Tag Archives: human-animal studies

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.



“To endow animals with human emotions has long been a scientific taboo. But if we do not, we risk missing something fundamental, about both animals and us.” (Frans de Waal)

Views on anthropomorphism run the gamut, and three recent pieces do a good job of highlighting the terrain of this discourse: 1) Barbara Ehrenreich’s review of recent human-animal studies books in the Los Angeles Review of Books, 2) Michael Sims’ piece on anthropomorphism and E.B. White in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and 3) Marlene Zuk’s analysis of ‘animal cams’ in the LA Times. (And see here for an orthogonal post on animal symbols, Pieter Hugo, and Beyonce.)

Sims’ article on E.B. White captures the tension at the core of the debate over anthropomorphism: “Paul Theroux complained in Smithsonian about White’s anthropomorphism. “White’s is not just a grumpy partiality toward animals,” he wrote; “rather, his frequent lapses into anthropomorphism produce a deficiency of observation. And this sets my teeth on edge, not for merely being cute in the tradition of children’s books, but (also in the tradition of children’s books) for being against nature.” White would probably be as surprised to find himself described as “against nature”…It’s true that “this boy,” as White wrote of himself in childhood, “felt for animals a kinship he never felt for people.” But after spending a couple of years immersed in his writing, I disagree that his anthropomorphism resulted in a deficiency of observation. I think that, contrary to Theroux’s indictment, for White personification was a form of empathy—his way of bridging the gap between self and other—that made him more aware of other creatures’ reality, not less.”

Zuk’s piece on animal cams raises a similar point to Theroux’s: that the eagles, etc. on live cams are “just like us” leads us to biased and thus erroneous views of animal behavior. Ehrenreich’s review is more broad-ranging, but her concluding paragraph is of particular value here: “Are we in danger, then, of a widespread, coordinated, animal revolt? Given the rate at which humans continue to exterminate, enslave and gobble up the habitats of other animals, the answer is probably no. Nor, I should reassure anxious readers, is there any evidence yet of cross-species coordination against human hegemony. But we should definitely relinquish two cherished human views of animals: both the Cartesian idea that they are simple biological automatons, devoid of consciousness, and the more recent animal-liberationist notion that they are gentle, innocent victims of human greed and cruelty. They are different from us — each species, perhaps each individual, alien in its own way. But they are capable of premeditation, reasoning and moral outrage. And, it should never be forgotten, some of them are our ancient antagonists, the carnivores who once ruled the world.”

Ehrenreich is right to caution us against both the Cartesian ‘animal machine’ model and the Liberationist-left ‘exploited and innocent victim’ model, but we should also keep in mind that these are both caricatures. In light of a quarter century-plus of work in neuroscience and ethology, the view that all forms of emotion are necessarily anthropomorphic (i.e., human) is absurd–some of our characteristics are indeed uniquely human, but many others are primate, mammalian, and so forth. To say that an otter plays or a chimp mourns isn’t anthropomorphic, it’s merely descriptive.

On the other side of this coin, we should be wary of painting the nonhuman animal world a Marxian red with the brush of hegemony, hierarchy, and oppression–in other words, of adopting the left-social scientific vocabulary in which all relationships are hierarchical and exploitative. To ascribe revolutionary consciousness to other animals clouds our vision of their realities.

To return for a bit to Sims’ and Zuk’s pieces, I think a middle ground can be found between Theroux/Zuk’s view of anthromorphism as subjective and thus problematic and Sims’ embrace of the power of empathy–using the vehicle of anthropomorphism–to reveal moral truths. To say that this is a difficult circle to square, though, is putting it mildly.