Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

Life Is Semiosis the Biosemiotic View of Nature

Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

Life Is Semiosis the Biosemiotic View of Nature

Article excerpt


The answers to "What is Life?" fall into three main groups. Some deny the very possibility of defining life (the 'negationist' type), some maintain that life can be defined only by a long list of properties (the 'pluralist' type), and others look for a single essential feature that divides life from inanimate matter (the 'monothematic' type). Whatever is our ultimate preference, it is not difficult to see that the third group is, in practice, the most useful to start with. If we take this approach, in fact, we may discover that different monothematic answers are equally plausible, and this could lead us to a pluralistic conclusion. We may then discover that all pluralistic conclusions leave out something that we feel essential to life, and in that case we may be tempted to join the 'negationist' camp.

The monothematic approach, in short, gives us a sensible starting point, and that's why we are adopting it in this paper. Once we have taken this road, the first thing to do is acknowledging that there are already two great monothematic views in modern biology. They are:

1. the idea that "life is replication" and

2. the idea "life is metabolism" (or, in a slightly different version, that "life is autopoiesis").

These two great ideas have dominated the search for the fundamentals of life ever since the discovery that heredity and metabolism are based, respectively, on genes and proteins. The question "What is Life?" has become virtually equivalent to "What was the origin of Life?", and for a long time it has been assumed that there are only two main answers. Life started either with primordial genes or with primordial proteins, which is equivalent to saying that life is either replication or metabolism.

And yet a third answer does exist. It is the idea that "life is semiosis", i.e., that life is based on signs and codes. This idea has been strongly suggested by the discovery of the genetic code, but it has never been accepted by modern biology because it goes against some of its most basic concepts. Here, however, we want to show that organic codes and organic semiosis are, first and foremost, experimental facts, and we simply cannot ignore them, even if their existence requires a new theoretical framework.. The idea that "life is semiosis" is precisely that--a new paradigm that accounts for the existence of organic codes in the living world and for their contribution to the origin and the evolution of life. In order to illustrate this new view of Nature, the paper has been divided into three parts: (1) Semiosis inside the Cell, (2) Evolution by Copying and Coding, and (3) Three Types of Semiosis.


1-1 Life is artifact-making

Codes and conventions are the basis of all cultural phenomena and from time immemorial have divided the world of culture from the world of nature. The rules of grammar, the laws of government, the precepts of religion, the value of money, the cooking recipes, the fairy tales and the rules of chess are all human conventions that are profoundly different from the laws of physics and chemistry, and this has led to the conclusion that there is an unbridgeable gap between nature and culture. Nature is governed by objective immutable laws, whereas culture is produced by the mutable conventions of the human mind.

In this century-old framework, the discovery of the genetic code, in the early 1960s, came as a bolt from the blue, but strangely enough it did not bring down the barrier between nature and culture. On the contrary, a "protective belt" was quickly built around the old divide with an argument that effectively emptied the discovery of the genetic code of all its revolutionary potential. The argument is that the genetic code is fundamentally a metaphor because it must be reducible, in principle, to physical quantities. …

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