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



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The universal RNA/DNA-based genetic code is commonly referred to as a "language," as, for instance, by Beadle and Beadle (1967:216): "the deciphering of the DNA code has revealed our possession of a language much older than hieroglyphics, a language as old as life itself, a language that is the most living language of all-even if its letters are invisible and its words are buried deep in the cells of our bodies." But this figurative equation is unfortunate, for it would be more accurate to call both the molecular code and the verbal code semiotic systems or, in Jakobson's parlance [1974:501, "two informational systems"), explicitly recognizing that they radically differ from one another on, to use Hjelmslev's terminology, the expression plane: the former is an object of study in chemistry, the latter in phonology.

The genetic code is but one of several endosemiotic systems. Bodies are made up of semiotically intertwined subsystems, such as cellular organelles, cells, tissue, organs, organ assemblages. Endosemiotic sign processes, Thure von Uexküll (1986:204) amplifies,

use chemical, thermal, mechanical and electrical processes as sign carriers. They make up an incredible number. If one reflects upon the fact that the human body consists Of 25 trillion cells, which is more than 2000 times the number of people living on earth, and that these cells have direct or indirect contact with each other through sign processes, one gets an impression of the amount. Only a fraction are known to us. Yet this fraction is hardly comprehensible.... The messages that are transmitted include information about the meaning of processes in one system of the body ... for other systems as well as for the integrative regulation systems (especially the brain) and the control systems (such as the immune system).

Semiosis is the fulcrum around which another emerging interfacial discipline-recently dubbed "semio- immunology" or "immunosemiotics" turns. The central problem immunologists keep struggling with is how the healthy immune system manages to recognize and respond to an almost infinite number of alien organisms and yet fails to assail components of self. What has become reasonably clear is that a single line of defense against potential pathogens is not enough and that there are dissimilitudes between antigen recognition by T cells and that by B cells. Jerne has proposed (1985:1058) a model of particular interest to semioticians, including especially linguists, with his claim that the immense repertoire of the vertebrate immune system functions as an open-ended generative grammar, "a vocabulary comprised not of words but of sentences that is capable of responding to any sentence expressed by the multitude of antigens which the immune system may encounter." The human immune system consists of about 1012 cells, dissipated over the entire body, excepting only the brain, but the former and the nervous system are known to exercise pervasive mutual sway one over the other by means of two-way electrochemical messages.








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1999.05.31