EWU ANTH 445 Fall 2014
Research Paper 1st Draft
Dorian Blaine Curry
(the study of biological communication sign systems beyond human-based languages)
The Right of Natural Context?
This is an application of an undergraduate anthropology course essay requirement towards a progressive understanding of semiotics as a paramount phenomenon to human linguistics. This effort echo another essay on this blog and enhances my own thinking on the value of human multilingualism to include biosemiotics in that theory of value. After researching the basics of "biosemiotics" and coming to personally agree with the philosophies of it and the guiding research theories, I decided to adapt the essay style for the course to my life-long learning project: To Understand Geographic Empathy and Ecological Consciousness. This is an attempt at that goal. I found an interesting source after completing this and I'd like to notes it;s parallel, more professional, asp[irations: How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human by Eduardo Khon 2014. This is a compelling read, however, Khon apparently ignores the community of life science and earth science and semiotic science researchers that make up "biosemiotics." Unfortunately the apparent result is that his fascinating primary research in the Ecuadorian upper Amazon is left alone and dangerously vulnerable in the very thinking forest he seeks to understand–like the biosemioticians who seek to understand how the other thinks, Khon investigates C.S. Pierce's foundational theories on semiotics, yet Khon does so as if he himself has invented this latter effort in arbor empathetical sciences, named "biosemiotics" by a forest-like community of people around the globe. Thus, I feel that Khon is a researcher who ignores natural context at the expense of his own research, which, judging by the strong research he conducted, I wonder: 'How many people seek to understand empathy without empathizing? How can a person understand "how a forest thinks" without attempting to think and act like a forest? In other words, this essay here and now, is an attempt to understand how to apply empathy as a phenomenal Human skill toward an expanding semiotic experience on earth and beyond earth.
This last summer of 2014 I witnessed an intense biosemiotic–interspecies–conversation between, to name a few, tall oilseed sunflowers who were, by June, under heavy attack by fat “stink bugs” who stuck their tiny heads and burrowed their fat brown bodies deep inside the sunflower seed heads and stalk wounds, and possibly by the wasps too, who crawled frenetically around open flesh wounds sucking nectar or laying eggs in the beetle bugs (I presume). The naked hull pumpkins (of Austrian fame) growing beneath the sunflowers were blighted by a white leaf mold and clearly speaking to me in tongues unknown (and unrepeatable here) about the decision I made to trellis them vertically straight up a chain link fence which was apparently initially unsavory to their soft spiraling tendril touch, to which I encouraged them to adhere, only to suffer parched westerly winds and thunder storm gusts up to 50 mph that year. According to the published research of 40 years of biosemiotic theory, these were symptoms of environmental stress and my own bio-social ignorance that irritated a myriad of intentional responses in signs and signals of interpretant messages exchanged between multi-lingual cells with intentionality and complex time-reckoning skills.
I will refer back to a table that I’ve developed as a kind of comparative logic map. I will organize people into pods of thinking. The color will denote unity across time as either an Insiders, Outliers, or Outsiders in relation to the core biosemiotic questions on life sciences. To accomplish a broad scan of about fifty subjective points of view on the key questions I will mainly rely on paragraphs summarizing a “pod’s” approach to the questions with a few key quotes of personal thought contributions. In some cases, such as Sir Issac Newton, I have no source on the person, but they were relationally referenced in a source I did cite. Here are some key questions from the biosemiotician’s contextual perspective of life that I have found/developed:
- Does the eukaryotic and/or prokaryotic cell demonstrate sign systems contextual interpretation skills–are they an “interpretant” of signs and the sign systems of their habitat?
- Does a cell demonstrate intentionality with its skills of interpreting molecular and environmental sign systems?
- “How does a superorganism arise from the combined operation of tiny and short lived minds…How does the organism arise from the combined operation of tiny and short-lived cells.”
- Does biosemiotics explain where and how the ego arise from the organism? And culture from the ego?
- Can anthropological linguistics help answer if or how human culture, in significant part, is an emergence of the microbiotic “ego” not just of phonemic distinctions, but inter-species “cross-talk” distinctions measurable between microbiota and macrobiota as suggested by very recent research?
- If Biosemiotics demonstrates that there are signs of an emergence in the logic of culture within the limits of the unique natural context of ecological communities, such as the natural context that encourages the evolution of communication systems of eukaryotes via endosymbiosis and social insects forming superorganisms, can we anticipate or explain a parallel emergence of contextualized natural rights of collaboration among and across species?
