, Volume 95, Issue 7, pp 577–599 | Cite as

Biosemiotics: a new understanding of life

  • Marcello BarbieriEmail author


Biosemiotics is the idea that life is based on semiosis, i.e., on signs and codes. This idea has been strongly suggested by the discovery of the genetic code, but so far it has made little impact in the scientific world and is largely regarded as a philosophy rather than a science. The main reason for this is that modern biology assumes that signs and meanings do not exist at the molecular level, and that the genetic code was not followed by any other organic code for almost four billion years, which implies that it was an utterly isolated exception in the history of life. These ideas have effectively ruled out the existence of semiosis in the organic world, and yet there are experimental facts against all of them. If we look at the evidence of life without the preconditions of the present paradigm, we discover that semiosis is there, in every single cell, and that it has been there since the very beginning. This is what biosemiotics is really about. It is not a philosophy. It is a new scientific paradigm that is rigorously based on experimental facts. Biosemiotics claims that the genetic code (1) is a real code and (2) has been the first of a long series of organic codes that have shaped the history of life on our planet. The reality of the genetic code and the existence of other organic codes imply that life is based on two fundamental processes—copying and coding—and this in turn implies that evolution took place by two distinct mechanisms, i.e., by natural selection (based on copying) and by natural conventions (based on coding). It also implies that the copying of genes works on individual molecules, whereas the coding of proteins operates on collections of molecules, which means that different mechanisms of evolution exist at different levels of organization. This review intends to underline the scientific nature of biosemiotics, and to this purpose, it aims to prove (1) that the cell is a real semiotic system, (2) that the genetic code is a real code, (3) that evolution took place by natural selection and by natural conventions, and (4) that it was natural conventions, i.e., organic codes, that gave origin to the great novelties of macroevolution. Biological semiosis, in other words, is a scientific reality because the codes of life are experimental realities. The time has come, therefore, to acknowledge this fact of life, even if that means abandoning the present theoretical framework in favor of a more general one where biology and semiotics finally come together and become biosemiotics.


Biosemiotics Evolution Information Codes Meaning 



I am deeply grateful to Tatiana Czeschlik for the invitation to write this review and to Dorothea Kessler for her exquisite editorial assistance. The first draft has been substantially improved by the suggestions of four anonymous referees, and I wish to publicly thank each and all of them for their most welcome help.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Dipartimento di Morfologia ed EmbriologiaFerraraItaly

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