Biosemiotics (from the Greek βίος bios, "life" and σημειωτικός sēmeiōtikos, "observant of signs") is a field of semiotics and biology that studies the prelinguistic meaning-making, or production and interpretation of signs and codes[1] in the biological realm. This medical field of semiotics, in some European countries, is often known and spelled as semeiotics (from the Greek, semèion, which means "sign", and from the suffix -iké, "relative to").[2][3]

Biosemiotics attempts to integrate the findings of biology and semiotics and proposes a paradigmatic shift in the scientific view of life, in which semiosis (sign process, including meaning and interpretation) is one of its immanent and intrinsic features. The term biosemiotic was first used by Friedrich S. Rothschild in 1962, but Thomas Sebeok and Thure von Uexküll have implemented the term and field.[4] The field, which challenges normative views of biology, is generally divided between theoretical and applied biosemiotics.


Biosemiotics is biology interpreted as a sign systems study, or, to elaborate, a study of

Main branches

According to the basic types of semiosis under study, biosemiotics can be divided into

  • vegetative semiotics (also endosemiotics, or phytosemiotics), the study of semiosis at the cellular and molecular level (including the translation processes related to genome and the organic form or phenotype);[5] vegetative semiosis occurs in all organisms at their cellular and tissue level; vegetative semiotics includes prokaryote semiotics, sign-mediated interactions in bacteria communities such as quorum sensing and quorum quenching.
  • zoosemiotics or animal semiotics,[6] or the study of animal forms of knowing;[7] animal semiosis occurs in the organisms with neuromuscular system, also includes anthroposemiotics, the study of semiotic behavior in humans.

According to the dominant aspect of semiosis under study, the following labels have been used: biopragmatics, biosemantics, and biosyntactics.


Apart from Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914) and Charles W. Morris (1903–1979), early pioneers of biosemiotics were Jakob von Uexküll (1864–1944), Heini Hediger (1908–1992), Giorgio Prodi (1928–1987), Marcel Florkin (1900–1979) and Friedrich S. Rothschild (1899–1995); the founding fathers of the contemporary interdiscipline were Thomas Sebeok (1920–2001) and Thure von Uexküll (1908–2004).[8]

In the 1980s a circle of mathematicians active in Theoretical Biology, René Thom (Institut des Hautes Etudes Scientifiques), Yannick Kergosien (Dalhousie University and Institut des Hautes Etudes Scientifiques), and Robert Rosen (Dalhousie University, also a former member of the Buffalo group with Howard H. Pattee), explored the relations between Semiotics and Biology using such headings as "Nature Semiotics",[9][10] "Semiophysics",[11] or "Anticipatory Systems" [12] and taking a modeling approach.

The contemporary period (as initiated by Copenhagen-Tartu school)[13] include biologists Jesper Hoffmeyer, Kalevi Kull, Claus Emmeche, Terrence Deacon, semioticians Martin Krampen, Marcel Danesi, philosophers Donald Favareau, John Deely, John Collier and complex systems scientists Howard H. Pattee, Michael Conrad, Luis M. Rocha, Cliff Joslyn and León Croizat.

In 2001, an annual international conference for biosemiotic research known as the Gatherings in Biosemiotics[14] was inaugurated, and has taken place every year since.

In 2004, a group of biosemioticians – Marcello Barbieri, Claus Emmeche, Jesper Hoffmeyer, Kalevi Kull, and Anton Markos – decided to establish an international journal of biosemiotics. Under their editorship, the Journal of Biosemiotics was launched by Nova Science Publishers in 2005 (two issues published), and with the same five editors Biosemiotics was launched by Springer in 2008. The book series Biosemiotics (Springer, since 2007) is edited by Jesper Hoffmeyer, Kalevi Kull, and Alexei Sharov.

The International Society for Biosemiotic Studies was established in 2005 by Donald Favareau and the five editors listed above.[15] A collective programmatic paper on the basic theses of biosemiotics appeared in 2009.[16]

