Biosemiotics (from the Greek βίος bios, "life" and σημειωτικός sēmeiōtikos, "observant of signs") is a field of semiotics and biology that studies the prelinguistic meaning-making, biological interpretation processes, production of signs and codes and communication processes in the biological realm.[1]

Biosemiotics integrates the findings of biology and semiotics and proposes a paradigmatic shift in the scientific view of life, in which semiosis (sign process, including meaning and interpretation) is one of its immanent and intrinsic features.[2] The term biosemiotic was first used by Friedrich S. Rothschild in 1962,[3] but Thomas Sebeok, Thure von Uexküll, Jesper Hoffmeyer and many others have implemented the term and field.[4] The field is generally divided between theoretical and applied biosemiotics.

Insights from biosemiotics have also been adopted in the humanities and social sciences, including human-animal studies, human-plant studies[5][6] and cybersemiotics.[7]


Biosemiotics is the study of meaning making processes in the living realm, or, to elaborate, a study of

Main branches

According to the basic types of semiosis under study, biosemiotics can be divided into

According to the dominant aspect of semiosis under study, the following labels have been used: biopragmatics, biosemantics, and biosyntactics.


Apart from Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914) and Charles W. Morris (1903–1979), early pioneers of biosemiotics were Jakob von Uexküll (1864–1944), Heini Hediger (1908–1992), Giorgio Prodi (1928–1987), Marcel Florkin (1900–1979) and Friedrich S. Rothschild (1899–1995); the founding fathers of the contemporary interdiscipline were Thomas Sebeok (1920–2001) and Thure von Uexküll (1908–2004).[12]

In the 1980s a circle of mathematicians active in Theoretical Biology, René Thom (Institut des Hautes Etudes Scientifiques), Yannick Kergosien (Dalhousie University and Institut des Hautes Etudes Scientifiques), and Robert Rosen (Dalhousie University, also a former member of the Buffalo group with Howard H. Pattee), explored the relations between Semiotics and Biology using such headings as "Nature Semiotics",[13][14] "Semiophysics",[15] or "Anticipatory Systems" [16] and taking a modeling approach.

The contemporary period (as initiated by Copenhagen-Tartu school)[17] include biologists Jesper Hoffmeyer, Kalevi Kull, Claus Emmeche, Terrence Deacon, semioticians Martin Krampen, Paul Cobley, philosophers Donald Favareau, John Deely, John Collier and complex systems scientists Howard H. Pattee, Michael Conrad, Luis M. Rocha, Cliff Joslyn and León Croizat.

In 2001, an annual international conference for biosemiotic research known as the Gatherings in Biosemiotics[18] was inaugurated, and has taken place every year since.

In 2004, a group of biosemioticians – Marcello Barbieri, Claus Emmeche, Jesper Hoffmeyer, Kalevi Kull, and Anton Markoš – decided to establish an international journal of biosemiotics. Under their editorship, the Journal of Biosemiotics was launched by Nova Science Publishers in 2005 (two issues published), and with the same five co-editors Biosemiotics was launched by Springer in 2008. The book series Biosemiotics (Springer), edited by Claus Emmeche, Donald Favareau, Kalevi Kull, and Alexei Sharov, began in 2007 and has since published 23 volumes.

The International Society for Biosemiotic Studies was established in 2005 by Donald Favareau and the five editors listed above.[19] A collective programmatic paper on the basic theses of biosemiotics appeared in 2009.[20] and in 2010, an 800 page textbook and anthology, Essential Readings in Biosemiotics, was published, with bibliographies and commentary by Donald Favareau.[1]

One of roots for biosemiotics has been medical semiotics. In 2016, Springer published Biosemiotic Medicine: Healing in the World of Meaning, edited by Farzad Goli as part of Studies in Neuroscience, Consciousness and Spirituality.[21]

In the humanities

Since the work of Jakob von Uexküll and Martin Heidegger, several scholars in the humanities have engaged with or appropriated ideas from biosemiotics in their own projects; conversely, biosemioticians have critically engaged with or reformulated humanistic theories using ideas from biosemiotics and complexity theory. For instance, Andreas Weber has reformulated some of Hans Jonas's ideas using concepts from biosemiotics,[22] and biosemiotics have been used to interpret the poetry of John Burnside.[23]

Since 2021, the American philosopher Jason Josephson Storm has drawn on biosemiotics and empirical research on animal communication to propose hylosemiotics, a theory of ontology and communication that Storm believes could allow the humanities to move beyond the linguistic turn.[24]

John Deely's work also represents an engagement between humanistic and biosemiotic approaches. Deely was trained as a historian and not a biologist but discussed biosemiotics and zoosemiotics extensively in his introductory works on semiotics and clarified terms that are relevant for biosemiotics.[25] Although his idea of physiosemiotics was criticized by practicing biosemioticians, Paul Cobley, Donald Favareau, and Kalevi Kull wrote that "the debates on this conceptual point between Deely and the biosemiotics community were always civil and marked by a mutual admiration for the contributions of the other towards the advancement of our understanding of sign relations."[26]

