Umwelt and animal communication

Maran, Timo 2014. Zoosemiotics: Umwelt and animal communication. Course powerpoint slides.

[...] focusing on relationships that combine cultural symbolic information, communication between humans and animals as well as biological facts and regularities.
The order here goes from strictly human (culture) to communi(cati)on between humans and animals and finally to the strictly animalistic realm (biology).
Probably in every case of animal depiction two aspects are present - some characteristic features derived from the animal as biological entity and some ascribed from human culture.
Compare this to Peirce's understanding of how "symbols grow" - on icons (here some characterist features derived from the animal as biological entity) and other symbols (here some characteristic features ascribed from human culture). That is to say, probably in every animal representation, there is something iconic as well as symbolic. In human representations, the actual characteristics of animals and their behaviour are mixed with our cultural knowledge, contingent representations and aspects of human behaviour (e.g. anthropomorphization).
Focusing on animal's semiotic engagement in environment may be relevant in cases where some subjective factor, such as a lack of tradition in animal inhibits it from using a resource or adapting with the changing environment.
Engagement is a good word here. I also like that animals' traditions are recognized here. Similar problems are of course present in human society as well: our semiotic engagement with our environment will also have to adapt with global warming and the weather getting increasingly bizarre and unpredictable.
Zoosemiotics deals with appearances (characteristics of biological forms), signification (semiotic relations of animals with their environments), communication (within and between animal species), and representation depictions in literature, art, film and other media of human culture) of animals.
The order reaches from appearances of biological forms for other biological forms to representations of humans that rely on the appearances, significations and communications. I wonder if this series can be viewed as a concatenating list: representations of inter- and intraspecific communication includes relationships of signification with environment that in turn rely on appearances.
Semiotic approach can focus of description and study of sense organs, comunication channels, signals and messages. Relevant questions are relations between the message, its meaning and context. Favorable methods for semiotics are observation and speculative description, comparative and participatory research techniques, modeling and communicatio nanalysis.
Speculative description and modeling stand out as something that semiotic approaches in my view engage in most often. A casual example of these approaches is the construction of typologies. Even in communication analysis semioticians seem to be engaging in these latter approaches.
[Zoosemiotics] is especially suitable for studying objects that are in-between - phenomena that connect humans to the animal world.
I like that Sebeok classified the study of human nonverbal communication under zoosemiotics. And it is indeed the case that the study of human territorial (proxemic, spatial) behaviour has based it's assumptions on Heini Hediger's work.
Animal classification in Navaho Indians:
  • Speaking creatures (humans)
  • Nonspeaking creatures
    • non-moving creatures (plants)
    • moving creatures (animals)
      • runners
      • fliers
      • crawlers
I like that the broadest level of distinction is between verbal (humans) and nonverbal (all other creatures), though it does feel like you could find moving and non-moving humans and further distinguish humans that run, walk, crawl, etc. The source: Levi-Strauss's The Savage Mind, pp. 39.
"[...] but all animals without exception exercise their power of singing or chattering chiefly in connection with the intercourse of the sexes." (Aristotle, Historia Animalium)
Humans are also animals. So...
Only meaningful use of language and thinking cannot be explained mechanically;
I think this is where one of the major flaws of Descartes's argumentation lies. Meaningful use of language and thinking is far from the only phenomena that cannot be explained mechanically. Also, how sure are we that the meaningful use of language and thinking cannot be explained "mechanically"? What if neuro- and cognitive sciences develop far enough to explain every cognition and affection "mechanically" in terms of physiochemical mechanisms?
Umwelt is the subjective world of animal that corresponds to its body plan, perceptual and effectual organs, and that is the only existing reality for the animal. Umwelt is organized by meanings.
Umwelt seems to be organized according to the physiological body plan (organs and organelles) as well as the perceptual world that these give rise to. This is a concise statement on the Umwelt, but as always something about it remains ungraspable (I recall that the body plan had something to do with teleology). I will surely have to read Uexküll in original German when I begin learning German.
[...] every organism reacts to the environment selectively as a subject, by ignoring certain influences and reacting to others in its specific way. The core of Uexküll's functional cycle is selective perception, interpretation and reaction or feedback.
Just this morning I thought of a neat metaphor to demonstrate selective perception and perceptual organization. When you hold an open book in in your hands backwards, all the letters turn into a jumble of lines, unrecognizable and complex. But once you turn the book teh right side up, words just jump out at you. I'd like to use this metaphor to explain the skills involved in "reading" nonverbal behaviour. But it works equally well here. The behaviour of an animal of another species may appear as a jumbled mess of complex signals, while the behaviour of a conspecific simply jumps at you as meaningful.
