Monday, July 14, 2008

Macro- vs. microsemiosis

Hi everybody,

I know some of you from the old OCA list, and it is good to get re-connected.

I chanced to run into the Biosemiosis blog while browsing the Internet looking for some more information on Barbieri's recent Naturwissenschaften article [Biosemiotics: a new understanding of life 95: 577-599 (2008)] which was kindly brought to my attention by Stan.

I enjoyed reading, and learned a lot from, Marcello's excellent review article, which has clearly demonstrated (at least to me) how relevant and essential it is to apply semiotic principles to biology in order to understand the phenomenon of life on the molecular, cellular and evolutionary levels.

After reading some of the discussions that followed Marcello's July 8 post, I was wondering if we could divide semiotics into three main branches based on the physical dimensions of signs on the one hand and on the materiality of signs on the other:

1) Signs divide into formal and physical signs.
2) Physical signs divide into macro and micro signs.
3) The study of formal signs ==> 'Metaphysical semiotics'.
The study of macrosigns ==> 'Macrosemiotics'.
The studyo of microsigns ==> 'Microsemiotics'.

Scheme 1. A suggested trichotomization of the field of semiotics based on i) the
materiality and ii) the size of signs.

i) By 'Metaphysical' semiotics (or semiotic metaphysics?), I mean the study of signs on the most abstract and general level, or the metaphysics of signs (in contrast to the physics of signs). Pansemiotics, and triadic metaphysics of Peirce would belong to this branch of semotics.

ii) 'Macrosemiotics' is the study of macroscopic signs (e.g., words, sentences, pictures, sculptures, sounds, etc. ) that are visible, audible, tactile, and tastable to humans and other animals. Linguistics, literary art, visual arts, musicology, archtecture, dance, anthroposemiotics, and zoosemiotics would belong here.

iii) 'Microsemiotics' can be defined as the study of signs on the microscopic level (e.g., DNA, RNA, proteins, pheromones, cells). Biosemiotics of cells and their higher-order structures (e.g., organs, including the brain) analyzed in terms of molecules as the basic building blocks would constitute the main component of this branch of semiotics. Jesper Hoffmeyers work over the years and Macello's recent review article, among ohers, have laid the foundations for the field of microsemiotics.

At the invitation of Sebeok, I attended the 25th Annual Meeting of the Semiotic Society of America in 2000 honoring Sebeok's career as a semiotician. Two papers resulted from my attending the meeting in which I developed the notions of macro- and microsemiotics. One of these papers is entitled "Isomorphism between Cell and Human Languages: Micro- and Macrosemiotics" published in "Semiotics 2000: 'Sebeoks' Century' (editied by S. simpkins and J. Deely), Legas, New York, 2001, pp. 357-373 and is available from my web site ( under Publications. This article starts out with the following statement by Sebeok as quotated by J. Deeely in 1994 (see my web site for the reference) which I referred to as the 'Sebeok doctrine of signs':

". . .the genetic code must be regarded as the most fundamental of all semiotic networks and therefore as the prototype for all other signaling systems used by animals, including man. From this point of view, molecules that are quantum systems, acting as physical information carriers, zoosemiotic systems, and and, finally, cultural systems, comprehending language, constitute a natural sequel of stages of ever more complex energy levels in a single universal evolution. It is possible, therefore, to describe language as well as living systems from a unified cybernetic standpoint . . . A mutual appreciation of genetics, aminal communication studies, and linguistics may lead to a full understanding of the dynamics of semiotics, and this may, in the last analysis, turn out to be no less than the definition of life."

I think the trichotomization of semiotics into microsemiotics, macrosemiotics and metaphysical semiotics suggested in Scheme 1 is fully consonant with the ideas expressed by Sebeok in this paragraph.

Marcello emphasized copying and codemaking in microsemiosis (as deinfed above). I wonder if we can trichotomize microsemiosis as well in the following manner:

i) Copying ==> iconic signs (?)
ii) Coding ==> symbolic signs (i.e., the arbitraryness of signs) (?)
iii) Transduction ==> indexical signs (e.g, free-energy driven protein

Clearly, i) and ii) cannot proceed without iii), thus supporting the essentiality of the triad. Also coding (or triadicity, or the arbitraryness of signs) is not unique to transfer RNAs but also found in proteins in the form of allostery (i.e., the regulation of the geometry of enzymic acvtive sites by allosteric ligands arbitrarily related to the structure of the substrate of the enzyme).

In other words, from the point of view of microsemiotics, sign processes in the living cell may be best characterized as a triadic process implicating not only the two kinds of information transductions emphasized by Macello (i.e., copying and coding) but also energy transduction (i.e., enzymic catalysis), without which no information can be transduced.

With all the best.


Sungchul Ji, Ph.D.
Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology
Rutgers University
Piscataway, N.J. 08855

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sung I can see that this makes sense if it were general semiotics, but we are discussing biosemiotics: signs in a biological context,

At the level of Marcello's code-maker there is no meaning production other than ascriptive meaning - i.e. provided by us in the role of observers. The nature and function of a code in relation to a sign is problematic. While we accept it as a code - the genetic code and its relations are reliant on higher processing to establish itself as a code - one that uses signs and symbols of language and mathematics. The materials or parts of life involved in the actual process of replication - have no capacity in themselves to "encode" or "decode" - to do so requires more - if we are saying that the cells involved are the agents then here we can see that their capacity to process in a meaningful way is impossible. What they can do is to "count" in terms of thresholds and sense changes syntactically. Only with the beginning of radial and multicellular designed organisms do we see the glimmer of semiotic activity. Of course we as "semiotic" and symbolic animals do see codes and signs everywhere, and undoubtedly we can place this in a hierarchy as you suggest, but this is from our POV. If we were to assert as many of us do, that life forms other than us are semiotic, and this has evolved, then we must stick to the evolutionary narrative and test the capacity to make meaning using Morgan's canon etc. Meaning requires attention -> consciousness. I would prefer that someone comes up with a biological account of the move from replicating information to transmission in coupled signalling and feed-back. Stephen