ("mobots") capable of functioning in messy and
unpredictable real-world settings such following as close as possible alongside a wall
in a crowded office. "The New Robotics revolution" writes Andy Clark "rejects a
fundamental part of the classical image of mind. It rejects the image of a central
planner that is privy to all the information available anywhere in the system ... The
problem with the central planner [model] is that it is profoundly impractical ... The
reason is that the incoming sensory information must be converted into a single
symbolic code so that such a planner can deal with it" (Clark 1997, 21).
Instead, autonomous agents operate on the principle that Hendriks-Jahnsen calls
"interactive emergence": "Patterns of activity whose high-level structure cannot be
Jesper Hoffmeyer: "semiotic scaffolding of living
reduced to specific sequences of movements may emerge from the interactions
between simple reflexes and the particular environment to which they are adapted ...
The emergent behavior of the system as a whole is the result of various autonomous
activities interacting with each other and with the environment, and not a centralized
system making decisions based on internally represented courses of action or goals"
(Hendriks-Jansen 1996, 8-9).
Significantly, as seen from a biosemiotic point of view, Hendriks-Jansen
emphasizes that "Interactive situated behavior cannot be explained in terms of a
deductive or generative law. It requires a historical explanation because there can be
no rules to predict the sorts of behavior that might emerge” (p.9). Addressing the
question of similar scaffolding mechanisms in biological creatures, Clark has
suggested a "007-principle": "In general, evolved creatures will neither store nor
process information in costly ways when they can use the structure of the environment
and their operations upon it as a convenient stand-in for the information-processing
operations concerned. That is, know only as much as you need to know to get the job
done" (Clark 1997, 46)
Both Clark and Hendriks-Jansen are writing interchangeably about autonomous
agents and biological creatures in ways which are likely to meet objections from many
biologists. Thus, in the case of a wall-following robot, a human constructor pre-selects
the “situatedness” of the given activity. But how does an organism select its own
“situatedness”? Situated activity presupposes a kind of fitting between environment
and organism, so Hendriks-Jansen contents himself by pointing to “natural selection”
as the explanation for interactive emergence in the organic realm.
But the anticipatory or teleological capacity of natural selection is not as self-
evident as most scientists seem to suppose. For natural selection not only presupposes
superfecundity – i.e., that more individuals are born than can possibly survive, but
more generally it presupposes the operation in organisms of a "strive" for survival.
But a strive already implies a telos, something of the kind philosophers call
'aboutness' or intentionality, (although intentionality in this case does not imply
thoughts and consciousness).
From the very beginning, even the simplest prokaryotic (bacteria-like) life
forms take an interest in their surroundings with regard to finding solutions to survival
problems such as how to feed, how to escape predation, and how to reproduce. None
Jesper Hoffmeyer: "semiotic scaffolding of living
of these strivings are explainable through schemes of simple efficient causation, for
they all presupposes some kind of "orientation" from the system towards the
environment and towards the future. Thus, the inherent teleological nature of livings
systems cannot be “explained” by natural selection because natural selection wouldn't
work without it. And this “teleological property” of living beings was, of course,
exactly the reason why Kant reached the conclusion that life evades scientific
analysis. The Kantian conception of science was purely physicalist and he did not
doubt that functionalist explanations in biology – e.g, the perennially beloved
“machine metaphor” - violate the physicalist ideal to which biology still often
subscribes – thus unwittingly (one must suppose) admitting logical contradictions into
its core body.
And this is why the semiotic dimension of natural processes must be drawn into
any dynamic analysis of such systems. Rather than talking about interactive
emergence, as Hendriks-Jansen suggested, I would recommend using instead the
concept of semiotic emergence. The primary mechanism behind semiotic emergence
is semiogenic scaffolding, the key to nature's tendency to take habits in the biological
The emergence of new scaffolding devices (unknowingly) function like stepping
stones in a river, leading evolutionary processes forward one step at a time and - in
average - farther away from the bank at each step. In themselves, such semiotic
scaffolding patterns may take many forms and rely on many different principles, but
the core property of a semiotic scaffold remains that of focusing the energy flow
(behavior) of the concerned system or subsystem upon a rigidly limited repertoire of
possibilities, or in guiding the system’s behavior to realize a definite sequence of
events. A receptor molecule at the surface of a cell may be tuned to open a
neighboring channel when, and only when, being hit by a small set of possible
domains on protein surfaces, just as the offspring of a bird may be tuned to learn only
one or a very narrow band of sequences of sounds. When the proper cue arrives, the
receptor opens the channel or the young bird learns the species' song. The receptor
Jesper Hoffmeyer: "semiotic scaffolding of living
may be misled, however - as when an HIV virus iconically mimics the surface
domains of one of the organism's own proteins - and the bird may be fooled e.g. if it's
been deposited in the nest of a foster bird without further contact with adult birds of
its own species (cf. Soler and Soler 1999). Semiotic scaffolding mechanisms depends
on acts of interpretation (understood in the most encompassing, and not merely
human anthropomorphic sense) and interpretation always runs the risk of being
For illustration, let us consider the case of infertility in the so-called eyeless
mutant of the axolotl, as discussed by Leo Buss (Buss 1987). Under normal
conditions, the amphibian eye will be produced by chemical interactions between the
newly formed optic vesicle and the embryonic ectoderm layer. A chemical inducer
produced by the optic vesicle is used for the scaffolding of this interaction. What
happens in the eyeless mutant of the axolotl is that this step is disturbed because the
ectoderm of the mutant does not respond properly to the inducer, so that no eye will
be formed and the mutant develops blind. This however, is not the only problem this
poor creature has to cope with – for it also lacks the capacity for leaving offspring.
