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


Semiosis in the vegetative world has been accorded much less discussion, but the principles underlying phyto- semiotics are thoughtfully assessed by Krampen (1981; cf. also the remarks of Thure von Uexküll 1986:211-212). Krampen (ibid.:203) argues that their code differs from those of zoosemiotics "in that the absence of effectors and receptors does not allow for the constitution of [Jakob von Uexküll's] functional cycles, of object signs and sign objects, or of an Umwelt," yet that the world of plants "is nevertheless structured according to a base semiotics which cuts across all living beings, plants, animals, and humans alike." For instance, plants, though brainless and solipsistic systems they may be, are capable of distinguishing self/non-self. Plant semiosis incorporates the ancient microcosmos, a circumstance that accounts for botanical success, and they do have significant interactions with both animals and fungi.

Semiosis in fungi, or cytosemiosis, is not yet well understood, although their modes of interaction with other life forms specially algae, green plants, insects, and warm-blooded animals (to which they are pathogenic)-by such means as secretion, leakage, and other methods are basically known. One of the most fascinating forms of semiosis has been described in the cellular slime mold, where the sign carrier turns out to be the ubiquitous molecule cAMP, mentioned above.

There exists a massive and very ramified literature, though shockingly uneven in quality, on the biological bases of human nonverbal semiosis; for two excellent general accounts, see Guthrie (1976) and Morris (1977). By contrast, since Lenneberg's masterful (though sadly neglected) 1967 synthesis, there has been no similarly comprehensive discussion of the biological foundations of language. For a recent discussion of the main issues relating to the origin of language, see Sebeok (1986c). That article argues that language emerged as an evolutionary adaptation over two million years ago, in the guise of a mute semiotic modeling system-briefly, a tool wherewith hominids analyze their surroundings-and was thus present in Homo habilis and all successor species. Speech, the paramount linear display of language in the vocal-auditory mode, appeared as a secondary exaptation probably less than 100,000 years ago, the minimum time required to adjust a species-specific mechanism for encoding sentences with a matching mechanism for decoding and interpreting them in another brain. The fine-tuning process continues. The overall scenario sketched out in that article is in good conformity with Thom's (1975:309-311) judgment about the double origin of language, in response to two needs, one personal-"aiming to realize the per- manence of the ego"-and the other social-"expressing the main regulating mechanisms of the social group." And it is likewise so with Geschwind's equivalent view (1980:313) "that the forerunners of language were functions whose social advantages [that is, communicative function] were secondary but conferred an advantage for survival [that is, the modeling function]."

The Stoics were well aware that "animals ... communicate with each other by means of signs" (Sebeok 1977:182). By the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas had concluded that animals make use of signs, both natural and those founded on second nature, or custom. Virtually every major thinker about semiotic issues since, from Peirce to Morris to Thom, and, above all, Jakob von Uexkull, have reaffirmed and generalized this fact to encompass the totality of life. Only a stubborn but declining minority still believes that the province of semiotics is coextensive with the semantic universe known as human culture; but this is not, of course, to deny Eco's dictum (1976:22) that "the whole of culture should be studied as a communicative phenomenon based on signification systems."

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AS/SA Nº 6/7, Article 5 : Page 7 / 8

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