Introduction to biosemiotics

Introduction to biosemiotics: The new biological synthesis. Ed. by Marcello Barbieri. Dordrecht: Springer, 2007. Pp. xii, 532. ISBN 9781402048135. $189 (Hb).

Reviewed by Margaret J. Blake, Aarhus University

This anthology provides an overview of the young field of biosemiotics, an interdisciplinary theoretical framework that draws upon the fields of biochemistry and philosophy and regards living creatures as semiotic systems. While highly tangential to linguistics proper, this volume will nevertheless be of interest to linguists for two key reasons: (i) the overarching theoretical usage of the triadic sign proposed by scientist and philosopher Charles Peirce in contrast to the familiar, dyadic Saussurean sign; and (ii) the two chapters that discuss perceptual integration and interspecific communication by nonhuman animals. The book is divided into three parts: ‘Historical background’, ‘Theoretical issues’, and ‘Biosemiotic research’.

Part 1, ‘Historical points’, consists of three chapters, which discuss the philosophical and biological research ranging back to classical Greece that forms the theoretical and empirical underpinnings of biosemiotics. All three chapters are easily accessible for linguists and are well worth reading.

Part 2, ‘ Theoretical issues’ consists of ten chapters and is something of a mixed bag. The chapters written by bioscientists may be over the head of many linguists who do not have a strong background in the biological sciences. However, many of the chapters written by semioticians and philosophers are, in my opinion, overly liberal in their theoretical claims, and thereby undermine the scientific rigor to which the field of biosemiotics aspires. The last chapter, ‘Information theory and error-correcting codes in genetics and biological evolution’ by Gérard Battail, will be of interest to linguists because it draws on information theory to examine various problems in biology. ‘Semiotic scaffolding of living systems’ by Jesper Hoffmeyer, while complex, is worth reading, if only for an amusing and enlightening linguistic analogy with the word spam.

Part 3, ‘Biosemiotic research’, despite its name, contains very little new research; instead, it consists primarily of biosemiotic reinterpretations of prior research and outlines for future research directions. It contains five chapters, two of which, ‘Inner representations and signs in animals’ by Stephen Philip Pain and ‘Language and interspecific communication experiments: A case to re-open?’ by Dario Martinelli, are likely to be of interest to linguists, particularly those whose research includes animal communication or the nature and origin of language.

As linguists, we are used to thinking of language as fundamental to humanity; I imagine, however, that most of us have never made the leap to the idea that semiosis is fundamental to life. This idea, at once humbling and exhilarating, struck me as the key message of the book. For this reason, this book is absolutely worthy of the reader’s time.