This is because the eyeless mutant develops a secondary deficiency in the region of
the brain called hypothalamus, which will only be properly developed through
induction via signals that are sent to it from the eye. In the eyeless individual, no eye
exists to direct the development of the hypothalamus, and thus the hypothalamus
therefore cannot produce gonadotropin hormones – and in the absence of these
hormones, the individual becomes sterile.
The deficiencies of the eyeless mutant clearly illustrates the tinkering ways in
which ontogeny has become scaffolded by evolution. There is presumably no other
reason why the development of hypothalamus should depend on the presence of a
functional eye than the eventual formation of the eye in a location that happens to be
anatomically close to that region of the brain where hypothalamus is normally
developed in this lineage. Making the development of hypothalamus dependent upon
the prior formation of an eye effectively assures that hypothalamus will become
constructed at the exact right moment in embryogeny. And this is precisely the
situation that is not so, of course, in the eyeless mutant – but rare mutants are
statistically of little concern in evolution. Rather, the axolotl eye just happened to be
in the neighborhood of the nascent hypothalamus-region in normal individuals and it
Jesper Hoffmeyer: "semiotic scaffolding of living
is most likely for no other reason than this that evolution managed to exapt the eye for
a secondary role as an ontogenetic switch for the initiation of proper development of a
hypothalamus. As Buss says: 'Ontogeny must re-enact the interactions which gave
rise to it' (Buss 1987, 97). In the terminology of this paper, ontogeny is safeguarded
by myriads of semiotic scaffolds that depend on one another in long chains of
successive steps.
In other words, all that was needed to assure that proper induction would take
place was that some factor could be counted on as a reliable cue for the onset of
hypothalamus development. We must suppose that the sensitivity of cells in the
hypothalamus region to induction from the eye has been molded by natural selection,
but very probably a number of other constituents might equally as well have become
its target. Natural selection thus is responsible for producing the safe channeling
(under normal conditions) of an inductive relation between eye and brain
development, but the choice of this particular relation (between the development of
those parts of the hypothalamus that will later enable gonadotropin production and the
presence during embryological development of a rudimentary eye) as a theme for the
semiotic scaffolding of hypothalamus development was probably more or less
In the same way, natural selection has safeguarded the inductive relation
between optic vesicle and ectoderm layer at the location where the eye is supposed to
form, but the fact that this relation became the focus for the selection process didn't
necessarily itself offer any “selective advantage.” Yet once this relation had become
safeguarded through the strengthening influence of natural selection, it did
thenceforth, however, offer a reliable cue for the successive construction of yet further
semiotic scaffolding. In this way, ontogeny may be seen as being based upon a highly
integrated web of historically coordinated semiotic scaffolding devices that guide the
construction of the embryo safely through a procedure involving millions of possible
choices taken by cell lines all along the developmental patchwork of the ontogenic
The emergence of this pattern of subtle scaffolding devices through evolution is,
of course, in a certain sense the outcome of natural selection. But it should also be
noticed that an important aspect of this process is the capacity - or talent one might
say - of individual cells and cell assemblies to change their internal settings in
Jesper Hoffmeyer: "semiotic scaffolding of living
integrated waves (e. g. signal transduction cascades) under the influence of external
(or new) molecular cues. The semiotic logic of localized dynamic biochemistry in a
given embryonic tissue thus would tend to tell us as much or more about the actual
“causality” behind semiotic emergence than do explanations in terms of “natural
selection” alone.
According to neo-Darwinian understanding, the gradual fixation of favorable
mutations in DNA molecules due to natural selection is the mechanistic backbone for
change in organic evolution. One reason for the overwhelming success of this
understanding may be that genomes are in fact the most fundamental scaffolding
devices for the ontogenetic production of organisms, and if you monitor the
construction of a scaffold you are sure to catch also an important temporal aspect of
the dynamic processes scaffolded. If, for instance, you monitor the ongoing addition
of new notes to a musical score you will certainly get some insight into the tempo
and speed of the composing process, and even a deaf person might become an expert
in this. Too, there can be no doubt that the genomic structure is the most rigid and
conservative scaffold for the evolutionary process, and monitoring the changes in
gene frequencies down through generations will, of course, present you with a
timetable which is tightly coupled to true evolutionary change.
For ease of illustration, let us consider a well-known case of linguistic
scaffolding taken from the history of the development of the Internet, namely the
term spam. This word has become customary all over the world for referring to the
violation of privacy through invasion of other people's electronic mailboxes by non-
invited advertising mail. Yet only a few people outside of the English speaking world
would know that this new meaning of the word “spam” derives from a very specific
situation – in particular, a single Monty Python's Flying Circus skit in which a group
of Vikings sing a chorus of "SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM … lovely SPAM,
wonderful SPAM..." in an increasing crescendo, drowning out nearby conversation,
much in the way that unsolicited e-mail “drowns out” other email on the Internet.
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Additionally, the song's lyrics themselves costitute an endless repetition of worthless
or annoying text similar to the e-mail variety of “spam.”
Now, technically, the term “spam” is a so-called telescope word formed by the
contraction of the phonemic extremities of "sp(iced) (h)am", i.e. spam. But although
this term has been intentionally introduced and functions now, of course, in its present
significative role – we can be quite sure that neither the original inventors of the
spiced ham brand name SPAM, nor the cast members of Monty Python, had any idea
of the particular world wide usage awaiting it. Rather, he metaphoric transformation
of “spam” from the Monty Python setting to the Internet vocabulary was a non-
necessary and creative act.
