Jesper Hoffmeyer
Indiana Univ.Press 1996

On the sensory universe of creatures: 
The liberation of the semiosphere
Most of us are familiar with that faint pang, the slight shudder, that sometimes runs through us when we hear of someone being hurt in an accident. We do not even have to know the person concerned, and the little twinge we feel obviously bears no resemblance to the pain the injured person actually suffers. Yet it is as though our bodies have momentarily reached out to that other body.

Nevertheless, we would probably have to admit that other people are for the most part unfathomable. Even our own children remain something of a mystery. And on a visit to a foreign country, incomprehensibility leaps out at us from the merest detail.We have a hard enough job trying to see the world through other eyes, much less understand the world those other eyes see.

But is there really anything so strange in that? Would it not be fairer to say how amazing it is that we do have occasional flashes of insight, when we are able to see what others see or understand how they feel? While chimpanzees can obviously feel grief—can even die of grief, as in the case of Flint the young chimp who lost his mother—there is no record of a chimpanzee ever having tried to comfort a friend. 

Chimpanzees do not appear to have the capacity for perceiving that others might be in the same mental state as themselves. The true wonder lies, like as not, in the fact that we humans have the ability to empathize at all.

It is one thing, however, to be able, now and again, to empathize with other human beings. Try to do the same with animals and you will soon find you are skating on very thin ice. "If a lion could talk, we could not understand him," wrote Wittgenstein. Because we could never recognize the world in which it lives. Our language and our worlds are inextricably intertwined, living as they do in symbiosis with one another.

And yet, on hearing birdsong on a summer morning it is hard not to feel that the birds must take something of the same kind of pleasure in it as we ourselves do. 

Having made a study of birdsong from a primarily aesthetic point of view, the biologist Joan Hall-Cragg also concluded that music is and always wil1 be the exclusive privilege of birds and humans. In a commentary- on Hall-Cragg's work the philosopher Charles Hartshorne wrote:"Considering the enormous gap between the anatomies and lives of man and bird, it remains astonishing how much musical intelligibility the utterances of the latter have for the former." But Hall-Cragg herself did suggest that the similarity between these two types of semiosis is due to the similarity ofthe demands which have, in the course of evolution, shaped them: The need to send a signal to a listener some way off. Well, yes...but I wonder whether that really covers it.

When one is as sound-oriented as all humans are, it might seem rather strange that, as Julian Huxley puts it, "the great majority of all animals are both deaf and dumb." Apparently, most animals spend their days in a world that is, quite literally, mute. And even though crickets, cicadas, and other insects may "chirp" or "hum," they are in fact tone-deaf; that is to say they cannot differentiate between high and low notes.Which is why their "singing" possesses very little of what it takes to touch the human heart. A cricket can, by varying the volume and speed of its "chirping," produce as many as five different songs, each carrying its own message.66 Not only that but these tiny creatures are totally dependent on these songs, if they are ever to recognize and mate with members of the opposite sex within their own species.67

The moth's sonic universe is even more limited. As far as can be gathered, it can pick up only one particular note, that being the note emitted at a frequency of twenty thousand hertz by a bat taking soundings to locate its prey—including, not least, moths. This note enables the moth to determine how far off its enemy may be and in what direction. If the bat is some distance away the moth will head directly away from the sound. If on the other hand the bat is close by, it will execute a number of abrupt and unpredictable movements.

One of the pioneers of research into the 'sensory worlds" of animals was the Estonian-born, German biologist Jakob von Uexküll (18641944).The essence of Uexküll's life's work is contained within the term umwelt, a term which I have already employed in previous chapters. Strangely enough this word can be traced back to a Danish poet, Jens Baggesen, who first used it around the year 1800.

The way Uexküll saw it, animals spend their lives locked up, so to speak, inside their own subjective worlds, each in its own umwelt. Modern biology employs the objective term "ecological niche ' that is to say the set of conditions—in the form of living space, food, temperature, etc.—under which a given species lives. One might say that the umwelt is the ecological niche as the animal itself apprehends it.

In Bedeutungslehre (The Theory of Meaning), published in 1940, Uexküll writes:"Standing before a meadow covered with flowers, full of buzzing bees, fluttering.butterflies, darting dragonflies, grasshoppers jumping over blades of grass, mice scurrying and snails crawling about, we would instinctively tend to ask ourselves the question: Does the meadow present the same prospect to the eyes of all those different creatures as it does to- ours?"

The answer to this question is "No," and in this a modern biologist would agree totally with Uexküll. But while this "No" is quite central to Uexküll's whole view of nature, for biologists in general it seems almost to be a rather incidental oddity.

Uexküll uses a wild flower to illustrate his umwelt theory. How, he asks does this flower fit into the umwelt of different creatures: (1) A little girl picks the flower and turns it into a decorative object in her umwelt; (2) an ant climbs up its stalk to reach the petals and turns the flower into a ladder in its umwelt; (3) the larva of the spittlebug bores its way into the stalk to obtain the material for building its "frothy home," thus turning the flower into building material in its umwelt; (4) the cow simply chews up the flower and turns it into fodder in its umwelt. Each of these acts, he says, "imprints its meaning on the meaningless object, thereby turning it into a conveyor of meaning in each respective umwelt. 

As far as Uexküll is concerned a creature's specific umwelt, its subjective world, lies at the very heart of his analysis. "As the two parts of a duet must be composed in harmony—note for note, point for peint—so," he writes,"in nature the meaning-factors are related contrapuntally to the meaning-utilizers in its life." It is this contrapun-tal interaction that moves him to call the flower bee-like and the bee flower-like, the spider fly-like, or the tick mammal-like.

This constitutes a polemic assault on mechanistic biology's reduc-tion of Mother Nature's great masterpiece to an accumulation of inconsequential particles in a state of insignificant flux. The view whereby "the meadow consists of a conEusion of light waves and vibrations in the air, finely dispersed cleuds of chemical substances and chain reactions which control the various objects on the meadow."

Uexküll counters this by stating that "colors are light waves which have become sensations: This means that they are not electrical stimuli, acting on the cells of the cerebral cortex, but the ego qualities of those cells." Apart from that one term—ego quality this is still more or less in line with modern biological thinking. There is no such thing in this world as an objective perception of the property "redness." It is a sensation constructed by the organism's brain cells. The human eye will, for example, perceive a white dot as being red, if it is presented on a green ground (the eye having produced the complementary color to green, i.e., red, in the white area).

Uexküll has a fondness for employing musical metaphors to illus-trate his point of view. Thus the expression "ego-quality" is a modern-ized version of his own "ich-ton," that is to say "I-tone," which he defines in the following fashion:

Imagine that we had a number of living bells, euch capable of prodacing a dfferent tone. With these we couid make chimes. The bells couid be operated either mechanically, electrically or chemically, since each living bell wouid respond to ench kind of stimulus with its own "ego-quality" [ich-ton].... Chimes composed of living bells must possess the capacity to let their tune resound, not only because they are driven by mechanical impulses, but also because they are governed by a melody. In this manner, each ego-quality wouid induce the next one, in accordance with thepresalbed tone-sequence created by the melody.'

Elsewhere, he compares the genes in a fertilized egg to the keys on a piano, upon which formative melodies may be played.

Uexküll committed the crime of not believing in evolution. He found it absurd to assert, as those Darwinists among his contemporaries did, that "...this romantic duet that sounds throughout the whole of the living world in thousands of variations can have come into being totally without design." Thus he took up a stance which, as the twentieth century progressed, became more and more untenable. And this is probably one of the chief reasons that his work has been pretty much ignored in biological circles. This, despite the fact that he had a profound influence on Konrad Lorenz's thinking and was actually, indirectly, the founder of ethology, the study of animal behavior.

But it is not a matter of harking back to the past just to find heroes to worship. History shows that everyone makes mistakes of one kind or another. It also shows, though, that important discoveries are forever being obscured by new trends in thinking and, thus, consigned to oblivion.That is what has nearly happened to the umwelt theory.

Jacob von Uexküll's line of thought is, at heart, semiotic, or biosemiotic, though he himself never used these terms, just as it is highly unlikely that he was familiar with Peirce's work. His whole point was that neither the individual cells nor the organisms are passive pawns in the hands of external forces. They create their own umwelt and in so doing become a subjective part of Nature's grand design.

And this is where Uexküll's theory becomes quite definitely a thorn in the flesh of modern biological thinking. According to the view currently in vogue, evolution occurs through an external weeding-out process, or natural selection. As opposed to the organism, selection is a purely external force while mutation is an internal force, engendering variation. And yet mutations are considered to be random phenomena and hence independent of both the organism and its functions. By this token the organism becomes, as Claus Emmeche says, "the passive meeting place of forces that are alien to itself. 

The irony is that this renders it irrelevant to evolutionary biology." This image of the organism as a passive object for the process of change appears to be yet another example of this urge to hack away at Nature, trimrning its edges to render it quantifiable. On the face of it
this seems odd—running counter to all our instincts for what goes on in the natural world. But it also leaves itself open to academic biological criticism, as two heavyweights within the field of evolutionary biology, Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin, have recently pointed out. 

The crux of their argument is that organisms do themselves interpret and respond to their environment..As a response to external change an animal might, for example, home in on selected areas of its habitat. One dramatic example of this was shown in the case of the locust, which altered not only its behavior but also.its anatomy, as a response to climatic disorder. Organisms can also alter the environment in which they live. Plants, for instance, alter the physical and chemical makeup of the Earth as they grow. Although the organism is of course shaped by the interplay between genes and environment, the environment is also to some extent shaped by the organism.The organism plays an active part in its own construction. 

Critics of neo-Darwinism freely admit that natural selection at the individual level is a central factor in evolution. As an explanation, natural selection does, however, leave something to be desired, since it too requires an explanation within a wider thermodynamic or cosmological perspective.

This selection is a process which has itself been selected, so to speak,83 and that principle of selection—which, in fact, comes into play at a more fundamental level than the process referred to by biologists as"natural selection"— needs to be brought to the fore in evolutionary theory. But this raises a problem implicit in the idea of selection, one which biologists only succeed in hushing up because, as a rule, they refuse to treat the question of selection theoretically, i.e., as divorced from the ad hoc circumstances under which, in concrete terms, selection always occurs. The problem is that any process of selection presupposes an intention or a ground rule that determines what will be selected.This is exactly what Peirce called"the tendency to take habits" (see chapter 2). 

It is quite feasible that the reluctance to accept such a conclusion— which does, after all, imply some sort of ''directedness" or inherent design in our universe—is precisely what causes most biologists to dismiss any criticism of neo-Darwinism. But the old head-in-the-sand ploy, besides being not exactly creditable, does not look like such a safe bet in the long run.

Hoffmeyer Signs of Meaning