Wednesday 1 September 2010

Biosemiotics: yet another strand of 'information' to explore

What is particularly pleasing about this for me is the reference to Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen. In a former life, long, long ago as a schoolboy who liked birdwatching and wildlife in general, I read Konrad Lorenz's 'King Solomon's Ring' and then later 'On Aggression', and I also read Tinbergen's 'The Herring Gull's World'. I then studied physics at university and became an engineer, leaving anything to do with birds and animals behind.

Amplify’d from

Biosemiotics: Searching for meanings in a meadow

One of the nascent field's leading lights, Donald Favareau of the National University of Singapore, provides a definition on the group's website. "Biosemiotics is the study of the myriad forms of communications... observable both within and between living systems. It is thus the study of representation, meaning, sense, and the biological significance of sign processes- from intracellular signalling processes to animal display behaviour to human... artefacts such as language and abstract symbolic thought."

To get a better sense of what this means, it is best to go back to the field's roots. Biosemiotics traces its earliest influences to the independent efforts of an Estonian-born biologist in the early 20th century and an American philosopher of the 19th century, who wrote much of his work hidden in an attic to avoid his creditors.

Estonian-born Jakob von Uexküll was an animal physiologist whose 1934 book A Stroll Through the Worlds of Animals and Men: A picture book of invisible worlds - and later works - inspired Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen, who then went on to win a Nobel prize in 1973 for their studies in animal behaviour, or ethology.

Favareau came to biosemiotics as a result of "growing discontent with the inability of cognitive neuroscience to explain the reality of experiential 'meaning' at the same level that it was so successful in, and manifestly committed to, explaining the mechanics of the electrochemical transmission events by which such meanings are asserted (without explanation) to be produced".

For Gerard Battail, an information theorist at Télécom ParisTech in France, it is the fact that mainstream biology, while loosely using a vocabulary borrowed from communication theory- "pathways", "codes" and the like- "remains basically concerned with the flow of matter and energy into and between living entities, failing to recognise [that] the information flow is at least as important".


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