Tag Archives: evolution

Dissertation excerpt in progress, on systems theory and biosemiotics

This is part of a much bigger work (the ongoing dissertation prospectus). Just sharing for fun.

The semiotic view of life stresses the ubiquity of sign relations in the co-creation of living systems. The less “traditional” move made by some subfields of semiotics but not by standard evolutionary biology or other sciences is to argue that these processes of meaning-making are sign-mediated all the way down. This is unlike the common understanding of semiotics where only linguistic signs of symbolic languages such as the English being written here are “really” sign relations. Instead, these relations have been occurring since the very first cell walls came into being, and probably before even that.

This short piece explains how the different branches of semiotics relate to each other. Building on the work of Charles Sanders Peirce and Jakob von Uexküll, American semioticians John Deely and Tom Sebeok distinguished between what they called, variously, anthroposemiotics, zoosemiotics, phytosemiotics, biosemiotics, and physiosemiotics. As the Greek prefixes indicate, the first concerns humans, the second other animals, the third plants, the fourth living systems in general, and the fifth the physical forces and relations of nonliving systems. Each of these forms of sign relation has their own particular characteristics, but all face constraints but also “deconstraints” imposed at each subordinate level, unless some such constraint or deconstraint in the highest level changes the organism’s relation to its “lower” levels. Anthroposemiotics thus includes biosemiotics and physiosemiotics, but not phytosemiotics, because in addition to being human we are also animals and also subject to physical laws, but we are not plants.

Looking in some more detail at the “lowest” level helps to clarify this picture. All forms of semiosis are constrained by the same physical laws, and each additional emergent form takes on these as well as new kinds of constraints but also new deconstraints, which in sum lead to new forms of semiotic flexibility. “Physiosemiotics” concerns sign relations among nonliving systems. All such relations face at least four hard constraints. These are: the concept of temperature (the “zeroth law”), the first and second laws of thermodynamics (the conservation of energy and the increase in entropy), and the unattainability of zero (the third law).1 These constraints are paired, however, with a crucial deconstraint: the availability of work. Other constraints may be “softer” and less universal than these four, but these are “hard” because they do and must all apply at all higher levels.

It is because of the interaction of work with these constraints that other levels develop the way they do. All living beings are “embodied” in at least some sense of the term, because life is constrained by these laws and can only exist in states that are far from thermodynamic equilibrium. Setting up a boundary between the inside, out of equilibrium, and the outside, closer to equilibrium, is the only way to do this that we know of. This is developed most systematically in the “morphodynamic” framework of Terrence Deacon’s Incomplete Nature, which sets out to explain, as the book’s subtitle has it, “how mind emerged from matter.”

In addition to these physical laws, other processes of constraint and deconstraint come in the form of evolutionary and semiotic generals, law-like properties with varying degrees of “hardness” which pattern the way that new forms of living systems emerge and influence the way individuals relates to others and to the different aspects of one’s environment.

Two recent examples from evolutionary linguistics highlight some other potential kinds of constraints, in one case relating to the physical bodies in which we find ourselves and in the other to the physical and acoustic properties of our surroundings. To paraphrase the first case: because the kinds of words humans are likely to speak first are influenced by the shape and structure of the human infant’s mouth and vocal chords, some words, such as “mama” and “dada” are more commonly selected to symbolize the concepts of mother and father than others. This constraint itself interacts, of course, with many other constraints and deconstraints, including social ones. The second case takes the Acoustic Adaptation hypothesis, originally developed for birds, and applies it to humans. The hypothesis states that birds (or humans, or other organisms who vocalize communication within different kinds of environments) living in densely forested areas will sing songs with lower frequency and less variation than birds living in more open areas.

1 As described in Peter Atkins short primer, Four Laws that Drive the Universe. (2007)

Imaginative biosemiotics and the symbiopolitics of human-animal relations (part one of three)

It’s been a very long time since I’ve written a post here. Almost three years. This time has been consumed by coursework and comprehensive exams for the political science PhD program at UCSD. While engaging and sometimes interesting, these core curriculum requirement have had little to no overlap with the parallel development of my dissertation research. Hence the hiatus.

