What is biosemiotics? It is the extension of semiotics (the logical and scientific study of signs) into the biological realm. Semiotics and semiosis (the process of interpreting signs) is considered from a broad perspective.
From the wiki on semiotics
Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914), a notable logician who founded philosophical pragmatism, defined semiosis as an irreducibly triadic process wherein something, as an object, logically determines or influences something as a sign to determine or influence something as an interpretation or interpretant, itself a sign, thus leading to further interpretants.
Semiosis and life:
Thomas A. Sebeok (1920–2001), a student of Charles W. Morris, was a prolific and wide-ranging American semiotician. Though he insisted that animals are not capable of language, he expanded the purview of semiotics to include non-human signaling and communication systems, thus raising some of the issues addressed by philosophy of mind and coining the term zoosemiotics. Sebeok insisted that all communication was made possible by the relationship between an organism and the environment it lives in. He also posed the equation between semiosis (the activity of interpreting signs) and life – the view that has further developed by Copenhagen-Tartu biosemiotic school.
Now, to biosemiotics:
From the wiki on biosemiotics
Biosemiotics (from the Greek bios meaning “life” and semeion meaning “sign”) is a growing field that studies the production, action and interpretation of signs in the biological realm.
Approach of biosemiotics:
To define biosemiotics as “biology interpreted as sign systems study” is to emphasize not only the close relation between biology as we know it (as a scientific field of inquiry) and semiotics (the study of signs), but primarily the profound change of perspective implied when life is considered not just from the perspectives of molecules and chemistry, but as signs conveyed and interpreted by other living signs in a variety of ways, including by means of molecules. In this sense, biosemiotics takes for granted and respects the complexity of living processes as revealed by the existing fields of biology – from molecular biology to brain science and behavioural studies – however, biosemiotics attempts to bring together separate findings of the various disciplines of biology (including evolutionary biology) into a new and more unified perspective on the central phenomena of the living world, including the generation of function and signification in living systems, from the ribosome to the ecosystem and from the beginnings of life to its ultimate meanings.
The difference between biosemiotics and traditional biology (with it’s philosophy):
Traditional biology (and philosophy of biology) has seen such processes as being purely physical and, being influenced by a reductionist and mechanistic tradition, has adopted a very restricted notion of the physical as having to do with only efficient causation. Biosemiotics uses concepts from semiotics (in the sense of C.S. Peirce as the broad logical and scientific study of dynamic sign action in humans as well as elsewhere in nature) to answer questions about the biological emergence of meaning, intentionality and a psychic world; questions that are hard to answer within a purely mechanist and physicalist framework.
The biosemiotics perspective on the evolution of life, semiotic systems and causality:
Biosemiotics sees the evolution of life and the evolution of semiotic systems as two aspects of the same process. The scientific approach to the origin and evolution of life has, in part due to the success of molecular biology, given us highly valuable accounts of the outer aspects of the whole process, but has overlooked the inner qualitative aspects of sign action, leading to a reduced picture of causality. Complex self-organized living systems are also governed by formal and final causality —- formal in the sense of the downward causation from a whole structure (such as the organism) to its individual molecules, constraining their action but also endowing them with functional meanings in relation to the whole metabolism; and final in the sense of the tendency to take habits and to generate future interpretants of the present sign actions. Here, biosemiotics draws also upon the insights of fields like systems theory, theoretical biology and the study of complex self-organized systems.
OTOH, Marcello Barbieri proposes that biosemiotics should be considered not as just a philosophy, but as a new scientific paradigm, based on experimental facts. From his paper by on Biosemiotics: a new understanding of life
From the abstract:
If we look at the evidence of life without the preconditions of the present paradigm, we discover that semiosis is there, in every single cell, and that it has been there since the very beginning.This is what biosemiotics is really about. It is not a philosophy. It is a new scientific paradigm that is rigorously based on experimental facts. Biosemiotics claims that the genetic code (1) is a real code and (2) has been the first of a long series of organic codes that have shaped the history of life on our planet. The reality of the genetic code and the existence of other organic codes imply that life is based on two fundamental processes—copying and coding—and this in turn implies that evolution took place by two distinct mechanisms, i.e., by natural selection (based on copying) and by natural conventions (based on coding).
From the introduction:
It is about a new biological paradigm that gives us (1) a new model of the cell, (2) a real alternative to physicalism, and (3) a new mechanism of evolution. These are the great novelties of biosemiotics, and this review is dedicated almost exclusively to illustrating them.
Please read the whole paper (23 pages, no maths, not technical) with an open mind to get the full picture.