What is Biosemiotics? An Emerging Debate, Part I

As a current undergraduate student studying conservation biology, I found myself in an environmental humanities class. This area of study grabbed my attention for its implementation of literature and philosophy in helping to solve environmental problems and explicate current events. In an environmental humanities course I took this past semester on literature, theory, and biology, I was introduced to the concept of biosemiotics. I had never heard of this strange word before but began seeing evidence of it everywhere around me, in nature, in relationships, and even in films. It immediately piqued my interest because of its application to biology. Yet, I had never heard it mentioned in my biology classes. For this reason, I decided to write a series of three articles addressing the purpose and presence of biosemiotics in biology and the humanities. 

According to Marcello Barbieri, a professor of embryology at the University of Ferrara, Italy, biosemiotics is the idea that life is based on semiosis. Therefore, biosemiotics are the semiotic processes that are found in biological organisms and systems. As I was learning more about biosemiotics, my humanities professor asked us to screen the film Avatar by Director James Cameron. With my recent exposure to biosemiotics, I was able to point out the countless biosemiotic relationships shown in the film. I think it would be safe to assume that James Cameron was a fan of this concept as well considering its recurring theme. Cameron was able to seamlessly incorporate biosemiotics in the Na’vi people’s relationship to their environment, the trees, and their bond with the native animals. 

“Biosemiotics is the synthesis of biology and
semiotics, and its main purpose is to show that
semiosis is a fundamental component of life.”
-Marcello Barbieri

When I have presented and discussed my interest in “biosemiotics” to any friends, family, or classmates, those conversations were almost always followed by furrowed brows with confused expressions. The term tends to have an off-putting first impression because it is such a new concept and remains widely unknown. Admittedly, I had a very similar first reaction to it. This topic is complex, and requires a good understanding of semiotics and theoretical biology. 

In order to understand biosemiotics, you need an introduction to semiotics on its own. Semiotics is a field in linguistics that studies signs and signals by defining their interpretations and use. A sign is defined as something that stands for something other than itself. This is represented through words and images. The theory of signs is known as sign relations, and signals are any gestures or actions that convey meaning. A simple wave of the hand to say “hello!” is considered a signal. The use of signs, signals, and sign relations are all necessary in defining biosemiotics. 

Neurotransmitters act as a signal to trigger a depolarization reaction in response. This is an example of a biosemiotic process because a signal is interpreted and a response is given as a result.
Photograph by ZEISS Microscopy from Germany, distributed under a CC BY 2.0 license. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

This is where it can get a bit confusing because biosemiotics is neither linguistics nor biology. It is actually rooted in philosophy with the utilization of biological concepts and processes. This philosophical idea is based on the use of signs and signals found in biology. The presence of biosemiotics in biological systems addresses any interaction between and within organisms; including any minute activity in a cell.

According to Donald Favareau, a biosemiotics professor at the National University of Singapore, the theologist and philosopher Augustine (354 AD) was one of the first philosophers to analyze sign relations in a different light. Augustine’s theorized signa data and signa naturalia has been helpful to contemporary scientists in further solidifying the presence of signs in biology. “Conventional signs” (signa data) are created by arbitrary rules where there is no physical connection between signs and its meaning. This could be seen in the development of language where words, originally meaningless, were suddenly given meaning. “Natural signs” (signa naturalia) are when there is a physical link present between the sign and its meaning, similar to how smoke is associated with fire. Now how does distinguishing the types of signs relate to biology? Biosemioticians have utilized this information to differentiate the different signs and signals as they appear in biological systems. 

Photograph by Drvidyashankar74, distributed under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Augustine was the first to combine the linguistic sign with the natural indexical sign, and associating these ideas became a founding moment for biosemiotics in history (Favareau 7). The philosopher Augustine is known for pushing the boundaries of how signs and signals should be defined. This is actually where Grace Augustine, the xenobotanist in Avatar, got her name from. Like her namesake, Grace is a pioneer in uncovering natural interactions and relationships, or “communications” among nonhuman species. 

In the long stretch of time between Augustine’s day and today, biosemiotics has been introduced as its own field of study by Thomas Sebeok in the 1980’s and 1990’s. With the creation of this subject, Sebeok made it his mission to join life sciences with sign sciences. This was not intended just for semioticians, but for scientists from all fields of biology to utilize as it applies to them and their work (Favareau 46). In his 1994 publication Signs: An Introduction to Semiotics, he addressed the application of semiotics in living things. Through this, he expanded his field of research from animal communication to all biological organisms. He addresses that semiotic communications were not just exclusive to an organism and its habits, but the microscopic components of it, beginning with the cell. In fact, the genetic code is what governs semiotics within the cell. By addressing semiotic properties in biological systems, Sebeok was able to expand upon modern thought and education. 

Photograph by Madugrero, distributed under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Surprisingly, biosemiotics has also become a difficult concept for biologists to accept because of the philosophical assumptions surrounding semiotics and language. Philosophy and language are usually considered humanities subjects and not biological subjects.  Science is often taught as a “philosophy free” subject that is “objective” and that’s why some biologists tend to reject biosemiotics. This is the root of the debates around this emerging science. Thus, the introduction of biosemiotics to current biology has been controversial.

The main controversy has been that biosemiotics, or biological semiotics, is based on the acceptance of the unobservable “communication” or “invisible” signs and signals among nonhuman species. The reason for biosemiotics’s lack of presence in modern education is because of its supposed disregard towards already established biological concepts. 

My reason for writing this series of articles explaining biosemiotics is to address it as a viable field of study. To be coming in contact with this subject this late into my undergraduate education amazed me. A topic that I imagined was so applicable to biology has been hidden away. Furthering my exploration on the subject, in my environmental humanities class I wrote a paper on the presence of biosemiotics in the film Avatar where these communicative relationships were made very apparent. Rewatching that film with the knowledge of biosemiotics is truly a different experience. It helped in my comprehension of the subject tremendously. A philosophical topic such as this is absent in collegiate biology courses because of its controversiality. In my experience studying conservation biology, becoming acquainted with biosemiotics has been beneficial to my studies because I saw so much relevance in it. In my second article on biosemiotics I will be further addressing the debate on if philosophy has a place in biology. Finally, in my last article I will discuss the theory that trees can “talk” to each other utilizing the evidence that James Cameron and other authors have presented.