Let’s try, then, to explain the warp and weft of this ongoing project. What follows is a work very much in progress. This is the first of three cumulative posts explaining this project, and this post focuses on biosemiotics. The second introduces and discusses the symbiopolitics of human-animal relations and its relationship to Foucauldian biopolitics and Martha Nussbaum’s theory of human-animal relations. The third outlines what I am calling the “imaginative” component of this project and situates this project as a whole to trends in the heterogeneous field of “animal studies,” drawing on Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology and calling attention to the potential shortcomings of the biosemiotic framework regarding the closed conceptual horizons of nonhuman animal life. Although a list of relevant sources is provided at the end of each post, I try to avoid muddying the conceptual waters by only discussing texts or authors which are central to my work.

The questions driving this research are big ones. How are humans like or unlike other animals, and other animals like or unlike each other? Are these differences continuous or discontinuous, differences in degree or kind? Which framework or methodological approach best answers the many parts of this question? How do the epistemology and ontology of this inquiry—that is, our theory of knowledge and our inquiry into being, into what is—relate to its ethics, or how should we make sense of getting from what is to what ought to be? What, if anything, follows politically from this inquiry? And how does this relate to the patchwork quilt that is “animal studies” and to the lay perception of “animal rights”?

In my reading, biosemiotics best explains the nature of the physical world and the organisms which have come to exist and interact therein. The framework is evolutionist and emergentist. It views evolution and emergence as semiotic generals, patternings in the world that result from the interaction between physical forces like the laws of thermodynamics and the self-organizing features of living organisms in given selection environments. To call evolution a “semiotic general” is to say that something like “descent with modification by [some kind of] selection” happens in all living beings, and in all processes of coming to being, changing a state of being, or going out of being. (More on emergence below.)

Starting with Aristotle’s understanding of teleology (the purpose or the “that for which” of a thing), politics, and the nature or different animal types, I proceed to follow Charles Sanders Peirce and Jacob von Uexküll down the rabbit hole of biosemiotics (from the Greek bios and semeion, “life” and “sign,” biosemiosis looks at sign relations among living systems. And a note: only a few relevant biosemiotic sources are listed below, but those with academic access can download much more, often as full-book pdfs, from Springer.).

Understood broadly, semiotics is the study of meaning-making—of signification—and of the signs and interactions from which meaning is made. With exceptions, semioticians tend to self-classify as either Saussurean or Peircian. Ferdinand de Saussure’s “dyadic” semiotics distinguishes signifier (the material aspect of a sign) from signified (that which for which the sign ‘stands’), and it affirms that the bond between the two is arbitrary. While useful for the study of most linguistic and some cultural signs, this approach fails to account for the ubiquity of sign communication in the nonhuman living world.

Drawing on Charles Sanders Peirce’s typology of icon, index, and symbol, Peircean semiotician Thomas Sebeok terms this the distinction between anthroposemiotics and zoosemiotics. Icons, indices, and symbols operate at an increasing level of removal, or abstraction, between signifier and signified. Icons directly reference the thing signified in some aspect of their material composition. Indices do not contain the signified within themselves, but instead directly correlate to a particular signified, and symbols are only abstractly correlated with one or more meanings. Peircean semiotics is also “triadic” rather than dyadic in that an interpretant mediates between the signifier and the signified.

Terrence Deacon provides clear examples of icons and indices in The Symbolic Species: the Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain. The mottling of a moth’s wings are iconic because they directly signify “bark” to the bird that scans its environment and sees ‘bark-bark-bark’ instead of ‘bark-not bark-bark.’ The latter would neither satisfy the iconic function nor protect the moth from predation. The smell of smoke is indexical to fire both for sentient animals (a slippery term, but at its base: those capable of feeling, of sense perception) like the deer in the forest and for sapient animals (also slippery, but: those who act with judgment) like humans in possession of language. (A note on word use: many social anthropologists interested in symbolism and ritual would define as “sign” what Peirce calls “symbol,” and reserve “symbol” for performative acts of cultural rituals, and not just for representations of a thing signified.)

