, Volume 9, Issue 1, pp 7–29 | Cite as

The Great Chain of Semiosis. Investigating the Steps in the Evolution of Semiotic Competence

  • Jesper Hoffmeyer
  • Frederik Stjernfelt
Original Paper


Based on the conception of life and semiosis as co-extensive an attempt is given to classify cognitive and communicative potentials of species according to the plasticity and articulatory sophistication they exhibit. A clear distinction is drawn between semiosis and perception, where perception is seen as a high-level activity, an integrated product of a multitude of semiotic interactions inside or between bodies. Previous attempts at finding progressive trends in evolution that might justify a scaling of species from primitive to advanced levels have not met with much success, but when evolution is considered in the light of semiosis such a scaling immediately catches the eye. The main purpose of this paper is to suggest a scaling of this progression in semiotic freedom into a series of distinct steps. The elleven steps suggested are: 1) molecular recognition, 2) prokaryote-eukaryote transformation (privatization of the genome), 3) division of labor in multicellular organisms (endosemiosis), 4) from irritability to phenotypic plasticity, 5) sense perception, 6) behavioral choice, 7) active information gathering, 8) collaboration, deception, 9) learning and social intelligence, 10) sentience, 11) consciousness. In light of this, the paper finally discusses the conceptual framework for biosemiotic evolution. The evolution of biosemiotic capabilities does not take the form of an ongoing composition of simple signs (icons, indices, signals, etc.) into composite wholes. Rather, it takes the shape of the increasing subdivision and control of a primitive, holophrastic perception-action circuit already committed to “proto-propositions” (dicisigns) reliably guiding action already in the most primitive species.


Biosemiotics Semiotic freedom Learning Social intelligence Consciousness Dicisigns Peirce 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Biological InstituteUniversity of CopenhagenKøbenhavn KDenmark
  2. 2.Department of Arts and Cultural StudiesUniversity of CopenhagenCopenhagen SDenmark

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