Moreover, this new relation (“spam” = electronic junk mail) only stuck because
it happened to hit an unfilled locus in linguistic space, nominalizing a non-verbalized
general experience in modern society. Yet through this metaphorical transformation
onto the experiential plane of the Internet, the term now has become an linguistic
actant in its own right, generating a range of new habits – e.g., we can engage in
making rules for Internet services to “eliminate spam” or discuss and execute
punishments towards “spam-sinners.” And we may eventually expect even further
conceptualizations to develop on the top the original concept. In this way, new terms
can themselves be “scaffolding devices” for cultural development.
The point is that the coining of the term spam was a creative response to the
novel needs of a new cultural situation. As such, it was not a result of conscious
deliberations; instead, it just happened to grow spontaneously out of already existing
linguistic resources by a sort of tacit interactive consensus.
It is tempting to see the appearance of the term “spam” as a prototype case for
the origin of new digitally coded signs in nature, i.e. in evolution. Thus the
digitalization of the Monty Python sketch in one simple phonetic sequence served to
scaffold a complex social experience by making it an easy general resource for
communication. And this kind of semiotic scaffolding, I suggest, is exactly what
digitally coded messages such as genes are in general good for.
For new genes may often be formed very much through the same kind of
scaffolding conversions that we have seen to be instrumental in furthering the
inclusion of new words in a language. Thus, in the case of the new term “spam” the
decisive point was the conjunction of a pointed meaning (submitted by Monty Python)
Jesper Hoffmeyer: "semiotic scaffolding of living
and a social need (created by spam sinners). Likewise, in the biological realm, we can
suppose that gene duplication accompanied by the hitch-hiking down through
generations of one of the copies of non-essential or masked genetic material (prone to
all kinds of non-lethal mutations) would assure the availability of a rich resource base
for potential future genes. The decisive cause for the birth of a new functional gene
would be a lucky conjunction of two events: (1) an already existing non-functional
gene might acquire a new "meaning" through integration into a functional
(transcribed) part of the genome, and (2) this gene-product would hit an unfilled gap
in the "semiotic needs" of the cell or the embryo.
In this way, a new gene may become a scaffolding mechanism supporting a new
kind of interaction by imbuing some kind of semiotic advantage upon its bearer – and
this is what I mean by the term semiogenic scaffolding. By entering the realm of
digitality, the new semiotic functionality becomes available not only to the cells of the
organism carrying it, but also to future generations as well (and, if we allow for
horizontal gene transfer, possibly even to unrelated organisms).
Digitality in the life sphere thus provides for the sharing (or objectivity) of ideas
(functions) and thereby also assures their conservation over time. But this very
function is itself dependent on the relative inertness of the genetic material and its
very indirect and highly sophisticated way of interfering with the worldliness of
cellular life. Genes, like human words, do not directly cause change in the world
around them (i.e., we do not believe in spells), but do so only when some body
interprets them. And just as words serve to support human activity and
communication, genes support cellular activity and communication. Genes and words
are both marvelous semiotic scaffolding tools.
Scaffolding mechanisms in general depend upon the ability to anticipate and prepare
for important situations and events in the life cycles of the concerned entities. To
scaffold life processes through genomic control mechanisms obviously becomes
difficult when organismic life cycles become more complicated or when animals
engage in complex social processes. Genomic scaffolding necessarily operates
Jesper Hoffmeyer: "semiotic scaffolding of living
through the controlled assembling of protein resources which are then released in
sophisticated temporal patterns reflecting the upcoming needs of the organism. Such
mechanisms do work sufficiently well so long as the behavioral repertoires of animals
are limited to instinctually triggered responses to foreseeable events.
But large-brained animals such as birds and mammals are generally dependent
upon not just instinctual reflexes, but the processes of learning – and while such
processes are assisted by genetically assured behavioral preferences, the whole
advantage of learning ability must be the inherent element of flexibility inferred on
behavior by the learning process – and thus the transfer of behavioral control from the
genomic level to the cerebral level. This introduces the need for even newer sets of
scaffolding mechanisms – and foremost among these are the diversity of control
mechanisms exhibited by the neuro-endochrinological apparatus.
An amusing example of the semiotics of neuro-endochrinological scaffolding
has been observed in the cooing behavior of ring doves (Streptopelia risoria). Before
a female ring dove lays her eggs, she and her mate go through a series of courtship
displays. As courtship proceeds, hormonal changes in the female trigger the growth of
follicles in her ovaries, each of which eventually bursts to release an egg. Now it has
been shown that if a female dove is operationally hindered in making the so-called
“nest-coo” she will not be able to ovulate, even despite the enthusiastic courting by
males. Yet in control experiments, tape recordings of nest-coos were played to
females with no males present. Now follicles thus immediately began to grow.
The conclusion seems simple: Female doves are not cooing, ultimately, at the
males - they are, in fact, cooing at their own ovaries to trigger the release of eggs. And
since ovaries are not supposed to posses means for meaningful absorption of sound,
this mechanism must be operating through the brain of the animal. And what the
experiment shows is that the brain does not tell the ovaries to make eggs until after it
has interpreted the sounds emanating from its own throat.
Why such a strange mechanism has actually evolved can only be guessed at,
but perhaps courtship ritual and thus cooing behavior is in fact more safely correlated
with the actual time of mating than a purely endogenously-based release system
would have been. The obvious, although speculative, explanation would be that the
cooing behavior measures the state of a relation between two birds and two sexes,
which is likely to be superior metric for reproductive success than would be a simple
Jesper Hoffmeyer: "semiotic scaffolding of living
measure of the hormonal state of the female organism itself.
