Life Is Semiosis: A Chat with Kalevi Kull


Founders of the Copenhagen-Tartu School of Biosemiotics at a Seminar in Estonia: (l-r) Kalevi Kull, Claus Emmeche, Jesper Hoffmeyer, Frederik Stjernfelt

With Internet content increasingly about video, about meaningful signaling – i.e., semiosis — I thought it might be time to ring up Kalevi Kull, a theoretical biologist in Estonia at the University of Tartu’s Institute of Philosophy and Semiotics to talk about developments. Kull is known for his contributions to the field of biosemiotics and currently serves as president of the International Society for Biosemiotic Studies. His most recent book is Towards a Semiotic Biology: Life is the Action of Signs. Our conversation follows.

Kalevi Kull:

What’s going on with biology now with an epigenetic turn or semiotic turn is similar to what happened 200 years ago when preformist biology was changed into epigenetic largely due to the work done by Karl Ernst von Baer, who established embryology and developmental biology. The epigenetic dominance in biology lasted then until the Modern Synthesis of the 1930s, which meant the beginning of the period of genetic preformism as a dominant view. Now we face the turn to an epigenetic view again, endowed by a much deeper understanding of what life is.

Life is semiosis. From this definition for life, by the way, it follows that life is the inheritance of the capacity to search, interpret and choose, together with an inheritance of constraints or scaffolding that results from earlier practice.

This is a really big change, and this discussion around the Modern Synthesis is just a part of it — but of course, a big, important part.

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