And because—or at least in part because—humans have language, we also have access to levels of abstract reference which broaden and deepen our conceptual horizons by providing a means of constructing a narrative sense of self, a faculty of episodic memory, and a robustly iterated theory of mind (where ‘I know that you know that she knows that I know…’). In von Uexküll’s terminology, language radically changes our umwelt, the perspectival bubbles we call our world. But we still share with other animals our basic sense perceptions, the embodied vulnerability that accompanies being an self-contained organism (or what Deacon calls a teleodynamic system), and most likely our ‘core’ emotions and moral instincts.

In other words, while animals clearly have access to iconic and indexical systems of meaning-making and communication, it is likely that only humans have access to what Peirce describes as symbolism in any robust sense of the term. As Deacon is right to point out, however, icons, indices, and symbols are hierarchically organized. As we share a common evolutionary history with other living organisms, so too with iconic and indexical forms of semiosis.

In my reading, this most central insight of biosemiotics implies that the perspectival world of other animals can be examined scientifically in a more comprehensive and exhaustive way than can the human world of comparatively open symbolic horizons. This insight is important both to the “imaginative” and the “symbiopolitical” elements of this project which will be explored subsequently. (On the imaginative side, it follows from this view that the nonhuman world is more evolutionarily constrained in the potential horizons of their ways of being-in-the-world. Symbiopolitically, it indicates that we can apply biosemiotic principles to scientific inquiry to understand what it means for a given animal to flourish, and how that flourishing interacts symbiotically with other kinds of organisms.)

This argument also works in reverse, although the hierarchical organization of human and animal attributes makes it difficult to parse when which kind of semiosis is operative. In Umberto Eco’s Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, he distinguishes between dictionaries and encyclopedias, and between labyrinths viewed as linear, map-like, or net-like. Eco points out that we describe many things in dictionary terms that may better be viewed encyclopedically, and this corresponds to the closing of horizons that result from ‘reading’ one type of thing as if it were a different type of thing. There is, however, a trade-off; as he puts it, “the encyclopedist knows that the tree organizes, yet impoverishes, its content”. (Eco 82) (A note: any serious account of the world of human meaning has to describe the social world in a way that I have not here done, to accommodate not just icons, indices, and symbols but the array of social facts, cultural practices, and rituals described by Hacking, Searle, and so many others. I am tabling but not dismissing these emergent realities here; at this stage, my project instead focuses its attention on human-animal relations.)

This “foray into the worlds of zoosemiotics and anthroposemiotics” in turn led to three related inquiries. First, into the treatment of teleology in the philosophy of biology from Aristotle to Darwin to Ernst Mayr and beyond. Second, into the respective roles played by language and other forms of communicating, describing, or representing aspects of the world and our relations with other beings. This set of issues in particular is interpreted quite differently both within and between biological anthropology, social anthropology, cognitive science, neuroscience, and phenomenology. And third, into the relevance of embodiment—understood here as the relationship between brain, mind, and body—to concepts of human autonomy, agency, and emotion.

Explaining this in depth would be too involved for what is presented here. Briefly, though: the central relevant point from the philosophy of biology concerns the nature of end-directness in teleological systems. In the case of language as viewed by the disciplines above the matter is complicated by various and often incommensurable ontological foundations. The first is addressed below, but some aspects of the second and most of the third are postponed until the second and third blog posts in this sequence.

To return to teleology: since Darwin, many biologists have eschewed teleological explanations to animal behavior, both because of a concern about ‘contamination’ by anthropomorphism and because of the scientific rejection of “cosmic teleology,” of end-directnessness in the transcendent sense that “God has a plan for nature.” Others have pushed back against this over-broad proscription, however. Biologist Ernst Mayr, writing at a time when computers (and their software) were becoming widespread, proposed the term teleonomic to account for “systems operating on the basis of a program.” A series of parallel developments in theoretical biology emphasized the how the self-organization of living systems (Maturana and Varela’s theory of autopoiesis, or self-making, is the best known) is itself a strong semiotic general.