The advantage of preparing for future events or situations – i.e. anticipation
is, of course, the main reason for the evolution of semiotic causation. The animal that
flees at the moment that it senses the presence of smoke obviously runs a better
chance of leaving offspring than does an animal that doesn't respond until the heat is
actually felt. The most important tool for surviving is thus anticipation and organisms
are involved in anticipatory action and relations all the time. They must decide when
to grow and when to withhold growth, when to move, when to hide, when to sing and
so on, and this way of adjusting one’s own behavior depends on a capacity to predict
the future at least to some limited extent.
For instance: “Is it likely the sun will shine or not?” “Is it likely that little flies
will pass by if I make my web here?” “Will the predator be fooled away from the nest
if I pretend to have a broken wing?” etc. In most cases, it will be the instinctual reflex
system of the animal, rather than the brain, that makes this kind of prediction – but the
underlying logic is the same: an animal profits from its ability (whether acquired
through phylogeny or through ontogeny) to identify trustworthy regularities in the
surroundings and to orient its own actions accordingly.
Now most - if not all – such trustworthy regularities are relations. For instance:
the relation between the amount of daylight and the approaching summertime that
tells the beech when to burst into leafs; or the play of sun and shadows which tells the
spider where to construct its web; or the relation between the clumsy movements and
an easy catch that tells the predator which individual prey animal to select – and that
thus also tells the bird how to fool the predator away from its nest.
In the first two of these examples (the beech and the spider), a certain
organismic activity is released as a response to pure (non-semiotic) natural relations,
so-called categorical relations – whereas in the third example the bird produces a
fake categorical relation (clumsy behavior as expectedly related to easiness of catch)
and then takes advantage of the semiotic relation established by the predator when it
lets itself be fooled by a false sign. In this case, in other words, the bird fools the
predator because it somehow (genetically or ontogenetically) 'knows' how the
predator is going to (mis)interpret the seeming categorical relation. Observe, too,
however, that in this case the predator may not always be fooled – and this shows us
that we are not here dealing with just material forces (efficient causality) but also
Jesper Hoffmeyer: "semiotic scaffolding of living
and more importantly with semiotic causality whose consequences are not strictly
deterministic: e.g., the predator may misinterpret the sign (the faked clumsy
behavior), but it also may not.
Anticipation is thus essentially a semiotic activity in which a sign is interpreted
as a relation between something occurring now and something expected to occur later,
such as a dark cloud alarming us to an upcoming thunderstorm. And from its very first
beginnings in Augustine's writings in the fourth century, a sign is conceived as
something awakening us to infer something else. For Augustine, a signum (sign) “is
anything perceived which makes something besides itself come into awareness"
(quoted from Deely 2001, 221). And while Augustine's definition is too narrow in its
focus on perception, since elements of awareness may well be signs also without
being perceived, yet he did point to the core of the matter when he defined a “thing”
as: "what has so far not been made use of to signify something" (p. 221). This implies
that “things” may well be “signs” but that they need not be so. It also implies that the
essence of the sign is its formal relational character of evoking an awareness of
something which it is not itself – and thereby implying the full Peircean triad of sign,
object and interpretant (here: the altered awareness). The evoking of such a referential
triad is, of course, by no means exclusive to the workings of human awareness but is
rather, as was later realized, a purely logical relation to be established in any system
capable of autonomous anticipatory activity.
Moreover, just as predictability must precede prediction, a system of useful
dyadic relations must first have been realized on planet Earth before the emergence of
biological life. Only then could more sophisticated systems survive based on a the
capacity for anticipation –i.e., for bringing themselves in relation to the pre-
established set of dyadic relations under the formation of true triadic or semiotic
relations. And while the underlying system of dyadic relations may well be
understood in terms of the things related, the emergence of true triadic semiosis in the
shape of living beings and their activities established a new kind of causality peculiar
to this new form of relative being – causalities which are far too sophisticated to be
accurately grasped through the simple dynamics of dyadic relations between
inanimate things.
Jesper Hoffmeyer: "semiotic scaffolding of living
Alhough most biologists do in some sense recognize that communicative processes
are part of natural systems, many instinctively conceptualize these processes only in
terms of the biochemical and genetic processes involved, and that are proposed to
result in such communicative behaviors. To talk of messages or semiosis, they feel,
just blurs our minds – and this is the reductionist credo ruling almost every
department of biology throughout the world. And so the simple question asked from
these quarters when confronted with “biosemiotics” normally is: What's all this fuss
What it is all about, I think, is quite a simple thing: namely, the reality of
relative being. Relative being is a strangely obvious thing which is nevertheless
generally dismissed by science as not really "real". For example, Jupiter has a number
of moons circling around it, but the relation between the moons and the planet is not
seen as anything “real in itself” in that doing so doesn't add anything to a strict
analysis of the properties of the individual celestial bodies themselves. The simple
genitive case seems neatly to exhaust the whole relation: the moons are indeed
Jupiter's. And it is of course true that, in principle, a “relation” could be drawn
between any two physical objects in the world, and in all but a very few cases, such
relations would turn out to be absolutely uninteresting whether seen from the point of
view of science, or from the point of view of ordinary people's everyday life.
However: not all relations are of this inconsequential kind, and to give an
example of 'relative being' which cannot easily be dismissed as “ficticious” let me
suggest the relation of parenthood. For all we know, King Frederik the Ninth of
Denmark was the father of Queen Margrethe the Second. But His Majesty passed
away a long time ago, and we have no doubt that Margrethe will likewise pass away,
too, at some point in the future. Yet, due to royal destiny, their relation will in all
likelihood persist for a very long time as the relation between two real entities that it
is: i.e., the relation of parenthood, of this particular father to this particular daughter.
