Sign processes permeate the lives of all creatures in the natural world. Sign use makes possible not only such higher-order human abilities as spoken language and written texts, but also underlies such communicative animal behavior as the calls and songs of birds and cetaceans; the pheromone trails of insect colony organization and interaction; the mating, territorial, and hierarchical display behavior in mammals; as well as the deceptive scents, textures, movements and coloration of a wide variety of symbiotically interacting insects, animals and plants.

Perhaps less obvious phenomena that are based on signifying (sign) relations are the chemoreceptive signals by which single celled animals negotiate their world (and upon which the human body’s immune system operates); the chemical-electrical events that constitute the sensory messages and motoric signaling of the brain and central nervous system; and the DNA nucleotide sequences that, when decoded by cellular mechanisms, scaffold the construction of body form from the inanimate molecules of the genetic code.

All of these phenomena are examples of “sign use” – substitution relations whereby something is “re-presented” to an organism by something other than itself. However, it is obvious that the natures of these sign processes differ from each other in a number of important and yet not always clearly delineated ways – ant trails are not neural pathways, T-cells are not thinking agents, and human symbolic language cannot be reduced to the iconic and indexical communication practices of songbirds, monkeys, or whales. Thus, up until very recently, no one discipline has attempted to provide a synthetic explanation of how the processes of sign use and the processes of biology might relate for various organisms – and how these relations might differ across the spectrum of biological life.

This course will introduce you to the recently developed field of biosemiotics – the interdisciplinary study of sign processes as they occur variously across the biological spectrum. Looking at the close relation between living systems and their sign systems (hence the term: bio-semiotics), this still-emerging discipline seeks to traces the evolutionary development of sign-mediated ways of being in the world from its beginnings in the transmission of information across single cells to its most complicated realization in the abstract forms of human thought.

Drawing upon readings in animal ethology, neurobiology, semiotics, systems theory and anthropology, this module has been designed to give students from both the arts and the sciences a more interdisciplinary understanding of “sign use” and its ubiquity throughout both culture and nature.