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The following timeline is not intended to be comprehensive, yet it offers a glimpse of the dates, research, and discoveries that have culminated into the modern recognition that signs, symbols, and representations (even digitally-encoded memory) are not human inventions. They have been present for the entire history of life on earth. As a matter of objective physical fact, life on this planet would not exist without them.

 1860s      The term “semiosis” first appears

American philosopher and logician Charles Sanders Peirce began writing on “semiosis”; the study of the relationship between signs and their objects (referents), and between signs and their interpretants.


1869     DNA is first identified

Swiss chemist Friedrich Miescher identifies a new substance, DNA, in white blood cells. The importance of his discovery wouldn't be understood until decades later.


1910-1940     The search for heredity

In the new age of microbiology, various researchers begin searching for the elusive cellular material that allows heredity to occur.


1944     DNA is the “substance of heredity”

Experimental work by Avery, MacLeod, and McCarty demonstrate that DNA is indeed the material of heredity, even though their findings would be resisted for years to come.


1948     Self-replicating automata

Brilliant physicist and mathematician John von Neumann proposes that any autonomous self-replicating system capable of evolution must contain a symbolic description of itself, distinct from the system of construction that it controls.


1953     The awards begin

Francis Crick and James Watson (with X-ray imagery from Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins) finally discover the true structure of DNA, demonstrating how the molecule can carry genetic information. Watson, Crick, and Wilkins receive Nobel Prizes for their work.


1955     The famous adapter hypothesis

Francis Crick proposes a yet unknown set of “adapter” molecules to connect the nucleic acids in DNA to the amino acids they represent during translation.


1958     The translator molecules

Mahlon Hoagland and Paul Zamecnik discover tRNA; the adapters that Crick predicted would exist. They also find the complex proteins required to bind those tRNA with their individual amino acid cargo - establishing the Genetic Code while preserving the discontinuity between the nucleic representations and their amino acid effects.


1961     Breaking the code

Marshall Nirenberg and Heinrich Matthaei begin to break the Genetic Code. Along with G. Khorana and R. Holley, Nirenberg is awarded the Nobel Prize for his work.


1963    Semiosis grows in scope

Thomas Sebeok proposes to expand semiotic study to include non-human sign communication in the animal kingdom (zoosemiosis). Years later, German semiotician Martin Krampen would propose semiosis among the plant kingdom (phytosemiosis) and microbiologist Sorin Sonea would point to semiosis even among single-celled bacteria.

1968     “Life is matter controlled by symbols”

Acclaimed physicist Howard Pattee explicitly proposes that the living cell is controlled by a genuine system of nucleic symbols; i.e. that the symbol is not a metaphor. (Bellagio Theoretical Biology Symposia 1966-1970).


1970-2000     Collaborations grow

A period characterized by the global sharing of semiotic perspectives between researchers such as Thomas Sebeok, Jesper Hoffmeyer, Claus Emmeche, Thure von Uexküll, Giorgio Prodi, Kalevi Kull, and others.



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