See also


  1. Marcello Barbieri, 2008. Biosemiotics: a new understanding of life, Naturwissenschaften, Vol. 95, Iss. 7, pp. 577–599
  2. "semeiotics - Wiktionary". Retrieved 2019-11-22.
  3. "Semeiotica", Wikipedia (in Italian), 2019-10-29, retrieved 2019-11-22
  4. Kull, Kalevi 1999. Biosemiotics in the twentieth century: A view from biology. Semiotica 127(1/4): 385–414.
  5. Kull, Kalevi 2000. An introduction to phytosemiotics: Semiotic botany and vegetative sign systems. Sign Systems Studies 28: 326–350.
  6. Maran, Timo; Martinelli, Dario; Turovski, Aleksei (eds.), 2011. Readings in Zoosemiotics. (Semiotics, Communication and Cognition 8.). Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.
  7. Kull, Kalevi 2014. Zoosemiotics is the study of animal forms of knowing. Semiotica 198: 47–60.
  8. Favareau, D. (ed.) (2010). Essential Readings in Biosemiotics: Anthology and Commentary. Berlin: Springer.
  9. Kergosien, Y. (1985) Sémiotique de la Nature, IVe séminaire de l'Ecole d'automne de Biologie Théorique (Solignac, juin 1984), G. BENCHETRIT éd., C.N.R.S.
  10. Kergosien, Y. (1992) Nature Semiotics : The Icons of Nature. Biosemiotics : The Semiotic Web 1991, T. Sebeok et J. Umiker -Sebeok (eds), Berlin : Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 145-170
  11. Thom, R., (1989) Semio physics: a sketch. Redwood City, Calif. : Addison-Wesley Pub. Co.
  12. Rosen, R. (1985) Anticipatory systems, Pergamon Press
  13. See an account of recent history in: Petrilli, Susan (2011). Expression and Interpretation in Language. Transaction Publishers, pp. 85–92.
  14. Rattasepp, Silver; Bennett, Tyler (eds.) 2012. Gatherings in Biosemiotics. (Tartu Semiotics Library 11.) Tartu: University of Tartu Press.
  15. Favareau, Donald 2005. Founding a world biosemiotics institution: The International Society for Biosemiotic Studies. Sign Systems Studies 33(2): 481–485.
  16. Kull, Kalevi; Deacon, Terrence; Emmeche, Claus; Hoffmeyer, Jesper; Stjernfelt, Frederik 2009. Theses on biosemiotics: Prolegomena to a theoretical biology. Biological Theory 4(2): 167–173.


  • Alexander, V. N. (2011). The Biologist’s Mistress: Rethinking Self-Organization in Art, Literature and Nature. Litchfield Park AZ: Emergent Publications.
  • Barbieri, Marcello (ed.) (2008). The Codes of Life: The Rules of Macroevolution. Berlin: Springer.
  • Emmeche, Claus; Kull, Kalevi (eds.) (2011). Towards a Semiotic Biology: Life is the Action of Signs. London: Imperial College Press.
  • Emmeche, Claus; Kalevi Kull and Frederik Stjernfelt. (2002): Reading Hoffmeyer, Rethinking Biology. (Tartu Semiotics Library 3). Tartu: Tartu University Press.
  • Favareau, D. (ed.) (2010). Essential Readings in Biosemiotics: Anthology and Commentary. Berlin: Springer.
  • Favareau, D. (2006). The evolutionary history of biosemiotics. In "Introduction to Biosemiotics: The New Biological Synthesis." Marcello Barbieri (Ed.) Berlin: Springer. pp 1–67.
  • Hoffmeyer, Jesper. (1996): Signs of Meaning in the Universe. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. (special issue of Semiotica vol. 120 (no.3-4), 1998, includes 13 reviews of the book and a rejoinder by the author).
  • Hoffmeyer, Jesper (2008). Biosemiotics: An Examination into the Signs of Life and the Life of Signs. Scranton: University of Scranton Press.
  • Hoffmeyer Jesper; Kull, Kalevi (2003): Baldwin and Biosemiotics: What Intelligence Is For. In: Bruce H. Weber and David J. Depew (eds.), Evolution and Learning - The Baldwin Effect Reconsidered'. Cambridge: The MIT Press.
  • Kull, Kalevi, eds. (2001). Jakob von Uexküll: A Paradigm for Biology and Semiotics. Berlin & New York: Mouton de Gruyter. [ = Semiotica vol. 134 (no.1-4)].
  • Sebeok, Thomas A.; Umiker-Sebeok, Jean (eds.) (1992): Biosemiotics. The Semiotic Web 1991. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Sebeok, Thomas A.; Hoffmeyer, Jesper; Emmeche, Claus (eds.) (1999). Biosemiotica. Berlin & New York: Mouton de Gruyter. [ = Semiotica vol. 127 (no.1-4)].
  • Rothschild, Friedrich S. (2000). Creation and Evolution: A Biosemiotic Approach. Edison, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers.
  • Hoffmeyer, Jesper (ed.)(2008). A Legacy for Living Systems: Gregory Bateson as a Precursor to Biosemiotics. Berlin: Springer.
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