What is the function of the behavior, how it helps animal to survive? - functional explanation;
Ah. So that's what is meant by functional in this context. Here "functional" is almost synonymous with "adaptive".
Zoosemiotics ([Sebeok] 1963) - a discipline "within which the science of signs intersects with ethology devoted to the scientific study of signaling behavior in and across animal species".
Since humans are also animals and also have signaling behavior, the so-called "human ethology" does relegate human nonverbal communication, if not the totality of anthroposemiotics, under zoosemiotics. In this sense there would be a concatenating order: biosemiotics - zoosemiotics - anthroposemiotics.
First zoosemiotic source: Peter Marler's paper "Logical analysis of animal communication" (Journal of Theoretical Biology, 1961).
Oh wow, this is even available online. AND it uses "the methods developed by C. W. Morris (1946) for the logical analysis of human language" that distinguistes identifiors, designators, appraisors and prescriptors. This means that I will have to read it. That is, I need to read it.
Animals do not have language and human language should stay outside of the scope of zosemiotics.
I concur with this statement. It is also the reason why I didn't enjoy the seminars as much as I could have. Usually three male students started exchanging laborious ideas about the nature of human language while everyone else just listened on. If it were up to me I would have moderated the seminars to avoid spending too much time on language and focus on animal communication, the actual topic of the course.
Animal communication should be interpreted in the context of the animal Umwelts.
Also very agreeable. The Umwelt model is readily applicable to most everything involving animals and signs, so viewing animal communication in Uexküll's terms should be natural and easy. For some reason it's not though. I have yet to see an approach to animal communication that relies on the Umwelt theory to a satisfactory degree. (I have to specify that to me "satisfactory" here implies that the approach could equally well be used to view human nonverbal communication.)
Sebeok's research program of six questions:
  1. How an animal formulates and codes its message?
  2. How will messages be transferred, through what channel and under what circumstances?
  3. How animal who acts as a receiver in the communicative situation decodes and interprets message?
  4. What is the possible repertoire of the specific species?
  5. What are the properties of code, used by the specific species?
  6. What role has the contextual information for the communication?
Since this is one of my favorite topics (communication models), I'll compare these six questions to Ruesch's (1953) seven questions and modify them to suit animal communication.
  1. How does the communicative behaviour signify or what is the so-called meaning of the given signal?
  2. What media, channels and symbolization systems of communication are used? This involves both the perception and transmission channels employed. Input (Merkwelt) and output (Wilkwelt) should be distinguished.
  3. With whom is being communicated and how do the receivers (animals of different species) perceive, evaluate and respond to the communication?
  4. Who is communicating and what are the "effector organs" of the sender? What is this species' Umwelt like and what are the levels and functions of its communication?
  5. What is communicated and how does the intent of the sender differ from the interpretation of the receiver?
  6. What are the limitations and the context of communication, what is the type of situation in which it occurs, what rules are observed and what roles are assumed?
  7. What is the result of the communication and how does it effect the behaviour or actions of communicators as well as other species involved?
The questions don't match exactly, but very similar or at least complementary answers could be yielded if both were asked.
What role does the contextual information have for the communication? The meaning of the perceived messages can differ depending on:
  • does the territory, wheret communication takes place, belong to the sender or to the receiver,
  • does communication take place in the open environment or in the close and secure surrounding,
  • do participants stay in the same distance during communication or change position regarding to each other.
Also, every received message becomes the contextual information for following messages (cf. works of W. John Smith).
Oh wow. This is strongest alternative to Jakobson's weak context component. In human terms these would be: where is communication situated (public area, a special-function room, someone's place, semiprivate or private area, etc)? Is the environment, to use terms advanced by Hall, sociofugal or sociopedal? Does the communication occur "in situ" (e.g. fixed place) or during movement, e.g. walk, a car or bus ride, etc? The latter aspect of previous messages becoming the context for following messages is what should be accounted for by the contextual function (at least in the synfunctional dimension).
Conspecific spheres around the animal body [according to Heini Hediger]:
  • social distance (kept normally by conspecifics),
  • personal distance (kept normally in pair relations),
  • flight distance (where animal tries to escape),
  • critical distance (where animal attacks).
Typology was used later by Edward T. Hall in sociology.
This was one part of Hall's final product (proxemic zones). The other part came from the German-American linguist Martin Joos, whose then-popular book on speech styles, The Five Clocks, gave the impetus to apply Hediger's spheres on human spatial communication.
Post-linguistic era of zoosemiotics: criticism over the suitability of the transmissional communication approach for zoosemiotics and search for alternatives.
