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The topos of information in life sciences using the example of biosemiotics and synthetic biology

The topos of information in life sciences using the example of biosemiotics and synthetic biology
Project team:

Frank, Daniel (Dissertation)

Start date:


End date:


Research area:

Innovation processes and impacts of technology

Project description

The notion of information and its related semantic field are omnipresent in today’s life sciences. Not only when we are talking about DNA containing our genetic information, also when it comes to bacteria communicating with each other, cells transmitting signals, or biotechnologists reprogramming organisms, a whole topos of information is addressed. However, these concepts are often not theoretical but everyday language terms which are, depending on the context, used in sometimes very different ways. This is not least due to the fact that the methods, theoretical assumptions, and interests of knowledge of biosciences are heterogeneous. This dissertation project uses biosemiotics and synthetic biology to juxtapose two different, relatively new life science approaches which have originated from two different traditions of biological research. These two approaches differ – in part – fundamentally in their (metaphysical) basic assumptions, so we can reasonably speak of different paradigms of biology.

On the one hand, the two examined fields can rather be considered as fringe phenomena in life sciences. On the other hand, such extreme positions are like a magnifying glass to examine general tendencies of life sciences in great detail since the topos of information is of central importance in both fields, even though in very different ways.

From a historical perspective, the project examines the emergence of both paradigms using the example of two prominent thought leaders at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. While the physiologist Jacques Loeb based his scientific ideal on engineering thinking and can thus be seen as a forerunner of synthetic biology, Jakob von Uexküll's Umweltlehre is regarded as an important source of future biosemiotics. The dissertation project will show how both perspectives eventually converge in cybernetic thinking: on the one hand, cyberneticists recognized that teleological speech forms are essential for cybernetic systems, on the other hand it was tried to prove that they can be naturalized or reduced. The crucial point of these considerations is informational thinking and the entire semantic field that is associated with it which has gradually started to permeate biology since the 1940s. Notwithstanding cybernetic approaches at first, informational thinking also entered the biosciences via genetics and emerging molecular biology at more or less the same time, as the project demonstrates.

Subsequently, the two paradigms – that of synthetic biology as technoscience and that of nonreductive and nonphysical biosemiotics – are analyzed regarding their basic assumptions and compared with regard to their different gene concepts.

From the perspective of philosophy of science, the project will address the explanatory claim of synthetic biology and biosemiotics. For this purpose, different approaches of scientific explanations in general and approaches of explanations in the life sciences in particular are presented. In this context, special emphasis will be put on the explanatory power of metaphors, analogies, and models which are analyzed in the recourse to the approaches of the german Methodische Philosophie. The elaborated considerations for scientific explanation are used to criticize the explanatory claims of synthetic biology and biosemiotics with respect to their specific concept of information.

Administrative data

Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Dr. Mathias Gutmann (KIT)
Advisor: Prof. Dr. Klaus Wiegerling
Doctoral students at ITAS: See Doctoral studies at ITAS


Daniel Frank, M.A.
Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT)
Institute for Technology Assessment and Systems Analysis (ITAS)
P.O. Box 3640
76021 Karlsruhe