Thus, this kind of 'relative being' seems to have a reality of its own which cannot be
reduced to the individual persons that substantiate the relation. Such relations have
been called ontological relations in that they are “real” (i.e., actually existing)
Jesper Hoffmeyer: "semiotic scaffolding of living
functional factors of the actually existing world (Deely 1990; Deely 1994; Deely
But are there ontological relations in nature? One of the first to answer this
question in the affirmative was the anthropologist and biologist Gregory Bateson
(Bateson 1972; Bateson and Bateson 1987). According to Bateson, the reality of
ontological relations is exactly what distinguishes life from non-life. For relations in
the prebiotic sphere have also sometimes been thought of as being ontological, as for
instance in the case with astrology. But since no likely mechanism whereby relations
between planets (say a conjunction between Mars and Venus as seen from Earth),
could possibly influence the destiny of individuals or nations on Earth has ever been
established, such a belief is generally (and correctly) rejected by scientists as
superstition. For we have absolutely no warrant for believing that those relations have
any distant causal effects on the world qua relations. In this case - as in the prebiotic
world in general - it makes more sense to talk about “related things” rather than about
relations - and maybe the general unwillingness of science to accept relations as
ontologically real owes much of its strenght to the ancient (and now strangely
revived) struggles science had to fight against dogmatic beliefs connected to mystical
or religious persuasions.
When we turn to the investigation of animate nature, however, relations tend to
become considerably more important than autonomous “things”. The human shoulder,
for instance, is a ball-and-socket joint that enables a person to raise, twist, bend, and
move the arms forward, to the sides and behind. The head of the upper arm bone
(humerus) is the ball and a circular depression (glenoid) in the shoulder bone
(scapula) is the socket. A soft-tissue rim (labrum) surrounds and deepens the socket.
The head of the upper arm bone is coated with a smooth, durable covering (articular
cartilage) and the joint has a thin, inner lining (synovium) for smooth movement,
while the surrounding muscles and tendons provide stability and support.
Here, then, are a whole assembly of relations which are all remarkably adjusted
to each other. The primary functional relation, of course, is that between the shape of
the ball of the arm bone and the contour of the shoulder socket, and we can assume
that this relation has indeed been functionally modulated by natural selection, all
along the way from its likely evolutionary origin as the appendages, or fins, in fish.
Clearly these relations are of quite another kind than the relations pertaining to the
Jesper Hoffmeyer: "semiotic scaffolding of living
planetary system.
The relation, in fact, is so central to the function of the animal that one can
hardly imagine the one bone changing without entailing a corresponding change
occurring in the other bone (or in some other relation within the system). Or, if such a
unilateral change should happen due to an unfortunate mutation, the resulting
individual would surely be functionally deficient and leave little or no offspring.
Conversely, if a mutation should occur that affected both bones in a coordinated way,
conserving their internal relation the resulting individual might perhaps manage
quite well in the evolutionary competition. In this case, the relation as such does
indeed seem as real and perhaps even more important to the system than the
individual bones making up the relation. And this state of affairs may well be the rule
rather than the exception in the realm of the biological world.
I conclude that not only is it absurd to deny the reality of relative being, because
it is relative being rather than things (i.e., individual creatures or populations) that
evolution persistently optimizes – and by denying this, one is prevented from
developing a proper scientific understanding of both biosemiosis and of
purposefulness. For semiosis is all about bringing oneself in relation to a relation. And
from the beginning of life, organisms have based their survival on this capacity for
anticipation – i.e. for interpreting events or structural configurations as signs for one
thing and another. For as Peirce saw, the proper and most fundamental definition of a
sign is something “which is in a relation to its object on the one hand and to an
interpretant on the other, in such a way as to bring the interpretant into a relation to
the object, corresponding to its own relation to the object" (CP 8. 322).
The fact that signs are often false or that relations (at least for humans) are more
often than not imaginary does not preclude signs or relations from having causal
significance. When the predator hunts the bird with a clumsy behavior its actions are
equally real whether the bird actually does have a broken wing or not. If the bird is
only pretending that its wing is broken, then the predator will most likely not catch it
– but the movements of the predator were not for that reason any less caused by the
(misleading) interpretant formed in its brain. By accepting the reality of relative being
– and thus of semiotic causation – we not only open up an explanatory space for a
reconciliation of human semiotic existence (such as is manifested in the writing a
scientific paper) with that of organic existence in general, but we are also immediately
Jesper Hoffmeyer: "semiotic scaffolding of living
brought to see the semiosphere as an emergent process nourished by the interpretative
interaction of countless organisms and cells – or in other words, by biosemiosis.
1) An exception, perhaps, would be the early nominalism followers of Sir
William of Ockham, who would not accept any limits to the freedom of God
and who, by implication, would not exclude the possibility that God might
have created a totally unintelligible nature. Such a view would hardly have
allowed for science to develop, but eventually it was replaced by the ideas
expressed by philosophers such as Voltaire, Rousseau and the other
Enlightenment thinkers.
