Dissertation excerpt in progress, on systems theory and biosemiotics

This is part of a much bigger work (the ongoing dissertation prospectus). Just sharing for fun.

The semiotic view of life stresses the ubiquity of sign relations in the co-creation of living systems. The less “traditional” move made by some subfields of semiotics but not by standard evolutionary biology or other sciences is to argue that these processes of meaning-making are sign-mediated all the way down. This is unlike the common understanding of semiotics where only linguistic signs of symbolic languages such as the English being written here are “really” sign relations. Instead, these relations have been occurring since the very first cell walls came into being, and probably before even that.

This short piece explains how the different branches of semiotics relate to each other. Building on the work of Charles Sanders Peirce and Jakob von Uexküll, American semioticians John Deely and Tom Sebeok distinguished between what they called, variously, anthroposemiotics, zoosemiotics, phytosemiotics, biosemiotics, and physiosemiotics. As the Greek prefixes indicate, the first concerns humans, the second other animals, the third plants, the fourth living systems in general, and the fifth the physical forces and relations of nonliving systems. Each of these forms of sign relation has their own particular characteristics, but all face constraints but also “deconstraints” imposed at each subordinate level, unless some such constraint or deconstraint in the highest level changes the organism’s relation to its “lower” levels. Anthroposemiotics thus includes biosemiotics and physiosemiotics, but not phytosemiotics, because in addition to being human we are also animals and also subject to physical laws, but we are not plants.

Looking in some more detail at the “lowest” level helps to clarify this picture. All forms of semiosis are constrained by the same physical laws, and each additional emergent form takes on these as well as new kinds of constraints but also new deconstraints, which in sum lead to new forms of semiotic flexibility. “Physiosemiotics” concerns sign relations among nonliving systems. All such relations face at least four hard constraints. These are: the concept of temperature (the “zeroth law”), the first and second laws of thermodynamics (the conservation of energy and the increase in entropy), and the unattainability of zero (the third law).1 These constraints are paired, however, with a crucial deconstraint: the availability of work. Other constraints may be “softer” and less universal than these four, but these are “hard” because they do and must all apply at all higher levels.

It is because of the interaction of work with these constraints that other levels develop the way they do. All living beings are “embodied” in at least some sense of the term, because life is constrained by these laws and can only exist in states that are far from thermodynamic equilibrium. Setting up a boundary between the inside, out of equilibrium, and the outside, closer to equilibrium, is the only way to do this that we know of. This is developed most systematically in the “morphodynamic” framework of Terrence Deacon’s Incomplete Nature, which sets out to explain, as the book’s subtitle has it, “how mind emerged from matter.”

In addition to these physical laws, other processes of constraint and deconstraint come in the form of evolutionary and semiotic generals, law-like properties with varying degrees of “hardness” which pattern the way that new forms of living systems emerge and influence the way individuals relates to others and to the different aspects of one’s environment.

Two recent examples from evolutionary linguistics highlight some other potential kinds of constraints, in one case relating to the physical bodies in which we find ourselves and in the other to the physical and acoustic properties of our surroundings. To paraphrase the first case: because the kinds of words humans are likely to speak first are influenced by the shape and structure of the human infant’s mouth and vocal chords, some words, such as “mama” and “dada” are more commonly selected to symbolize the concepts of mother and father than others. This constraint itself interacts, of course, with many other constraints and deconstraints, including social ones. The second case takes the Acoustic Adaptation hypothesis, originally developed for birds, and applies it to humans. The hypothesis states that birds (or humans, or other organisms who vocalize communication within different kinds of environments) living in densely forested areas will sing songs with lower frequency and less variation than birds living in more open areas.

1 As described in Peter Atkins short primer, Four Laws that Drive the Universe. (2007)

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