Tag Archives: anthropology

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The umwelt of a paramecium

On days when it rains and I am stuck inside at a desk, I often find my thoughts return to a single thematic idea: how does a single-celled organism perceive the world? Having recently read Devin Johnston’s Creaturely and Other Essays, I was struck by the author’s same general thought with regard to the higher vertebrates—in this case, the starling: “As science discovers the spectral sensitivities of birds, their sensory world proves alien to ours, their consciousness recessed from us.” Unlike that of humans, the eye of the starling does not filter out the ultraviolet spectrum of light. The organism sees the world with a fourth dimension attached—its world is, in essence, unknowable to us.

Season: organic/plant motifs and structures of microorganisms. Print by Yellena James (www.yellena.com)

As a sensory experience of one’s environment, this seeing is subjective, what the German biologist Jakob von Uexküll called each organism’s umwelt—what in German literally means “environment,” but which is typically taken as “subjective universe.” The term stands against a typical assumption of modern ecology that all organisms in an ecosystem share the same environment. Instead, von Uexküll argued that the subjective perception of organisms drives ecological interactions—parasitism, mutualism, etc. The entomologist/molecular biologist Alexei A. Sharov, who himself moved from ecology into the emerging field of biosemiotics, contextualizes the theory best with an example from plant ecology:

Uexküll thought that organisms may have different umwelts even if they live in the same place. A stem of a blooming flower is perceived differently by an ant, cicada-larva, cow, and human. Umwelt is not an ecological niche because niches are assumed to be objective units of an ecosystem which can be quantified using external measuring devices. On the contrary, umwelt is subjective and is not accessible for direct measurement for the same reason that we have no direct access to perceptions of other people.

Pistil. Photograph by author.

von Uexküll argued we cannot know the precise, quantified experience of the ant, cicada, or cow, just as Johnston struggles against studies of animal behavior that claim to have understood the way a starling sees. Each organism’s umwelt exists in a reciprocal exchange between phenomenological experience and the biophysical world—one of von Uexküll’s main ideas from the umwelt theory is that each component of this subjective universe has functional meaning to the agent. The stem of a blooming flower may be food, shelter, landmark, etc, depending on the species and context of the interaction. Each organism actively participates in the production of umwelt through these repeated interactions. In Sharov’s words,  the organism “simultaneously observes the world and changes it; the phenomenon which Uexküll called a functional circle.” Because these interactions are tied up with functional use and subjective experience, von Uexküll’s approach to animal behavior could not separate subjective (experience) from objective (biophysical matter), as modern-day approaches to the subject commonly insist—mind makes the world meaningful, a staple of cultural anthropology. In the related field of the philosophy of science, Sharov allies von Uexküll with pragmatism, the school of thought that argues how objects cannot be separated from interpreters.

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An evolutionary biologist’s take on objectivity

Objectivity is the cobblestone road of the sciences. Allied with positivism, objectivity is tradition, held dear, worn but worthwhile, and for good reason. It is the pursuit of truths of the natural world, allowing them to become known. Like the paleontologist unearthing calcified life, or the archeologist deciphering shards of teeth and earth, objectivity allows for the uncovering of facts, truths of being that exist in reality, a solid reality, separate from constructions of philosophies, ideologies, social world-makings. Psychologists, economists, and quantitative sociologists—not to mention the biological anthropologists—follow in the same footsteps. To believe in objectivity is to believe we can truly observe and deduce something real about the world. However, if one looks at cobblestone as artifact, as the literary theorists and cultural anthropologists do, then the tools of post-modernism would seem well equipped to demonstrate, as Ian Hacking has titled an essay, “the social construction of what.” Sometimes the deconstruction/illustration of social construction takes place over issues of method, while others—and the majority of which—affirm that any claim of truth must be situated in its social, political context. And so the scientific method is reduced to embeddedness within its cultural system of knowledge acquisition, with scientists, data, and conclusions subject to be actors vying for power and place within the overall logic. Claims to what is objective, what is the correct way to deduce a fact, the stance argues, are always larger battles over ways of seeing.

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