Semiotics is defined as the science of signs, symbols, and representations within the living kingdom. As a scientific project, it crosses several institutional boundaries, stretching all the way from the humanities to the physical sciences, dealing with subject matter from linguistics and culture to biology and physics. Biosemiosis.org is independent of that project to the extent that we are primarily focused on the public awareness of semiosis -- specifically the semiotic origin of life on earth.
Many of the men and women in the larger scientific project have preemptively sworn off any idea of intelligence at the origin of life1. They’ve effectively decided upfront what will and will not be found in nature, even as they acknowledge the necessity of a representational coding system to organize the first living cell. We wish them nothing but success in the production of good science, but as rational observers ourselves, we are not obligated to any institutional assumptions about ultimate reality2.
In order to organize the first heterogeneous living cell, it is necessary to create utility through the mechanism of representation. It is necessary that those representations be spatially-oriented patterns; independent of the dynamic properties of their medium. It is necessary that many such patterns come together at the same time and place to collectively record prescriptive memory. It is necessary that the rules of a reading-frame code3 make that memory possible. And it is necessary that this memory successfully contain the construction details of the entire system itself. Yet, none of these things is brought into being by any known principle or force of physical law.
What then remains of the reductionist assumption is the real need for sheer chance to accomplish what physical forces and principles do not do. This situation is then superimposed against the backdrop of brilliant research scientists using intelligent design in the laboratory4 in an attempt to demonstrate that chance is indeed up to the task. At the same time, other prominent researchers write peer-reviewed papers and books describing the intellectual need for an infinite number of universes5 – specifically in order to give chance an endless number of opportunities to do what must be done. In short, origins research reflects the simple fact that no organizing forces or principles have ever been found for the material conditions required at the origin of life.
Yet (through observation, theory, and experiment) we have come to know what those conditions are; they are described in an enormous body of knowledge. We also know that those specific conditions are exclusively associated with only one phenomenon – intelligence – which happens to be the only theory on the origin of life that is summarily rejected upfront by the institutions of science. Thus, the landscape surrounding the semiotic origin of life is not being defined by the ideals of scientific investigation -- but by personal and institutional bias. And in every venue of discourse between the institutions of science and the general public, the greatest mystery of all time is presented with an absolute certainty that intelligence had no role in it. This conclusion comes from anything other than the evidence.
There is a formidable line at the origin of life, where a representational organization necessarily comes into being. This line has been repeatedly described in the scientific literature. Pattee refers to it in terms of an “epistemic cut” between rate-independent genetic symbols and the rate-dependent dynamics they control. Johnson refers to it in terms of the necessary contingency instantiated in a physical medium. Barbieri states that any description of the living world requires objective observables that are otherwise not measurable. Yockey speaks of the symbolic nature and immateriality of the biological message recorded in monomers. Abel refers to it in terms of the primacy of formalism over function. Crick required it in the adapter hypothesis. Nirenberg demonstrated it in the ribosome. And the late British-Hungarian polymath John von Neumann wrote of it in terms of non-dynamic "quiescent descriptions" required in the logic of self-replication.
Yet, despite the depth of observations, the general public’s awareness of genuine representations and rules at the origin of life is virtually zero. To a modern person in a modern society, who everyday uses any number of devices that require information processing (representations and rules) in order to function, the term “genetic code” seems to be understood only for its obvious necessity (in making things happen a certain way), but the term itself has been entirely emptied of its nature. Its unique physical workings, to any large number of people, are simply unknown. That part of the science has been left out of the public discourse about origins.
This is the challenge that Biosemiosis.org has set for itself.
1. In 2009, Marcello Barbieri wrote a paper describing the unification of different schools of semiotic studies. In that paper he presented two postulates (principles) which helped forge that unification. The first postulate was that “life and semiosis are coextensive”. This observation is taken directly from the physical evidence. The second postulate is that the newly formed unification will have nothing whatsoever to do with any notion of intelligence at the origin of life. No reasoning, experimental evidence, or theoretical background is offered to substantiate this second postulate. It merely appears. Marcello Barbieri - A Short History of Biosemiostics
2. Pattee gives a reasonable warning against the promotion of semiosis by attacking the metaphysical assumptions of molecular biologists. His points are sensible and understood, but Biosemiosis.org is not charged with promoting semiosis among molecular biologist. Our interest is in making information available to the general public – those who are typically unassociated with the sciences and have not been given relevant information of a core finding. How this deficiency in public information is resolved within the sciences is not addressed in the article. Howard Pattee - Response to Jon Umerez’s Paper: “Where Does Pattee’s “How Does a Molecule Become a Message?” Belong in the History of Biosemiotics?”
3. In 1961, it had become clear that the sequence of bases in DNA somehow determined the sequence of amino acids in proteins, but the rules of the genetic code had not yet been discovered. Crick, Barnett, Brenner, and Watts-Tobin presented experimental evidence that the code was a genuine reading-frame code, which a) used three bases to encode each amino acid, b) was non-overlapping, c) was read from particular starting points along the sequence of bases, d) was a degenerate many-to-one mapping. Crick, Barnett, Brenner, and Watts-Tobin - General Nature of the Genetic Code for Proteins
4. A candid discussion among leading scientists turns to the topic of the origin of life, the appearance of the ribosome, its central stature among OoL scenarios, and issues surrounding its synthesis (p76). Freeman Dyson, J. Craig Venter, George Church, Robert Shapiro, Dimitar Sasselov, Seth Lloyd – Life: What a Concept!
5. The transition from chance assemblages to biological evolution is considered for the origin of the replication and translation system (OORT) in light of cosmological inflation and the many-worlds scenario. A probability estimate is calculated using an elaborate back-of-the-envelope model. The author states “even in this toy model that assumes a deliberately inflated rate of RNA production, the probability that a coupled translation-replication emerges by chance in a single O-region is P<10-1018.” This is a incomprehensibly large number - orders of magnitude larger than all the particles of matter in the entire observable universe. Eugene Koonin – The cosmological model of eternal inflation and the transition from chance to biological evolution in the history of life
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