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



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The plant-animal-fungus trichotomy (see also other chapters this book) is based on the manifold but complementary nutritional pattern of each group, which is to say on the manner in which information, or negentropy, is maintained by extracting order from the environment. It is therefore at bottom a semiotic taxonomy. Plants, deriving their food from inorganic sources by means of photosynthesis, are producers. Animals, ingesting their food-performed organic compounds-from other organisms, are transformers. Fungi, breaking their food down externally and then absorbing the resulting small molecules from solution, are decomposers. On this macroscopic scale, plants and fungi are two polar-opposite life forms: the composers, or organisms that build up, and the decomposers, or the organisms that break down. Animals are the mediators between the other two. By reason of their go-between status, animals have become incomparable virtuosi at semiosis, and that on several levels: in the interactions among their multitudinous cells; among members of their own species; and with members of all other life forms extant within their Umwelten. It is even possible to postulate provisionally a fruitful analogy between the systematists' P-A-F model and the classic semioticians' O-S-I model: according to this, in general, a fungus/interpretant is mediately determined by an animal/sign, which is determined by a plant/object (but plant/fungus are likewise variant life forms, of course, just as object/interpretant are both sign variants; cf. Peirce to Welby, in Hardwick 1977:31, 81).

As one would expect, the literature of zoosemiotics (a surprisingly productive term coined in 1963), dealing with both semiosis in the speechless animals and nonverbal semiosis in Homo, is immense. (Two encyclopedic overviews are to be found in Sebeok 1968 and Sebeok 1979b.) Many investigators consider separately aspects of intra-specific animal communication (see, for example, Lewis and Gower ig8o; and Bright 1984) and aspects of interspecific communication, which are further partitioned into communication with members of other animal species and, as a specially elaborate case thereof, two-way communication between animals and men; the latter further impinges on a host of problems of animal taming, training, and domestication. One particular subtopic which, abetted by much media brouhaha, continues to excite the public, but also on which work has now reached a perhaps unsurmountable impasse, has focused on a search for language propensity in three African and one Asian species of apes, and/or also in certain pelagic mammals (for critical reviews, see Sebeok and Umiker-Sebeok 1980; Umiker-Sebeok and Sebeok 1981a; and Sebeok 1986b.)








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1999.05.31