History of Biosemiotics


Emerging from the need for an interdisciplinary approach that may facilitate the explanation of complex phenomena about information and interpretation (i.e. phenomena of semiosis), biosemiotics – or the study of signs and meaning in living organisms – includes to this day different theoretical stances revolving around some shared principles and key theories. Therefore, tracing its historical development requires to factor in the complexity of the events and concepts that have paved the way to the more unified and homogenous field of study that biosemiotics is today. While bearing in mind that the two precursors of the discipline – Charles Sanders Peirce and Jakob von Uexküll – come from the fields of semiotics and biology respectively, the main great credit for developing biosemiotics should be given to Thomas Albert Sebeok. In the history of biosemiotics, after an initial pioneering phase of parallel but stand‐alone studies (1961–1977), the second phase (since 1977) brought to a unification under common principles. Seminal for the formulation and establishment of the fundamental principles were the yearly conferences devoted exclusively to biosemiotics – called Gatherings in Biosemiotics – and the publications of scholarly research in several prestigious journals.

Key Concepts

  • Biosemiotics deals with the study of signs and meaning in living organisms.
  • The synthesis of the triadic semiotics of Charles Sanders Peirce and the Umwelt Theory of Jacob von Uexküll lies at the root of biosemiotics.
  • Even though Friedrich S. Rothschild coined the term ‘biosemiotics’, yet the actual founder of the field of studies was Thomas Albert Sebeok.
  • The biosemiotician Marcello Barbieri divides the history of biosemiotics into two periods: the first, from 1961 to 1977, characterized by isolated attempts to create a synthesis between semiotics and biology; the second, from 1977 to 2011, characterized by the will to find a unified field of studies under common principles.
  • The basic principles, which unite all the biosemioticians, are that life and semiosis are coextensive (Sebeok's Thesis) and that signs, codes and symbols are natural entities, not the product of a supernatural agency.

Keywords: biosemiotics; semiotics; semiosis; meaning; information; zoosemiotics; Funktionskreis; Thomas Albert Sebeok; Jakob von Uexküll; Charles Sanders Peirce

Figure 1. The American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914). https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Charles‐Sanders‐Peirce.jpg. Public Domain.
Figure 2. The biologist Jakob von Uexküll (1864–1944). https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Uex_photo_full.jpg. Public Domain.
Figure 3. The functional cycle. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Uexk%C3%BCll_wirkkreis.jpg. Public Domain.


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Further Reading

Cobley P (2016) Cultural Implications of Biosemiotics. Dordrecht: Springer.

Deely J, Petrilli S and Ponzio A (2005) The Semiotic Animal. New York: Legas.

Favareau D (2010) Essential Readings in Biosemiotics: Anthology and Commentary. Dordrecht/New York: Springer.

Kull K (2003) Thomas A. Sebeok and biology: building biosemiotics. Cybernetics & Human Knowing 10 (1): 47–60.

Pattee HH and Kull K (2009) A biosemiotic conversation: between physics and semiotics. Sign Systems Studies 37 (1): 311–331.

Sebeok TA and Danesi M (2000) The Forms of Meaning: Modeling System Theory and Semiotic Analysis. Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Velmezova E, Kull K and Cowley SJ (eds) (2015) Biosemiotic Perspectives on Language and Linguistics. Cham: Springer.

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Robuschi, Camilla(Jun 2020) History of Biosemiotics. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0027987]