THIS IS YOUR LIFE Paul Cobley Marcello Barbieri (ed), Introduction to Biosemiotics: The New Biological Synthesis, Dordrecht, Springer, 2007; xii + 530pp, £54.00.
'The over-arching context for bisoemiotics is our biosphere, in the sense of the organic whole of living matter', wrote Thomas A. Sebeok in 2001, 'and Earth', he went on, 'is the only geosphere which contains living matter. Because there can be no semiosis without interpretability - surely life's cardinal propensity - semiosis presupposes the axiomatic identity of the semiosphere with the biosphere'.1 Thus stated, this has been the general programme for biosemiotics in the last fifteen to twenty years. Yet, this is not an easy thesis to grasp, particularly for those who have retreated into the comfort of a view of the world as comprised solely of different combinations of power and endless language games.
It is for this reason that biosemiotics has thus far failed to see itself at the centre of a sustained academic publishing enterprise, despite the commitment and endeavour of a range of embattled multi- and trans-disciplinary scholars. And it is for this reason that Barbieri's volume constitutes a major achievement. With the arrival of this Introduction, particularly in its open demonstration of a diverse range of opinion within the field, biosemiotics has reached a defining moment. (One is tempted to say that it has 'come of age', but this happened quite some time ago.)
The book is not a single-author monograph, concise and aimed at absolute beginners. Instead, it consists of eighteen largely original contributions from major names in biosemiotics (Hoffmeyer, Kull, Barbieri, Markos), sympathetic major theoretical biologists (Pattee, Salthe) as well as at least one commentator who has come to biosemiotics from semiotics rather than in the reverse direction (Danesi). These contributions are divided into three sections: 'Historical background', 'Theoretical issues' and 'Biosemiotic research'. The volume is not comprehensive -1 would have liked to have seen contributions from, to name just a few appropriate living scholars, Terrence Deacon, Claus Emmeche, Timo Maran and S0ren Brier. However, there are always going to be quibbles of this kind with edited collections. So, it would be more evenhanded to say that this volume provides an invaluable overview in addition to a much-needed summing up of the biosemiotic enterprise.
Let us sketch some of the issues raised by the thematic sections. The explicit 'summing up' is mainly to the fore in the first section on 'Historical background'. Favareau's essay, though seemingly bitty, amounts to a persuasive account of one of the leading trajectories in biosemiotics (if not semiotics generally). Ranging from Aristotle, through Poinsot to Sebeok and, then, Barbieri, with the help of Deely and by way of a coruscating account of the influence of Descartes on modern thought, its 68 pages are worth the (intellectual) admission price alone. Favareau's essay also hauls aloft the main issues and criticisms that biosemiotics has elicited, although in the historical section, it is Jämsä's review that actually looks at the marriage of Peircean theory and biology. Finally, Barbieri's essay in the same section is a 'revised repeat' (as they say in the description of updates on reality TV programmes) of his 2002 review of Kull's special von Uexküll issue of Semiotica. In their summing up, both Barbieri and Favareau suggest that biosemiotics is now a field which is more varied than it previously was when dominated by the rediscovery of von Uexküll; chiefly, the change in the field consists in the way that it has embraced the more mechanistic approach to semiosis of Barbieri himself, leading to a perspective within biosemiotics which is not geared towards explication of the dynamics and context-based nature of signs and texts but allows for understanding the workings of nature as code-based.
The section on 'Theoretical issues' kicks off with Pattee's essay focusing on the 'symbolic control' of matter. …