- Does the ethnographic methodology of anthropological linguistics support this emergence by providing a structure for a definition of Biosemiotics via the “Biosemiotic Self” as The Right of Natural Context?
Overall, how I define biosemiotics comes from my review of the context of the key words and phrases presented by the insiders on the topic and how all of the people in the table compare, not just on what the biosemioticians say they are or what their discipline is. This then depends on how I’ve grouped them into “pods” of similar thinking. Grouping people into summarization “pods” poses certain logical challenges, but I feel demonstrates a critical interpersonal “space-time continuum” question about “cultural emergence” that I think mimics key foundational concpets such as: the endosymbiotic theory, the superorganism phenomenon, as well as the biosemiotic phenomenons and theories of life in extension of the search for a logic of culture that the originators of semiotics versus semiology expresses as a goal in unison. I seek to logically explore what I call the right of natural context as an essential feature of social life, yet missing from our political and economic systems of order and as such causing a significant threat to subjective meaning making and thus individuality or small group friendships, families, teams, etc. nothing less than the foundation of social reciprocity is at stake with the continual proliferation of a sort of arms race in ripping life out of naturally contextualized meaning with diversity of species and habitats.
Ultimately I find it challenging to make an “epistemic cut” between the “Insiders, their outliers” and even the “outsiders,” in the great question of subjective versus collective meaning and meaning making, but I feel that natural context itself as a phenomenon argues that to make such cuts is not only bio-socially universally unethical, but universally un-thermodynamically sound. Which means its only a sort matter of time before this human practice of intellectual reductionism by “cutting” out natural context becomes energetically impossible and thus consequentially catastrophic regardless of ethical consequences.
PART I The Insiders:
Of the people in the central column, the “Insiders,” there are varying degrees of commitment to extending intentionality and emergence of cultural ethics to the single cell. However, they are all self-proclaimed Biosemioticians and thus dedicated to the logic of semiotics of C.S. Pierce as distinguished from the semiology of Ferdinand de Saussure and much if not all of the logic and inquiry style of Thomas Sebeok & Martin Krampen, Jakob & Thure von. Uexkull. Some of their key phrases are:
“a new biology with highly transdisciplinary ambitions”
“Life interprets life… Life itself has a hermeneutic structure.”
“to know what other organisms know.”
Show how systems relate and how that relationship functions
Show internal unity to improve description of the system.
Explain the Triadic and dynamic rather than dyadic and static models of sign signification. (Kull, Emmeche, Hoffmeyer 2011)
After that core original group there appears to be some divergences beginning already, but Jesper Hoffmeyer and John Deely and Kaveli Kull and Claus Emmeche appear to be within an even closer circle towards/of cellular cultural emergence theories. They do not all reference time-reckoning systems to semiotic systems and the various space-time continuums of all living beings, but there are foundational references to time in C.S. Peirce’s philosophic examination of the logic of signs. From Peirce’s work Thomas Sebeok linked semiotics with Jakob von. Uexkull worked on the animal world view as a semiotic system and called it an “Umwelt.” In particular he referenced the way a blind and deaf flea senses its host/prey using sensors that pick up an acid from the mammal’s body as they approach. The blind flea, while deaf and mute and blind still must have a “world view” or subjectively constructed awareness of its setting in order to function in life and support it’s “self.” The Umwelt functions thus as an essential phenomenon of the space-time fusion as molecularly constructed world view and as a functional structure of sorting through the vast amounts of information floating around the cosmos as the cosmic stuff of life that would eventually form proteins, the molecules used to build DNA and RNA and thus informational code systems of body building. The time spent sifting and thus of meaning making. They believe that if we pin-sized brain children are to understand the complex human mind-body awareness of “self” versus not self, and how we have evolved, we must first understand how other “simpler” organisms understand their “self.” Ultimately the conceptualization of a space-time awareness is essential for vetting large quantities of information about the natural context or setting of the self (Hoffmeyer 1992 :110) and this depends on the topological shape of the “Umwelt.”
