Biologies of Meaning

’The production of meaning is meaningless unless it is the transformation of the given meaning.’

Greimas, Du sens (1970)


’Throughout modern biology, one encounters expressions and sayings that are in fact essentially meaningless if one attempts to understand them without regard to their semiotic implications.’

Hoffmeyer, Biosemiotics (2008)


This work attempts to describe the main types of the concept of meaning as used in biology during the last one hundred years. The topic has not been systematically studied earlier. 

In biological thought, three main approaches to meaning can be distinguished. 

(1) Organisms' features have meaning as adaptations to environment. This is a classical view of Lamarck and Darwin, later widely used in empirical biology. Meaning is function.

(2) Organisms' features have meaning as representing the fate of genes (or, more precisely, alleles) – their reproductive success. This is the genocentric or sociobiological or neodarwinian view. Meaning is the relation to fitness.

(3) Meaning is a feature of organisms’ umwelten. This is Uexküll’s view. Meaning is the result of personal interpretation. Meaning is interpretant. 

In all of the three approaches, two separate concepts of meaning appear. This is because semiosis itself has been imagined or modelled in two very different ways. 

(i) Meaning is based on a code. This leads to the model of semiosis as a logical gate, and further on, to a computational theory of mind. Semiosis, accordingly, would be a rather deterministic process. Meaning is evolutionary.

(ii) Meaning is based on choice, which is a result of an incompatibility of codes. In this case more than one code is necessary, meaning appears due to interpretation in situations with options. In this case, the elementary semiotic systems have a certain degree of freedom or indeterminacy in their interpretative (choosing) process, the mind being non-computational. Meaning is momentary.

Kull, Kalevi, ’Codes: Necessary, but not sufficient for meaning-making’, Constructivist Foundations, vol. 15(2), 2020, pp. 137–139.

Kalevi Küll

University of Tartu Department of Semiotics, Estonia

Professor of Biosemiotics at the Department of Semiotics, University of Tartu, Estonia. His research deals with semiotic approaches in biology, mechanisms of diversity, theory of general semiotics, history of biosemiotics, and ecosemiotics. He is editor of the journal Sign Systems Studies and co-editor of three semiotic book series (Biosemiotics; Semiotics, Communication and Cognition; Tartu Semiotics Library).

concept of meaning
history of semiotics
theory of semiotics