2) " ... if the laws of nature are results of evolution, this evolution must proceed
according to some principle; and this principle will itself be of the nature of a
law. But it must be such a law that it can evolve or develop itself. Not that if
absolutely absent it would create itself perhaps, but such that it would
strengthen itself, and looking back into the past we should be looking back
through times in which its strength was less than any given strength, and so
that at the limit of the infinitely distant past it should vanish altogether. Then
the problem was to imagine any kind of a law or tendency which would thus
have a tendency to strengthen itself. Evidently it must be a tendency toward
generalization, -- a generalizing tendency. But any fundamental universal
tendency ought to manifest itself in nature. Where shall we look for it? We
could not expect to find it in such phenomena as gravitation where the
evolution has so nearly approached its ultimate limit, that nothing even
simulating irregularity can be found in it. But we must search for this
generalizing tendency rather in such departments of nature where we find
plasticity and evolution still at work. The most plastic of all things is the
human mind, and next after that comes the organic world, the world of
protoplasm. Now the generalizing tendency is the great law of mind, the law
of association, the law of habit taking. We also find in all active protoplasm a
tendency to take habits. Hence I was led to the hypothesis that the laws of the
universe have been formed under a universal tendency of all things toward
generalization and habit-taking” (CP 7. 515, see note 4).
3) An interpretation is a sign process as seen from the point of view of the person
or living system engaging in it. Sign processes - or semiosis - are processes
whereby something refers to something else, as when an animal is seized by
alarm upon the smell of smoke. The smoke in this case acts as a sign vehicle
that provokes the formation of an interpretant in the animal, i.e., a sense of
danger causing it to flee. A sign then consists in a triadic relation of a sign
vehicle, an object (here danger) and an interpretant. According to Peirce: "A
sign... is an object which is in a relation to its object on the one hand and to an
interpretant on the other, in such a way as to bring the interpretant into a
Jesper Hoffmeyer: "semiotic scaffolding of living
relation to the object, corresponding to its own relation to the object" (CP 8.
4) The designation CP abbreviates (Peirce 1931-1935) and (Peirce 1958). The
abbreviation followed by volume and paragraph numbers with a period
between follows the standard CP reference form.
5) The concept of the semiosphere was originally introduced by the Russian-
Estonian semiotician Yuri Lotman (Lotman 1990) who explicitly used it in
analogy with Vernadsky's concept of the biosphere. In Lotman’s writings
however, the semiosphere remained a concept primarily connected to cultural
processes: "The unit of semiosis, the smallest functioning mechanism, is not
the separate language but the whole semiotic space in question. This is the
term we term semiosphere. The semiosphere is the result of and the condition
for the development of culture; we justify our term by analogy with the
biosphere, as Vernadsky defined it, namely the totality and the organic whole
of living nature and also the continuation of life” (ibid. 125) (Vernadsky 1926;
Vernadsky 1945). Additionally, one might claim that Vernadsky's concept of
the biosphere does indeed cover the meaning the I have given here to the term
semiosphere, but the concept of biosphere has not survived in the sense given
to it by Vernadsky, but the latter is now used simply as "the ecosystems
comprising the entire earth and the living organisms that inhabit it" (Webster's
Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary 1996). For further details on the origin
of these terms, see (Sebeok 2001). Semiotician and historian John Deely
approves of my use of the term semiosphere, however, and suggests the term
"signosphere as a term more appropriate for the narrower designation of
semiosphere in Lotman's sense, leaving the broader coinage to Hoffmeyer's
credit" (Deely 2001, 629).
6) Interpretance may be defined as the capacity of a system to respond to signs
through the formation of 'meaningful' interpretants. High interpretance allows
a system to "read" many sorts of "cues" in the surroundings. High-level
interpretance means that the system will form interpretants in response to
complex cues, which might not be noticed or even be noticeable by low-level
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... Recently, a small group of writers has begun to ground educational thinking in biosemiotics, drawing on von Uexküll and Sebeok as well as a range of more recent thinkers (Pikkarainen 2016(Pikkarainen , 2018Campbell 2016;Olteanu and Stables 2018). It is noteworthy that, among other compatibilities and fertile crossovers, biosemiotics re-delivers the old instructional concept of scaffolding (Bruner 1960) to educational research (see Olteanu and Campbell 2018), this time on an evolutionary and embodiment account (Hoffmeyer 2006). ...
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Semiotics has inspired recent contributions to the philosophy and theory of education in a variety of ways. Proposals to overcome simple mind-body dualism, with an inert view of knowledge, via notions of sign, often implying an emphasis on process, have been prominent in redefining learning and the rationale of education. The earliest such attempts belong to Cunningham (1987, 1992). There is a shift from construals of being as static (fixed) to being as transitional, or semiosic. Acknowledgement of this, implicitly or explicitly, is one of the grounds of the broad variety of semiotic approaches to education, spanning from applications in cultural semiotics (e.g. Ojamaa et al. 2019) and social semiotics (e.g. Kress 2003; Joyce and Feez 2018), to language education (Danesi 2000) and to the recent and eclectic edusemiotics framework (Stables and Semetsky 2015). If being is becoming, then education concerns the becoming of individuals and societies (Stables 2012). To study education in terms of meaning is to understand how meaning is transformed through educational processes. This means that education is growth but, while modern philosophy also accepts this general statement, the semiotic view brings a focus on the transformational process itself, instead of outcomes, inputs and standardized methods of yielding the latter from the former. In brief, the concern is not merely what the learner has learnt by the end of a schooling process, in comparison to a supposedly given amount of knowledge, but her transformational journey, which is unique and can only very loosely be evaluated by comparison to formally accepted blocks of knowledge.
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We address issues of description of the origin and evolution of the genetic code from a semiotics standpoint. Developing the concept of codepoiesis introduced by Barbieri, a new idea of semio-poiesis is proposed. Semio-poiesis, a recursive auto-referential processing of semiotic system, becomes a form of organization of the bio-world when and while notions of meaning and aiming are introduced into it. The description of the genetic code as a semiotic system (grammar and vocabulary) allows us to apply the method of internal reconstruction to it: on the basis of heterogeneity and irregularity of the current state, to explicate possible previous states and various ways of forming mechanisms of coding and textualization. The revealed patterns are consistent with hypotheses about the origin and evolution of the genetic code.
