by Marcello Barbieri
The idea that life is based on signs and codes, i.e., that “Life is semiosis”, has been strongly suggested by the discovery of the genetic code, but so far it has made little impact, and is largely regarded as philosophy rather than science. The main reason for this is that there
are at least three basic concepts in modern biology that keep semiosis squarely out of organic life.
These arguments have effectively ruled out the existence of semiosis in the organic world, thus depriving the discovery of the genetic code of all its revolutionary potential, but here it will be shown that there are experimental facts against all of them. More precisely, it will be shown that the cell is a true semiotic system, and that the genetic code has been the first of a long series of organic codes that have shaped the whole history of life on our planet. Biological semiosis, in other words, is a scientific reality because the organic codes are experimental realities.
(1) The first is the classical model that describes the cell as a biological computer made of genotype and phenotype. A computer contains codes but is not a semiotic system, and this makes it possible to say that the cell too can have a genetic code without being a semiotic system.
(2) The second idea is physicalism, the doctrine that everything in life must ultimately be accounted for by physical quantities. This amounts to saying that signs and codes do not exist at the molecular level and are but linguistic metaphors that biologists use simply because they are convenient.
(3) The third concept is the idea that all biological novelties have been brought into existence by natural selection, an idea which implies that semiotic processes did not have any creative role in evolution.
This paper intends to underline precisely the scientific nature of biosemiotics and argues that the time has come to acknowledge that semiosis not only is a fact of life but is ‘the’ fact that allowed life to emerge from inanimate matter.
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