This is very much to my liking because it reflects the problems I'm having in studying nonverbal communication. The transmissional model just doesn't work well when there is barely an explicit and intentional message. In my own search for alternatives I've replaced "nonverbal communication" with discussion of "nonverbal behaviour" and instead of messages or cues prefer to think of the "regulative" function of social behaviour. That is, the behaviour of one organism influences, modifies, controls, guides, conducts, and generally effects the behaviour of others around it in a variety of ways greatly outside the scope of a simple exchange of messages. At the moment I think that the alternative may be viewing it from a more general or broader level: not on the level of single messages, but on the level of clusters and complexes of messages and non-messages - but here I lack the terminology to phrase it correctly.
[...] things of animate or living nature (body forms, colors and patterns of skin, sounds that animals make, physical signs that tehy leave behind, etc.).
A reference to Adolf Portmann's 1967. Animal Forms and Patterns: A Study of the Appearance of Animals. All of his papers available online are in German, but there is a paper on him by Karel Kleisner in the journal Biosemiotics, volume 1 issue 2, pp. 207-219 (2008).
Communication - semiotic interaction between two participants (differs from semiosis in that communication includes a sender and code repertoire).
Definining communication as semiotic interaction does make sense from Tartu semiotics persepctive: in autocommunication the two participants are one person interacting through or across (space and) time. Such a broad definition also allows for Lotman's five textual communication forms: e.g. semiotic interaction between the text and the reader, between the reader and the cultural background of the text, etc.
Representations are means of culture for organizing its relations with other living organisms; representations can also have various roles in culture (memorizing places, times or events; charterizing cultural objects and building personal or social identities).
All of these are interesting. Representations that characterize cultural objects seems to be something I haven't thought of before but should. Memorizing places, times or events is also neat. A specific instance that comes to mind in terms of relations between animals and human culture is the imagery of Russia as a bear and how at the eve of WWII, "We called the bear for help (against the nazis) but then the bear didn't leave."
In birds, but also in many mammals mating rituals have elements of young-adult relationships.
This reminds me of the poetic notion that love is a space two people create for themselves to be children again. This is exemplified of how lovers treat each other like babies, caress and care for each other. There is also the example of the actor-pair Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally communicating at home almost completely in baby-talk (which may have been a joke, though).
An ability to make associations is the basis for semiosis; the ability to establish links between perception and suitable action is the basis for Uexküllian functional cycle.
I still wonder how this could be applied on humans. Other than etiquette and "proper behaviour" nothing comes to mind.
In communication theory / semiotics, common possibilities to define communication are:
  1. transmissional - to focus on the transmission of message;
  2. semiotic / semantic - to focus on the meanings in communication;
  3. pragmatic / social - to focus on the creation of common understandings by communication;
The third one seems most interesting, though I would distance myself from "common understandings" and focus on the aspect of organizing behaviour or action. Another slide tells that this view of communication as "a process in which participants create and share information with one another to reach mutual understanding" is authored by Rogers and Kincaid in their 1981. Communication Networks. They use this paradigm to approach family planning in Korea, for example. Reviewer Rolf T. Wigand wrote: "at hand of the Korean data, the authors illustrate effectively the usefulness of network concepts in describing, explaining, and predicting individual, dyadic, group and system behavior." (Social Networks 5(1): 89-91) It appears that they were influenced by Ruesch's paradigm ("individual" here most likely refers to Ruesch's "intrapersonal network"). In any case I cannot find the book itself but there are reviews out there, which may be helpful for rethinking Ruesch.
OR even better, "communication is the transmission of any sign-mediated influence from one part of a living system to another part" (T. Maran).
This actually is better, because "sign-mediated influence" leaves it open for a variety of semiosic processes (not just "exchange of messages"), both direct and indirect, and "a living system" is equally broad and can be understood as a single organism as well as a group of organism (as a system) or the ecosystem at large. Even culture can be understood as a living system - Lotman often uses the notion "organic system".
In autocommunication an organism sends out some signal to the environment and gets some information about itself or about the surrounding environment by receiving the same signal.
I wrote a paper on semiotic approaches to autocommunication, but it was a failure, because I ran out of space with just a cursory overview of what semiotic thinkers such as Peirce, Mead, Morris, Ruesch, Jakobson and Lotman thought about self-communication, intrapersonal communication or autocommunication. I may have to write another paper dealing with interesting questions such as how exactly is echolocation a form of autocommunication and whether there are analogues to this in the human realm. I believe there are countless instances of humans and animals engaging in semiotic relations with their environment in order to deduce information about themselves, others around them or the environment itself - it is only a matter of building a solid theoretical framework and elucidating illustrative examples.
Distinction between propriocetive (inside body) and exteroceptive (through the environment) feedback / autocommunication.
