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  • Figures in a Landscape:Biosemiotics and the Ecological Evolution of Cultural Creativity
  • Wendy Wheeler

This essay is concerned not so much with ecological imagery in literature as with how we might account for the fact of literature—or, more precisely, the strange processes of literary creativity—from an ecologically-informed point of view. If this project seems to be an ambitious one, I should say that it is already an implicit part of a general biosemiotic endeavour, towards which this is a small contribution.1 By 'an ecologically-informed point of view,' I mean one that sees all life, including culture, as naturally co-evolved and interdependent. I will argue here that the frequently made distinction between nature and culture is misconceived. Culture is not a quite different thing to nature, and the commonly made argument that nature is merely 'a social construct' is equally wrong. By this, I do not mean to say that we have an entirely unmediated access to the reality of the world; languages, including the methodological codifications of science, are modelling systems: they always construe reality according to prevalent belief systems to some extent. However, language as such is derived not only from our embodied experience,2 it is a form of human semiosis which is derived also from our biological and semiotic being in a natural world which is, throughout, "perfused with signs," as Charles Sanders Peirce put it.

In what follows, I will argue that the similarity, repetition, and difference which so many French philosophies have made central to their understandings is more usefully understood not via a Saussurean theory of the sign (as it often has been), but via a Peircean one. I will offer a brief account of the development and implications of biosemiotics out of what Thomas A. Sebeok has called "global semiotics," and I will also argue that such a semiotics can begin to provide a way of understanding evolution as an emergent feature of complex, open, evolutionary, adaptive systems, and the emergence of anthroposemiosis—language, culture and aesthetic creativity—from biology. In particular, I shall briefly argue that the triadic nature of signs identified by Charles Sanders Peirce—icon, index, and symbol—can both take us through the stages of the emergence of anthroposemiosis, and also go some way to explaining the strange experience of creativity in art and language. First, I will give a brief introduction to the development of biosemiotics. Second, I will look at [End Page 100] biosemiotics as a part of developments in complexity and evolutionary theory, particularly as developed by Lynn Margulis and then Jesper Hoffmeyer. Third, I will look at some of the general social and cultural implications of the vital biosemiotic relationship between the human Innenwelt and the socio-cultural Umwelt. Fourth, and lastly, I will make some brief suggestions concerning the eco-ethical and eco-aesthetic implications of biosemiotics.

The development of biosemiotics

In the nineteenth century, the logician and semiotician Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) argued that "the universe is perfused with signs." Subsequently, although almost certainly in ignorance of Peirce, the German biologist Jakob von Uexküll (1864-1944) developed his Umwelt theory in which he argued that an organism's Umwelt is not simply the environment in general, but the environment which holds significance for any particular species. In other words in von Uexküll's theory, Umwelt does not mean 'environment' in general, but, specifically, a species environment which signifies. What von Uexküll understood was not only that environments signify for organisms, but that each species experiences only its own signifying environment. In other words what creatures experience is only the environment—food sources, predators, prey, sights, sounds, silences, and so on—which holds meaning for each particular species. Thomas A. Sebeok developed these insights in his formulation of semiotics, drawing on Peircean semiotics and von Uexküllian Umwelt theory as encompassing all living things, in a discipline which has eventually become known as biosemiotics. An enlightening history of these developments can be found in the Sebeok's Global Semiotics.3

Quite early on, biosemiotics came to be conceived as falling in part within the general ambit of cybernetics and general systems (later complexity) theory...


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