... In his later work, Hoffmeyer brought to biosemiotics the term "semiotic scaffolding" to describe the network of semiotic controls that are tuned to the needs of the system and support meaningful interpretation of signs (Hoffmeyer 2008). The term "scaffolding" had been used in a semiotic context before this as well (Wood et al. 1976;Bickhard 2005), but Hoffmeyer was the first to combine the two words "semiotic scaffolding" and apply the term to all organisms, in a true biosemiotic fashion. ...
This book invites readers to embark on a journey into the world of agency encompassing humans, other organisms, cells, intracellular molecular agents, colonies, populations, ecological systems, and artificial autonomous systems. We combine mechanistic and non-mechanistic approaches in the analysis of the function and evolution of organisms, their subagents, and multi-organism systems, and in this way offer a theoretical platform for integrating biosemiotics with both natural science and the humanities/social sciences. Agents are autonomous systems that incorporate knowledge on how to make sense of their environment and use it to achieve their goals. The functions of all agents are supported by mechanisms at the lowest level; however, the explanatory power of mechanistic analysis is not sufficient for complex agents. Non-mechanistic methods rely on the goal-directedness of agents whose dynamics follow self-stabilized dynamic attractors. The properties of attractors depend on stable or slowly changing factors, and such dependencies can be interpreted as sign relations if they are adaptive in nature. Agents can replace or redirect mechanisms on demand in order to preserve their functions; for performing higher-level semiotic functions, mechanisms are thus only means. We assume that mechanism and semiosis are not mutually exclusive, and that simple agents can interpret signs mechanistically. This assumption allows us to extend semiotic analysis to all agents, including ribosomes in cells, computers, and robots. This book challenges established traditions in natural science and the humanities/social sciences: semiotics no longer appears as restricted to humans and rational thinking, and biology is no longer limited to rely exclusively on mechanistic reasoning.
Purpose This paper reviews research developments in semiosis (sign activity) as theorized by Peirce, Eco and Sebeok, focusing specifically on the current study of “semiotic threshold zones,” which range from the origins of life through various nonhuman life forms to artificial life forms, including those symbolic thresholds most familiar to library and information science (LIS) researchers. The intent is to illustrate potential opportunities for LIS research beyond its present boundaries. Design/methodology/approach The paper provides a framework that describes six semiotic threshold zones (presemiotic, protosemiotic, phytosemiotic, zoosemiotic, symbolic and polysemiotic) and notable work being done by researchers in each. Findings While semiotic researchers are still defining the continuum of semiotic thresholds, this focus on thresholds can provide a unifying framework for significance as human and nonhuman interpretations of a wide variety of signs accompanied by a better understanding of their relationships becomes more urgent in a rapidly changing global environment. Originality/value Though a variety of semiotic-related topics have appeared in the LIS literature, semiotic thresholds and their potential relationships to LIS research have not been previously discussed there. LIS has traditionally tasked itself with the recording, dissemination and preservation of knowledge, and in a world that faces unprecedented environmental and global challenges for all species, the importance of these thresholds may well be considered as part of our professional obligations in potentially documenting and archiving the critical differences in semiosis that extend beyond purely human knowledge.
This article exposes the principles of an ecosemiotic theory of oral poiesis, which conceives of singing as a highly specific habit or skilled practice within the human domain of languaging. It is claimed that oral poiesis may contribute to the semiotic alignment of human and nonhuman own-worlds (Umwelten), playing a role in processes of structural coupling within a habitat, understood as a hybrid assemblage or collective of multispecies inhabitants. The article describes how oral poiesis, as a modeling system, contributes to sustaining the various modes of identification that characterize collective human ontologies (animism, naturalism, totemism, analogism) through distinctive operations of symbolization (literality, metaphor, metonymy, analogy). These modes of ecopoetic symbolization serve to bring nonhumans, such as animals, plants, mountains, or rivers, into human own-worlds. Moreover, as one of many skilled practices of humans, oral poiesis is characterized by certain intrinsic features, such as attention, play, feeling, ritualization, musicality, or remembrance, which contribute to human sociality and hence to a system-wide relationality. All these elements constitute the foundations of a poetics of cohabitation.
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The article discusses a possible development of Yuri Lotman’s concept of semiosphere by supplementing it with the idea of semio-poiesis. Analysis of the processes of origination, evo­lution and functioning of the genetic code makes it possible to describe the main mechanisms of these processes. The associations of material phenomena (in this case nucleotides and amino acids) led to the establishment of semiotic links, resulting in mechanisms of information stor­age and transmission, allowing the creation of stable life forms. The increasing complexity of organization leads to the crystallization of informational and semiotic origins. Semio-poiesis, a recursive autoreference of the semiotic system, becomes a form of organization of the bio­world, where such parameters as sense and purpose become determinative. Such an under­standing of these processes makes it possible to develop Lotman’s concept of the semiosphere and, firstly, to confirm his assumptions that semiosis can be preceded only by a previous se­miotic form, and, secondly, to show the original mechanisms of semiosphere self-organization and autonomous functioning. The very dualism of the genetic code, its simultaneous biochem­ical and linguosemiotic organization, and the processes of gene expression can be compared with what Lotman considered to be the basic principle of semiosphere functioning — the in­teraction of oppositely organized heterogeneous mechanisms.