I don't actually fully "get" proprioception. I'll have to read Sherrington again when I know more of physiological research at that time, but I'm really confused about where interoceptive falls in this scheme. It would appear that interoceptive is actually inside the body and proprioceptive is something like "perception of your own body through it's outer surface". Oliver Sacks wrote that before Sherrington, proprioception was known simply as "muscle sense" (cf. Th.v. Uexküll 1992: 463-465). More confusion stems from the Latin proprius which meant: (1) own, individual; and (2) special, particular, characteristic (e.g. the English "proper"). In this etymological sense, proprioception would be simply self-perception.
Animal body plans or body forms determine the location of perceptual and communicatory organs, and accordingly what and from where it is possible to perceive.
Communicatory organs are here probably synonymous with Uexküll's effector organs.
Communication by vibrations. Tactile communication can be divided between:
  • Mediated tactile communication (e.g. elephants communicating by trampling the ground)
  • Immediate tactile communication (grooming behvaior in primates and in other herd animals).
For creating sound signals and other vibrations animals use the most diverse methods - vocal cords, syrinx, vibrating the whole body or some part of it, rubbing different parts of the body, using special membranes and airbags, creating sound by making contact with the environment.
I have begun turning attention to "mediated tactile communication" but call is strepitation after Roger W. Wescott's paper Introducing Coenetics: A Biosocial Analysis of Communication". Strepitus or "communicative body noise" includes "foot-stamping, which involves contact with the ground". We're dealing with vibrations, but the classification depends on how vibrations are received: by tactile sense, by listening or, as in some marginal cases vibrations can even be seen, by visual sense.
Shared activities of single individuals may result in rather sophisticated behavioral regulation (e.g. building of the anthill).
I find this most interesting, as my own ventures into the "power" aspects of nonverbal communication have led me to prefer the term "social regulation of behaviour". This is something that we have in common with other social species.
[Mechanisms that birds use for orinetation:] low-frequency infra-sound (indicating the position of oceans and other large water-bodies) [...]
Hmm. So infrasound does have some positive uses as well. A quick search does tell that there are "Infrasound sensitive neurones in the pigeon cochlear ganglion" and there occurs "Communication by infrasound in a non-stridulating cricket".
In ritual fights such body postures and gestures are used that allow opponents to make predictions about each other's body size and fighting capability. For instance, bears stand up in the conflict situation, showing to competitors their actual body size.
How nice of them.
Signs are often related to the physiological processs of animals, such as metabolism. All animals need to excrete residues of their metabolic processes. Every such excrement is a natural sign about the animal, showing that it has been in the environment.
For humans, the natural excretions are complemented with garbology.
An interesting group of signs, related to the physical reality and animal physiology, are the motivational signs or motivational signals, i.e. movements that indicate motivation or intention. Motivational signs are for instance stretching head, neck and wings before flying in birds. In this case also the direction of the head has a sign value, as it indicates the intended direction of the take off.
In humans this is discussed under the heading of "action potentials". A common example involves the student who starts packing his things, sits on the edge of the chair, trebles his legs rhythmically and glances yearnfully towards the exit before the class has officially ended.
Semiotic selection (T. Maran, K. Kleisner) - a process in which some image in the selector's Umwelt is imprinted into the perceptible features of another organism. Semiotic selection creates linkage between animal's inner perceptual sphere and physical forms in nature and between different species.
This sounds a lot like the recognition concept of species that K. Kull has talked about. The Phylloscopus trochiloides example on the next slide, wherein the same species of birds with different songs around the Himalayas don't recognize each other when they meet in Siberia.
This approach emphasizes the role of organism's own semiotic and behavioral activity as relevant factors for directing the course of evolutionary processes. Evolutionary developmental biology or evo-devo - emphasizing the role of the ontogenetic development in forming a phenotype (that may have evolutionary consequences).
This seems to be the core of the matter of the epigenetic view. (As little as I understand it...)
British entomologist Richard I. Vane-Wright defines mimicry: "Mimicry occurs when an organism or group of organisms (the mimic) simulates signal properties of a second living organism (the model), such that the mimic is able to take some advantage of the regular response of a sensitive signal-receiver (the operator) towards the model, through mistaken identity of the mimic for the model" (Vane-Wright 1976: 50).
In grifting terms, the con (the mimic) simulates some properties of the "real thing" (the model) so as to fool the mark (the operator).
Alexei A. Sharov has explicated mimicry with the term 'inverse sign', where sign has a positive value for the sender ('transmitter' in his terminology), but negative for the receiver. Sharow specifies that 'an inverse sign is always an imitation of some other sign with positive value for the receiver' (Sharov 1992: 365).
In case of the mimic octopus, it takes on the shape and behaviour of other poisonous creatures in its environment.


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