An attempt at sign-mediated communication theory


Witzany, G. ( 2000 ) Life: the communicative structure. A new philosophy of biology . Libris Books on Demand , Norderstedt, Germany . 231 pp , 36 figs. Paperback: Price DM58 . ISBN 3-8311-0349-6 .

The Austrian philosopher Günther Witzany states in the preface that the objective of his book is to use an interdisciplinary approach combining philosophy, biology and semiotics to build a basis for a ‘new’ concept of communicative nature. Clearly this is not an easy task. What would be the motivation to start such an effort? It is the global ecological crises, as the author stresses several times, and the need for humankind to find solutions in time.

In the first part (over 90 pages), Witzany introduces the reader extensively to molecular biology, explaining DNA structure/function and providing examples of intra- and inter-cellular communication systems in living organisms. In the second part, he presents the philosophical background of communication theories in relation to biological systems. The author starts with a critical review of the concept of language and communication as used by Eigen & Ruthild Winkler (1975) in their well-known book Das Spiel, Naturgesetze steuern den Zufall (Laws of the game: how the principles of nature govern chance). He then proceeds to Habermas’ (1981) equally famous Theorie kommunikativen Handelns (Theory of communicative action). It is, in particular, Habermas’ concept of universal pragmatics to which Witzany refers in arguing for a universal theory of communication, which should comprise nature and culture. The third part seeks to integrate the theories presented so far and to advance a theory of communicative nature based on a sign-mediated language. Finally, Witzany attempts to explain evolution as a result of generative linguistic behaviour of organisms. Insights gained in molecular biology are used to support the notion of a universal sign-mediated communication in living nature in the form of DNA-modifying enzymes, which feed information (e.g. experience) back to DNA to form new genes.

Overall, the text is quite provocative for molecular biologists as well as for sociologists, and environmental scientists. Witzany could have provided a fruitful stimulus for cross-disciplinary scientific discussions, but unfortunately he did not. One third of the book is used to introduce the reader to the basics of molecular biology, but this is not essential for understanding the ideas advanced by the author. Most figures and explanatory texts are copies or synopses from textbooks, which the interested reader might use to look up details of molecular mechanisms used by cells to provide inter- and intra-cellular communication pathways.

The author’s own ideas, which are developed in the later parts of the book are disappointing in several respects. First, they rarely refer to the relevant scientific literature. This holds true for biology, sociology and environmental sciences. To give an example, a whole chapter dedicated to the idea of a fundamental reinterpretation of evolutionary theory, manages to neglect almost all of the 150-year scientific tradition in this field. Second, the arguments are in general highly speculative and in many cases lack any empirical support. Advancement of a molecular mechanism explaining evolution solely by adding new genes to the chromosomes (polycondensation theory) is interesting but does not hold true, as there is no correlation in genome size (DNA length) and complexity of organisms within the plant or animal kingdom (the c-value paradox), a well-known fact that the author fails to address. Scientifically unfounded statements such as ‘Specific hive inspection behaviour [of scout bees] must have been constituted as experience and subsequently genetically fixed. Enzyme proteins must have coded the specificity of this experience and inserted it into the correct side of the genome’ (chapter 7, p. 139) disqualify the author’s understanding of molecular and evolutionary biology. To advance from the fact that an existing DNA strand, a gene, can be modified by enzymes, to the hypothesis that ‘behaviour-experience coded enzymes’ exist, which are capable of producing new genes and hence would be inherited to the progeny, is mere speculation. As the author states himself at the end of the book, this is Lamarckism in its purest form.

Independent of the quality of the arguments, the interested reader might ask how a Lamarckian turn in evolutionary theory could contribute to a solution of ecological problems. Unfortunately, we are not provided with an answer. The discussion of evolution, obviously important to the author, remains unconnected to the general framework of the text.

The ecological issue reappears in the last chapter, which draws its basic idea from an application of Habermas’‘universal pragmatics’ to organisms. This leads the author to the concept of a universal sign language used by organisms and eventually to a new environmental ethic under the heading ‘nature as a norm subject’. Here a more extensive review of the philosophical and linguistic background would be helpful for natural scientists. The line of reasoning in this chapter not only remains premature but also suggests a lack of awareness of the past developments in social theory and interdisciplinary environmental sciences. This can be seen in Witzany’s dedication to ethical claims. In the sociological and the environmental sciences, community ethical claims have been heavily criticized as being too narrow and mere appellation (see for example Luhmann, 1986), and are increasingly being replaced with more functional strategies to address ecological problems. By and large, our opinion of Witzany’s work is quite sceptical. Although interesting and important questions are addressed and many innovative ideas are provided, the reader is left with a highly idiosyncratic, speculative and seemingly premature book.

Witzany, G. ( 2000 ) Life: the communicative structure. A new philosophy of biology . Libris Books on Demand , Norderstedt, Germany . 231 pp , 36 figs. Paperback: Price DM58 . ISBN 3-8311-0349-6 .