Semiogenesis is the emergence of new or modified sign relations in agents. New sign relations emerge by way of the interpretive activities of agents and subagents in adaptive evolution, development , physiology, and behavior . The gene-centric concept of evolution needs to be replaced by an agency-centric concept . The genome may change passively and randomly, but agents’ interpretation of the genome is active and guided by the logic of agent functions. Natural selection can facilitate semiogenesis in evolution indirectly by increasing the share of organisms with strong semiogenic potential in lineages, as well as by genetic accommodation. Developmental and physiological adaptations emerge via adjustment of living functions of individual organisms and their parts. Examples include the plasticity of the immune system, muscles, and other organs. Behavioral adaptations have reached high levels of semiotic freedom in animals with cognitive capacities, such as associative learning, representational memory, anticipation , and emotion . Advanced levels of cognition are characterized by unlimited associative learning, use of symbols, and rational thinking supported by intentionality, which represents a belief-desire coupling. Each new level of semiogenesis brings along qualitative changes that elevate the historical rate of increase of the overall semiotic complexity of agents.
In this chapter we discuss the phenomenological tradition within philosophy with emphasis on representative phenomenological positions on subjectivity, sentience, consciousness and self-consciousness, and make the argument that giving phenomenology a biosemiotic grounding will make it more comprehensive. Even though both Husserl and Heidegger, two classics of phenomenology , acknowledged that animals have subjective lifeworlds, their respective phenomenologies were clearly anthropocentric. The same goes for most mainstream versions of contemporary phenomenology . Heidegger states this anthropocentric bias plainly when, after referring to the Umwelt theory of Jakob von Uexküll, he claims that animals are “poor in world”. The Umwelt theory offers an alternative, more pluralistic framework for phenomenology – a phenomenology beyond the human, with a biosemiotic basis. Von Uexküll’s Umwelt theory was discussed by Merleau-Ponty and has further inspired several contemporary philosophers within and beyond phenomenology . In the chapter we also discuss the relation between semiotics and phenomenology , including Peirce’s ideas and recent calls for a naturalized phenomenology. While modern phenomenology was from its inception programmatically presented as anti-naturalism, leading contemporary phenomenologists favour realignment between phenomenology and naturalism. With its roots in sign theory and biology, biosemiotics can contribute further to this endeavour, and be an important piece in the puzzle when realigning phenomenological studies of subjective experience and behaviour with natural science.
A precondition for understanding current ecology is to understand how human agency influences ecology . In this chapter we describe the world-changing effects of human agency. A key notion in this context is the ‘Anthropocene’, the geological epoch in which human agency predominates as a causal factor. Drawing on Umwelt theory, we explain how human agency can work as a driver of environmental change. Special attention is given to the ecological function of human–animal assemblages and other human–animal complexes, since it is primarily by way of utilization of animals that humans have a dominant impact on ecosystems. The descriptive part of the chapter is followed by a normative part focused on how environmental sustainability can be achieved and how animal welfare can be improved. In our view, achieving environmental sustainability requires societal transformations that can be modelled using Umwelt theory. The semiotic agency of human beings must in this context be approached from different angles simultaneously and take both semiotic and efficient causation into account. An implication of our perspective is that socio-ecological transformations must align with coordinated socio-cultural transformations. For instance, human values and identity (features of the human Innenwelt) must change for human perception and practices (features of the human Umwelt) to change. With regard to animal welfare, we discuss both farm and wildlife settings, and emphasize the importance of facilitating the animals’ autonomy and needs-fulfilment.
Stuart Kauffman here presents a brilliant new paradigm for evolutionary biology, one that extends the basic concepts of Darwinian evolution to accommodate recent findings and perspectives from the fields of biology, physics, chemistry and mathematics. The book drives to the heart of the exciting debate on the origins of life and maintenance of order in complex biological systems. It focuses on the concept of self-organization: the spontaneous emergence of order widely observed throughout nature. Kauffman here argues that self-organization plays an important role in the emergence of life itself and may play as fundamental a role in shaping life's subsequent evolution as does the Darwinian process of natural selection. Yet until now no systematic effort has been made to incorporate the concept of self-organization into evolutionary theory. The construction requirements which permit complex systems to adapt remain poorly understood, as is the extent to which selection itself can yield systems able to adapt more successfully. This book explores these themes. It shows how complex systems, contrary to expectations, can spontaneously exhibit stunning degrees of order, and how this order, in turn, is essential for understanding the emergence and development of life on Earth. Topics include the new biotechnology of applied molecular evolution, with its important implications for developing new drugs and vaccines; the balance between order and chaos observed in many naturally occurring systems; new insights concerning the predictive power of statistical mechanics in biology; and other major issues. Indeed, the approaches investigated here may prove to be the new center around which biological science itself will evolve. The work is written for all those interested in the cutting edge of research in the life sciences.
L'A. examine les interactions semetiques entre les organismes vivants, c-a-d le comportement semiogenique de tout systeme vivant quand des regularites et des habitudes tendent a creer des interpretes dans d'autres especes et ainsi a integrer des agents vivants a n'importe quel niveau dans une structure de signes et d'habitudes sous forme de reseau. Le mutualisme indirect offre une parfaite illustration de ce que Peirce appelle la tendance de la nature a avoir des habitudes. On pense generalement a ce genre d'interaction au niveau de petits ensembles d'especes interagissant de maniere reciproque tels que le systeme utriculaire. L'A. examine ici d'autres exemples de mutualisme indirect dans la nature et montre comment le desordre indiscipline des agents semiogeniques indetermines est contraint par des patrons d'interaction semetique ordonnee qu'ils ont eux-memes crees