Thomas A. Sebeok: "The Sign Science and the Life Science"


There are several additional noteworthy properties of life. One of these is its hierarchical organization, "a universal characteristic which life shares with the rest of the cosmos and which defines, in the overall architecture of the universe, its position on the genealogical tree." The hierarchy of nature appears as an ontological interpretation of data from the "real world," a pattern of relations which obviously extends up through semiotic systems, including particularly the verbal (cf. Jakobson 1963). This problem usually appears in the guise of messages in the superimposed context, where the terminal noun is to be read as the equivalent of Leibnitz's metaphysical concept of a monad, involving an indefinite series of perceptive acts coordinated by a unique point of view; or of Jakob von Uexküll's (1982:3) semiotically more patently pertinent biological concept of Umwelt.

Another conspicuous property emerges from the interplay between the fundamental invariance in life's subjacent biochemistry and the prodigal variability of singular realizations thereof, paralleling the conjugate ideas of global semiotic universals and local, or so-called cultural, variables.

"Meaning," the cosmologist Wheeler argues (1986a:vii) __ or, better, "significance" (Saussure's significativité, or pouvoir de signifier, as in Goedel 1957:276; cf. Peirce 1935-1966:8.314) __ "is important, is even central"; and "meaning itself powers creation" (Wheeler 1986b:372; Wheeler 1984 develops this productive idea further). In semiotics, then, a fortiori, significance is at once the cardinal and the most haunting of concepts, yet the significance circuit must, in turn, be based on construction by the observer participancy of some carbon-based life.

The first traces of life detected so far date from the so-called Archaean Aeon, which began 3,900 million years ago; the progress of the animation of inert matter is expertly portrayed by Marguhs and Sagan (1986:47-57). In the course of evolution, according to the convincing, if speculative, metaphor of Dawkins 0976, Ch. 2), DNA replicators-a replicator being anything in the universe of which copies are made, thus any portion of chromosome, as well as a sign-and-its-interpretant, or, for that matter, a printed page and a facsimile thereof-cocoon themselves in "survival machines." These comprehend all prokaryotes, that is, cells, such as bacteria, in which the genes are not packaged into a membrane-bound nucleus; and the four eukaryotic super-kingdoms, unicellular and multicellular organisms, such as plants, animals and fungi, in which they are. Such molecular replicators behave as nonverbal signs, which constrain and command the behavior of all living organisms, including ourselves (Sebeok 1979b:xiii), who are members of one genus, Homo, only a sole species of which, homo sapiens sapiens survives, endowed with the unique propensity to call additionally into action, when needed, an interwoven repertoire of verbal signs. Bodies, Dawkins's survival machines, were in due course equipped by evolution with on-board computers called brains, the function of which is to facilitate message exchanges with comparable equipment in other bodies. (Dawkins also coined the word "meme" [1976:296] to designate non-genetic replicators, capable of flourishing only in environments provided by communicating brains.) Although this hypothesis is not yet proven, the brain does appear to be a highly complex amalgam of microscopic spirochetes, densely packed together in a symbiotic existence, a colony which itself feeds and thrives on a ceaseless traffic of sign input and sign output.

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AS/SA Nº 6/7, Article 5 : Page 3 / 8

© 1999, AS/SA

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