Dear Askarealsymbologist, You seem to have an interest in the symbology of the natural world. Do you have a definition of such a symbology?

Thanks for asking. Here is my most recent definition of the study of the symbology of nature, a field called “biosemiotics”:

Biosemiotics: The study of living things in their relations to each other and to the person(s) doing the study especially in terms of their roles as entities involved in communication processes, communication processes understood as actions and interactions involving the deployment of signs—though not necessarily involving intentionality, if intentionality must imply self-consciousness—and including

(a) everything from ironic verbal communication and lying in humans to the ironies involved in biological mimicry, including, for example, how viruses, in a Trojan-horse-like manner, may fool the immune systems of their prospective hosts or how birds feign injury or engage in ventriloquism to mislead predators or how a toad escapes from its predator by becoming a stone (i.e., by creating the sign of a stone in place of itself in the mind of its predator) and thus escaping down the rabbit hole of itself; and including

(b) everything from how even elements of the physical substrate (say rocks) can get themselves incorporated into biological, aesthetic, and even ethical codes (thus, objects become objectives) to how even plants can engineer their own evolution through signing actions designed, as it were, to elicit responses (other signs and signing action) from animals and humans, responses that further the interests of the plants (see Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire); and including

(c) finally, how living things create their own environments (rather than merely adapting to a supposed monolithic Environment) through the deployment of signs in a three-fold process called (after Jesper Hoffmeyer and Claus Emmeche’s “code-duality”) code-triadicity, that is, through the generation of (1) analogical (physiological, anatomical, morphological, and behavioral) signs, (2) digital (genetic) signs, and (3) digilog (epigenetic) signs—signs that mediate between environments and genes. And so living things, for biosemioticians, are very “postmodern” in that they themselves create the virtual ecologies to which they then themselves adapt, and so on, in a boot-strapping process whereby the self-organizing web of life (the biosphere) always only functions within what Juri Lotman calls the semiosphere.

(In addition to those authors cited above, I acknowledge as integral to my formation of the above definition the work of R. C. Lewontin, Jacob von Uexküll, Thomas Sebeok, Michael Shapiro, and Michael Haley.)


Wm John Coletta, PhD, CEO

Wm. John Coletta, Ph.D.  is a proefessor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and is a member of the Editorial Board of the American Journal of Semiotics. He has served as President and Vice President of the Semiotic Society of America and was a system fellow at the Center for 21st Century Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.