Tag Archives: semiotics

Kalevi Kull on biosemiotics

Biosemiotics can be defined as the science of signs in living systems. A principal and distinctive characteristic of semiotic biology lays in the understanding that in living, entities do not interact like mechanical bodies, but rather as messages, the pieces of text. This means that the whole determinism is of another type […] The phenomena of recognition, memory, categorization, mimicry, learning, communication are thus among those of interest for biosemiotic research, together with the analysis of the application of the tools and notions of semiotics (text, translation, interpretation, semiosis, types of sign, meaning) in the biological realm.

Kull K. (1999). Biosemiotics in the twentieth century: a view from biology. Semiotica 127(1/4), 385–414.

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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