More recently, the confluence of complexity theory (or in the popular vernacular, somewhat misleadingly, “chaos theory”) and systems dynamics with neuroscience and biological anthropology provides an explanation for the end-directedness of emergent properties that relies of evolution, emergence, and the interaction of living and proto-living organisms and molecules. In his 2013 book at the intersection of these fields, Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter, Deacon coins the neologism ententional to account for the class of objects or processes that appeal to “something not present.” When theoretically situated in the above framework and against the coevolution of dissipative systems in a pattern of emergent dynamics, this concept resolves the problem of reverse causality which has dogged the philosophy of biology ever since Darwin’s overhaul of Aristotle’s biology.

Stuart Kauffman’s book on complexity theory says in its title that we are At Home in the Universe. By this he means that life—and ultimately humanity—is not the “we the accidental” that follows from focusing solely on “blind” Darwinian selection. Instead we are “at home in the universe” because, following Peter Corning, “a fully adequate theory of evolution must encompass both self-organization and selection.” (cited in Deacon 2013, 422) Deacon’s ‘return’ to Aristotle’s plurivocal conception of causality provides a way to think coherently, and within an emergentist Darwinian framework, about the normative implications of teleology.

What kind of ethics and politics follows from this this biosemiotic epistemology and the ontology of meaning-making and being-together it entails? My next post will build on Michel Serres’ The Parasite and other sources to develop the rudiments of a symbiopolitical typology of human-animal relations. This typology will be situated against the biopolitics of Michel Foucault and the animal ethics of Martha Nussbaum.

Selected sources

Aristotle. Politics, Physics, History of Animals, Parts of Animals, Movement of Animals, Generation of Animals

Bickerton, Derek. (1992). Language and Species.

Bickle, John (2009). The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Neuroscience

Damasio, Antonio (2003). Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain.

Deacon, Terrence (1997). The Symbolic Species: the Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain.

Deacon, Terrence. (2011). Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter.

Eco, Umberto. (1986) Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language.

Favareau, Donald, ed (2010). Essential Readings in Biosemiotics.

Hacking, Ian (2002). Historical Ontology.

Hénaff, Marcel (2010). The Price of Truth: Gift, Money, and Philosophy.

Jantsch, Erich (1980). The Self-Organizing Universe: Scientific and Human Implications of the Emerging Paradigm of Evolution.

Kauffman, Stuart. At Home in the Universe: the Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity.

Kohn, Eduardo (2013). How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human.

Kull, Kalevi, et al. (2009) “Theses on Biosemiotics: Prolegomena to a Theoretical Biology.” Biological Theory 4.2 (2009): 167-173.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson (1999) Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought.

Maturana, Humberto R., and Francisco J. Varela. (1987) The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding.

Mayr, Ernst (1974). “Teleological and teleonomic, a new analysis.” Methodological and historical essays in the natural and social sciences. Springer Netherlands, 1974. 91-117.

Mayr, Ernst (1988). Toward a new philosophy of biology: Observations of an evolutionist.

Okrent, Mark (2007). Rational Animals: The Teleological Roots of Intentionality.

Peirce, Charles Sanders and Kenneth Laine Ketner, eds. (1992) Reasoning and the Logic of Things: the Cambridge Conferences Lectures of 1898.

Searle, John (1995).The Construction of Social Reality.

Sebeok, Thomas Albert (2001). Signs: An Introduction to Semiotics.

Suddendorf, Thomas (2013). The Gap: the Science of what Separates us from other Animals.

Tüür, Kadri and Morten Tønnessen, eds (2014). The Semiotics of Animal Representations.

Uexküll, Jacob von (rerelease 2010). A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans.

Whitehead, Hal and Luke Rendell (2015). The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins.