Wendy Wheeler on ‘biosemiotics’ – a recognition that communication, interpretation and meaning-making are not limited to human life, but to all life everywhere.
I regret the lazy oversimplifications of our time. As our world becomes ever fuller withaccessible information, ever more porous, ever more pressing with demands for our attention, so our subtler semiotic capacities appear to stall before the task. Our attempts at interpretation and meaning-making are overwhelmed: more information means lessmeaning. In this regard, I am struck by the prescience of the late Jean Baudrillard. Thirty years ago he described the mass media as “speech without response”. What characterizes the mass media is that they are opposed to mediation, intransitive, […] they fabricate noncommunication – if one accepts the definition of communication as an exchange, as the reciprocal space of speech and response, and thus of responsibility.
Since then, the mass media have swelled with the growth of social media, a surrogate community but conspicuously lacking in the responsiveness and responsibility that Baudrillard thought central to that contract. This has encouraged mob-like hysteria and support for banning, no-platforming and the censorship of speech and thought, as well as amplifying non-communication and non-reciprocity. Words slip and slide. What meant one thing yesterday means something slightly different today. People are frightened to speak. Orwellian duckspeak (speaking without thinking, quacking what’s politically acceptable, even if meaningless) increasingly rules. A new way of thinking about communication, signs and meanings – as biological as well as cultural, and as evolutionary and ecological rather than just as human-made fictions – might help us escape from the dangerous fantasies growing in our midst. Nature and language are made from the same communicative patterns. We are part of the semiotic dance of natural and cultural meanings, but we are not their masters.
Biosemiotics, which bridges the sciences and the humanities, is a new field of study and a new way of understanding the world. It takes its name from bios (Greek for life) and semeion (Greek for sign). Its central insight is that all living organisms experience their world through signs which they must make sense of, or interpret. In other words, all organisms are in a communicative relation with their semiotic worlds, and these worlds are full of other forms of communicative semiotic life. Biosemioticians refer to these semiotic worlds as umwelten (plural of umwelt, or semiotic environment). They consist of all the sign relations which species’ evolution has made relevant to the organism’s meaning–making. For example, many birds and insects see at the ultraviolet end of the light spectrum, where humans do not. Their umwelt, in other words, is slightly different. For humans, the cultures they have made are relevant to their existence as humans, and these exist – as living ideas, artefacts and technology – interwoven with the human umwelt of nature. There is an underlying reality, but every species has evolved to experience it in the way that is most useful for that species’ life and survival.
Biosemiotics came into being as various scientists and scholars in both semiotics and the life sciences realised that information and communication systems involving living beings could not be understood simply in terms either of mathematics and engineering, or in terms of signals alone. Information is only fully meaningful when it is capable of in-form-ing, or changing the form of, something – whether shape, development, behaviour or idea. Signals imply something mechanical (for example, that this chemical or word always automatically causes this response). However, as became clear to many molecular biologists, ecologists and biological developmental systems scientists, let alone to people working in the fields associated with human communication, representation and interpretation (from anthropology to psychology to sociology, literature and the arts), neither cells, nor bodies, nor ecologies nor poems consist of or call for automatic responses. Although much semiosis settles into habit (meanings can’t work without some stability and capacity for repetition; communication depends upon it), meanings are the result of a process of discovery and interpretation. Life is process, and all organisms must be capable of change in response to changing conditions.
Influenced by thinkers such as the American scientist philosopher Charles S. Peirce, the German-Estonian biologist Jakob von Uexküll and the British biologist and cybernetician Gregory Bateson, biosemiotics tells us that all life, not just human life but all life everywhere, is about communication, semiosis, interpretation and meaning-making. Without it, merely material life is nothing, and could not exist as living at all. Human meaning-making has evolved from meaning-making in nature. Both nature and culture grow from the same evolutionary source. Whether we are super-aware of it or not, we are all influenced by the communicational feedback loops that flow between selves and natural and cultural environments. When meanings (or functions) go wrong at any point in these sense-making circuits, all our living systems fall into potential danger. So what are we doing to ourselves and the planet when we allow this ceaseless slippage of natural and cultural meanings that starts to dismantle the life of our worlds?
One striking effect of this globalisation of human experience – that difficult stretching of selves between the familiar and the far away – is that we withdraw into simplicities. As we have seen in the recent unpredictability of electorates, the old methods of pollsters not only fail to read the new codes of human political behaviour, they no longer even know what they should be reading. Indeed, they have become unsure about whether these are any longer codes they are dealing with or merely broken fragments of codes. Like language going backwards, and in an echo of Nineteen Eighty-Four where Winston Smith’s comrade Syme tells Winston ‘You don’t grasp the beauty of the destruction of words’, these broken simplifications are bought at a cost. The complexity of identity is reduced to a fantasy of infantile legibility, one based on reductions to sex, colour or creed, and, via the idea of intersectionality, the places where these depthless identities cross and combine.
So how might it work, retelling the story of human and nonhuman being on this planet in ways that restore some appropriate depth and meaning? Like all good stories, the story biosemiotics tells is one about the finding of purpose and meaning. It turns out that it’s everywhere, wherever there is life. Indeed, the whole universe is legible – which is a strange thing when you come to think about it. This means not only are there regularities, habits in the order of being, but these habits are semiotic. They reveal not simply themselves but much more besides. Recalling that the definition of a sign is that ‘a sign is anything that stands for something other than itself’, the universe is full of signs. As Charles Peirce wrote,
It seems a strange thing, when one comes to ponder over it, that a sign should leave its interpreter to supply a part of its meaning; but the explanation of the phenomenon lies in the fact that the entire universe, – not merely the universe of existents, but all that wider universe, embracing the universe of existents as part, the universe which we are accustomed to refer to as ‘the truth,” – that all this universe is perfused with signs, if it is not composed exclusively of signs.
The potential to mean lies in things themselves – even in non-living things – inasmuch as they can serve as signs for living readers, or selves, or meaning systems, which are external to observers or readers themselves. This, which semioticians call physiosemiosis, is what the physicist Carlo Rovelli also says even about non-living entities at the quantum level where relational effects appear operative instantaneously, i.e. beyond the speed of light and regardless of physical distance. This is because while codes and channels must be material, relations in themselves are not. Interestingly from a biosemiotic perspective, Rovelli is making use of the idea that information can inhere in objects relationally, regardless of whether or not it is ever effective. In other words, his is a relational view of information and the universe. This is also true, and perhaps more obviously so, of biosemiotics. As I argue in my 2016 book Expecting the Earth: Life/Culture/Biosemiotics, ontology, i.e. being itself, is always relational. Clearly, this has many implications – not least ones that are fundamentally ecological. I will return to this shortly when I discuss the relational – environed and enworlded – selves, both human and nonhuman, that biosemiotics suggests.
I am prompted to mention Rovelli because at the In Other Tongues conference held at Dartington Hall recently I was struck by the ways in which the many artists present were striving to articulate a sense of meaning-making very closely tied to place. I was especially struck by their use of stones to do it. Several of them brought stones from other places. I have one on my desk before me now as I write. Like all creative people in whatever realm, these makers were following their noses, in this case in order to express a way of bringing something solid about memory, being and place into line with their sense that these things of place ‘spoke’, albeit in other tongues, to creatures. All search for knowledge (in the arts and the sciences) is underpinned by an initial ‘hunch-like’ or ‘informed guessing’ approach to problems. Since it helps us begin the search for new knowledge, abductive reasoning is a part of the logic of right reasoning. It is the starting place for hypothesis, upon which the conscious acts of deductive thought and inductive testing can follow and build. Peirce thought that the surprising successfulness of abductive reasoning was due to our being attuned to nature (i.e. the way things are in our world) intuitively. This kind of knowing draws on the fact that our knowledge is semiotic, associative, and exists nonconsciously far beneath the thin rind of conscious reasoning. As the scientist Michael Polanyi said, we know much more than we can tell.
These kinds of ‘beneath the rind’ semiotic memories are acquired in our human animal experience and can go back through many evolutionary layers. Since the 1940s, Neo-Darwinism has attempted to reduce evolution to genes and genetic mutation alone. We now know that this is wrong because it is a partial account only. There are many factors at work in evolution. Genes are not blueprints for producing bodies. The genome is more like a library. It provides encoded information (the genetic code in DNA) about available materials and their organisation. Both genetically coded signs inside the body, and also environmentally encoded signs outside it, can switch genetic information on and off and influence development. In addition, and in the way first hypothesised 200 years ago by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, some environmental signs (as we now know, often messages about stressors – both natural and cultural) can be inherited by subsequent generations. If reinforced by the environment, such acquired characteristics can eventually doubtless become permanent. Memories, of feelings and place, live in our cells. ‘Epigenetic activities’, such as lateral gene transfer, symbiosis and micro-organism assisted functional development, all contribute to the successful lives of organisms. We are not alone, but many. Approximately 99% of all the DNA which keeps you alive is not yours, but belongs to the myriad other life forms that live in and upon you, and surround and support you.
Evolution itself can most usefully be understood as organisms and ecological systems making creative re-readings of new conditions in the creative and destructive dance of life’s past and potential meanings. The development of the mammalian ear, for example, depends on the movement of two bones in the jaw of an early fish via reptilian evolution. Once moved, the bones form the architecture of the mammalian eardrum. These bones were not made to be ear bones capable of transmitting sound, but they have become capable of doing so. They are sufficiently like what would be needed to carry that function. As such, they can eventually actually carry that function. Just as in human uses of metaphor, on the basis of sufficient similarity of some kind, a new different meaning (or function) is capable of being discovered. The importance of umwelt (i.e. context) for the genetic expression of informational similarity is demonstrated, for example, by research undertaken by the late Walter Gehring into the gene PAX6. This gene governs eye development. When Gehring injected Mouse PAX6 into fruit fly embryos, the resultant fruit flies had eyes all over where they had been randomly injected, but these eyes were fruit fly eyes, not mouse eyes. In other words, just as context influences meanings in human language, so umwelt context (in this case a fruit fly body, not a mouse body) influences formal genetic expression of biosemiotic meanings.
The point about all this is that we live, like all other life forms – animal, plant, fungal, bacterial – in the midst of enormously complex networks of semiotic life. Human culture is just the form that natural culture and evolution has taken with human beings. We cannot step outside these networks, or say that we are influenced and made in one and not in the other. The distinction is nearly meaningless. Most of what we are as people is not conscious at all. It is made of natural and cultural loops of signs and messages, some very ancient, which weave us into the more complex material and semiotic systems of the cosmos. These forms of knowledge live on in our memories, and these memories are cellular and embodied and enworlded as much as they are ‘mental’ and cultural. Our evolutionary life is written in our bodies and our worlds and in our cultural and technological documents and artefacts. Indeed, human mind is made up of all these things. It is, in truth, a living universe of signs.
Whether walking across a meadow or a metropolis, it seems wonderful to know that this whole world is full of ceaseless communication and meaning. The motor of life’s endless creativity and adaptation is not simply random and meaningless mutation but purposeful organismic intelligence lodged in the relation between organisms and their natural and cultural umwelten. Mind, itself, is not a material thing. It is made of biosemiotic relations of similarity, difference and interpretation that flow constantly between a body, an environment and some form of living memory. No colour and no love and no pictures or sounds will ever be found in your brain, just as the things themselves are never found in a poem, a song or a painting. Just as in any ‘textual’, or coded, form of organisation, what resides in your nervous system and brain are encoded correlations to lived experience. It is perhaps highly significant that brains are formed, in embryonic development, from specialised skin. What once touched the world literally, and first began encoding its meanings as literally felt memories of the world right here, now encodes and translates both your world here and now, and also its dreams and abstractions, there and then, once and future. A brain in a vat could never generate meaning. What is needed for mind is a living body in a lived world. Place, or umwelt, isn’t incidental. Places, and the tongues that ‘speak’ there, are a central aspect of what makes us. Human linguistic meaning-making in metaphor does not spring brand new and unbidden from the cosmos. It has evolved from natural metaphors and meanings which are gathered in evolutionary layers in all the life forms of this planet. The evolving organism draws on these hidden and nonconscious layers of meaning-making, and so do the poet, the artist and the scientist as they discover new forms of living knowledge.
This brings me to my final point about the simplification of meanings. There’s nothing simple about them. Material structures – whether of an institution or an organism – are empty vessels without communicative life. Just as thought is built via a sort of scaffolding of half-concepts and thin meanings that will, in time, make possible the building of whole new conceptions and ways of life, so semiotic scaffolding provides the possibility of life and structure to our future growth and development. Material structures provide the necessary channels and codes through which objects become animated, but without the life of signs the clay of things is nothing. True communication involves looping cybernetic flows of semiosis which grow and refine meanings in concert between a responsive organism and a responsive umwelt. This involves the hard work and responsibility of attentiveness and regard. This means that meanings are discovered as what is possible within the constraints of systems and ecologies – and we see this echoed in the historical constraints on the forms they make possible. When meanings become unstable, inventiveness through exchange may be possible, and new habits may be made and laid down. But when reciprocity is refused or absent, then we are nothing but a chaos of broken relations. With that, we are in the presence of what the Estonian semiotician Ivar Puura called semiocide. Carelessness over meanings – in nature and in culture – is a symptom of relational sickness. This sickness can kill the systems it infects.
Wendy Wheeler, PhD. (1994) University of Sussex, is Professor Emeritus at London Metropolitan University. She has lectured at several universities, and is the author of many books and articles on biosemiotics, nature and culture. Her latest book Expecting the Earth:Life/Culture/Biosemiotics was published by Lawrence & Wishart in 2016.