See also


  1. ^ a b Favareau, Donald (ed.) 2010. Essential Readings in Biosemiotics: Anthology and Commentary. (Biosemiotics 3.) Berlin: Springer.
  2. ^ Alexandrov, Vladimir E. (2000). "Biology, Semiosis, and Cultural Difference in Lotman's Semiosphere". Comparative Literature. 52 (4): 339–362. doi:10.2307/1771352. JSTOR 1771352. Retrieved 11 May 2021. 'Biosemiotics.' This discipline focuses on the manifold possible connections between biology and semiotics, such as studying biological processes from a semiotic perspective and communication from a biological perspective, or searching for a way to theorize biological phenomena (Laubichler 'Introduction').
  3. ^ On the early use of the term, see: Kull, Kalevi 2022. The term ‘Biosemiotik’ in the 19th century. Sign Systems Studies 50(1): 173–178.
  4. ^ Kull, Kalevi 1999. Biosemiotics in the twentieth century: A view from biology. Semiotica 127(1/4): 385–414.
  5. ^ Brentari, Carlo (2018-12-01). "From the Hiatus Model to the Diffuse Discontinuities: A Turning Point in Human-Animal Studies". Biosemiotics. 11 (3): 331–345. doi:10.1007/s12304-018-9329-8. ISSN 1875-1350. S2CID 49478848. Retrieved 2022-01-05.
  6. ^ Ryan, John Charles (2012). "Passive Flora? Reconsidering Nature's Agency through Human-Plant Studies (HPS)". Societies. 2 (3): 101–121. doi:10.3390/soc2030101.
  7. ^ Hayles, N. Katherine (2019). "Can Computers Create Meanings? A Cyber/Bio/Semiotic Perspective". Critical Inquiry. 46 (1): 32–55. doi:10.1086/705303. ISSN 0093-1896. S2CID 202953465.
  8. ^ Witzany, G. 2006. Plant Communication from Biosemiotic Perspective. Plant Signaling & Behavior 1(4): 169-178.
  9. ^ Kull, Kalevi 2000. An introduction to phytosemiotics: Semiotic botany and vegetative sign systems. Sign Systems Studies 28: 326–350.
  10. ^ Maran, Timo; Martinelli, Dario; Turovski, Aleksei (eds.), 2011. Readings in Zoosemiotics. (Semiotics, Communication and Cognition 8.). Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.
  11. ^ Kull, Kalevi 2014. Zoosemiotics is the study of animal forms of knowing. Semiotica 198: 47–60.
  12. ^ Favareau, D. (ed.) (2010). Essential Readings in Biosemiotics: Anthology and Commentary. Berlin: Springer.
  13. ^ Kergosien, Y. (1985) Sémiotique de la Nature, IVe séminaire de l'Ecole d'automne de Biologie Théorique (Solignac, juin 1984), G. BENCHETRIT éd., C.N.R.S.
  14. ^ Kergosien, Y. (1992) Nature Semiotics : The Icons of Nature. Biosemiotics : The Semiotic Web 1991, T. Sebeok et J. Umiker -Sebeok (eds), Berlin : Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 145-170
  15. ^ Thom, R., (1989) Semio physics: a sketch. Redwood City, Calif. : Addison-Wesley Pub. Co.
  16. ^ Rosen, R. (1985) Anticipatory systems, Pergamon Press
  17. ^ See an account of recent history in: Petrilli, Susan (2011). Expression and Interpretation in Language. Transaction Publishers, pp. 85–92.
  18. ^ Rattasepp, Silver; Bennett, Tyler (eds.) 2012. Gatherings in Biosemiotics. (Tartu Semiotics Library 11.) Tartu: University of Tartu Press.
  19. ^ Favareau, Donald 2005. Founding a world biosemiotics institution: The International Society for Biosemiotic Studies. Sign Systems Studies 33(2): 481–485.
  20. ^ Kull, Kalevi; Deacon, Terrence; Emmeche, Claus; Hoffmeyer, Jesper; Stjernfelt, Frederik 2009. Theses on biosemiotics: Prolegomena to a theoretical biology. Biological Theory 4(2): 167–173,
  21. ^ Goli, Farzad (2016). Biosemiotic Medicine: Healing in the World of Meaning. Studies in Neuroscience, Consciousness and Spirituality. Vol. 5. Springer International Publishing. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-35092-9. ISBN 978-3-319-35092-9.
  22. ^ Tønnessen, Morten; Maran, Timo; Sharov, Alexei (2018-12-01). "Phenomenology and Biosemiotics". Biosemiotics. 11 (3): 324. doi:10.1007/s12304-018-9345-8. ISSN 1875-1350. S2CID 54020391.
  23. ^ Bristow, Tom (2010). "Phenomenology, History, Biosemiosis: Heideggerian and Batesonian Poetics in John Burnside's Post-Romantic Process Ecology". Green Letters. 13 (1): 74–94. doi:10.1080/14688417.2010.10589071. ISSN 1468-8417. S2CID 171037754. Retrieved 2022-01-05.
  24. ^ Storm, Jason Ananda Josephson (2021). Metamodernism: The Future of Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 152. ISBN 978-0-226-78665-0.
  25. ^ Cobley, Paul; Favareau, Donald; Kull, Kalevi (2017). "John Deely, from the point of view of Biosemiotics". Biosemiotics. 10: 2–3. doi:10.1007/s12304-017-9291-x. S2CID 41549373.
  26. ^ Cobley, Paul; Favareau, Donald; Kull, Kalevi (2017). "John Deely, from the point of view of Biosemiotics". Biosemiotics. 10: 3. doi:10.1007/s12304-017-9291-x. S2CID 41549373.


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  • Barbieri, Marcello (ed.) (2008). The Codes of Life: The Rules of Macroevolution. Berlin: Springer.
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