Acta Biotheoretica

, Volume 67, Issue 2, pp 103–128 | Cite as

An Organisational Approach to Biological Communication

  • Ramiro Frick
  • Leonardo BichEmail author
  • Alvaro Moreno
Regular Article


This paper aims to provide a philosophical and theoretical account of biological communication grounded in the notion of organisation. The organisational approach characterises living systems as organised in such a way that they are capable to self-produce and self-maintain while in constant interaction with the environment. To apply this theoretical framework to the study of biological communication, we focus on a specific approach, based on the notion of influence, according to which communication takes place when a signal emitted by a sender triggers a change in the behaviour of the receiver that is functional for the sender itself. We critically analyse the current formulations of this account, that interpret what is functional for the sender in terms of evolutionary adaptations. Specifically, the adoption of this etiological functional framework may lead to the exclusion of several phenomena usually studied as instances of communication, and possibly even of entire fields of investigation such as synthetic biology. As an alternative, we reframe the influence approach in organisational terms, characterising functions in terms of contributions to the current organisation of a biological system. We develop a theoretical account of biological communication in which communicative functions are distinguished from other types of biological functions described by the organisational account (e.g. metabolic, ecological, etc.). The resulting organisational-influence approach allows to carry out causal analyses of current instances of phenomena of communication, without the need to provide etiological explanations. In such a way it makes it possible to understand in terms of communication those phenomena which realise interactive patterns typical of signalling interactions—and are usually studied as such in scientific practice—despite not being the result of evolutionary adaptations. Moreover, this approach provides operational tools to design and study communicative interactions in experimental fields such as synthetic biology.


Organisation Influence Biological functions Signals Synthetic biology Regulation 



The authors thank Derek Skillings and Matteo Mossio for their careful reading and useful comments on a previous version of this paper. This work was funded by the Ministerio de Economia, Industria y Competitividad (MINECO), Spain (‘Ramon y Cajal’ Programme, RYC-2016-19798 for LB, and research project FFI2014-52173-P for AM and LB), by the Basque Government (Project: IT 590-13 for AM and LB) and by CONICYT, Chile (Doctoral Scholarship 21151293-CONICYT and Supporting Doctoral Thesis Scholarship for RF). AM acknowledges also a Salvador de Madariaga Fellowship PRX17/00379 and he thanks the IHPST (Paris) for hosting his research stay during the first semester of 2018.


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© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of SociologyUniversidad Diego PortalesSantiagoChile
  2. 2.Department of PhilosophyUniversidad Alberto HurtadoSantiagoChile
  3. 3.Instituto de Filosofía y Ciencias de la Complejidad, IFICCSantiagoChile
  4. 4.Department of Logic and Philosophy of Science, IAS-Research Centre for Life, Mind and SocietyUniversity of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU)Donostia-San SebastianSpain

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