The “Umwelt” was coined in 1944 by German life scientist Jakob von. Uexkull, who’s work encouraged and challenged Thomas Sebeok to further explain and theorize methods of biosemiotic enquiries. J.v. Uexkull was a contemporary to Charles Darwin, but he did not fully accept Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. That is he accepted evolutionary phenomenon, but was not satisfied that natural selection was the dominating shaping force of nature. Thure von. Umwelt, grandson of Jakob helped translate for Sebeok and, as a physician, provides a compelling way to understand the important implications of the theory of biosemiotics on human and ecosystem health and wellness. His own theories on J.v. Uexkull “Umwelt” are his contributions to the challenge of the medical industry to read life holistically. He describes how to explain life empirically, scientifically as a system of signs to understand sickness and health and where or when the human body-mind system is malfunctioning and in need of serious intervention. (T.v. Uexkull 1992) This word, “Umwelt” has become an important, if little recognized and fully understood, concept of the holistic wellness industry from the 1950’s. I will not discuss exactly how, except to suggest that the theory’s of naturopathic wellness match up and compare to the dialogue of the biosemioticians at least at the surface. The fundamental biosemiotic theoretical system is based on this concept of holism as it seeks to understand life from a subjective view point. An Umwelt is referring to how all organisms develop a “world view” by “assigning of meaning to a signal (or vehicle) by an interpreter” in a series of six dimensions which are essentially an explanation of the importance of “muscle sense” aka “proprioception” as follows. (1) Toleration (of “irritability”) and a counteraction to it (2) Behavior as a higher emergent phenomenon (3) “Umwelt” is a co-created but very personal perception of reality from dimensions (1) and (2) and from interacting with the environment, (4) The “pragmatic dimensions of semiosis” makes the connection between subject and object obvious, (5) “Neither being a subject nor an object are static facts,” (6) The world is thus “one of dynamic relations,” “neither subjects nor objects can exist outside these relations.” (T.v. Uexkull 1992 :461-462) Thure von. Uexkull, grandson of Jakob von. Uexkull was a physician and aided Sebeok in translating his grandfathers main works.
This comes from the complex quality and timely conversations about world views as habitats, and soundscapes of single cells. (Hoffmeyer 110) Instead of focusing on universal laws of physics or chemistry or linguistic grammar, they focus on the natural context of the sound in relation to others. For example: “What defines a phoneme is not its physics of its sound as such, but its relation of difference to other, similar phonemes… one of the early findings of structuralism was… an interrelated system of differences, based on communicative recognition between speakers.” (Kull, Emmeche, Hoffmeyer 2011: 6) All of these ever ongoing between a multitude of species in all the various gardens around the earth and embedded in the special niches of the sea, air, and land masses. They believe that life at the cellular level is a molecular translator capable of thinking and feeling, or inventing itself anew, dynamically–as a actor of a performance, also engaged in the constant acts of translating the performances of “the others” the non-self and translating the information sent by the self to the non-self and back to the self all in a complex sign system that they believe may explain the true functionality of the mind-body earthling. Biosemioticians are themselves a complex culture of thought about the phenomenological structure of self awareness and social awareness themselves involved in a spectrum of translational skills and abilities. (Sebeok 1975, 1992; Hoffmeyer 1992, 2001, 2011)
PART II The Outliers:
Many of the people that I have grouped in these two columns and into distinct pods would not normally associate with one another, some of them you will notice are on either side of the humanities and sciences divide. But is is because of their approach and prose of speaking to their audience in particular that lends me to incorporate them in association. Of these “Outliers,” many individual researchers support but do not provide direct definitional support to the biosemiotic concept of life. I’ve grouped award winning entymologists Edward O. Wilson and Bert Holldobler and award winning microbiologists Lynn Margulis and Bonnie Bassler as a united pod because their critically acclaimed and fascinating works on superorganisms, endosymbiosis, and quorum sensing respectively. Together, they form a cohesive argument explaining cellular intelligence communication systems–intentionality and moral authority of the cell and individual non-human organism–that biosemioticians could likely have addressed or explained with their theory. However, these primary biology researchers–all American–themselves do not appear to associate with these concepts, of investigating how other organisms think with intentionality and track time, or the biosemioticians directly. Holldobler and Wilson have clear statements about what life is and isn’t in an insect colony as a Superorganism, they also discuss the importance of how the context of the environment essentially speaks to individuals in a superorganism regardless of programmed caste hierarchy to affect their behavior I include a long section in numerical order as published inorder to illustrate their perspective on biosemiotics and thus their definition as pertains to the limits of patterns of “emmergence” in social communication.
If in a given context a worker encounters a certain stimulus it predictably performs one act, and if the same stimulus is received in a different context, the worker performs a different act. (6)
Nothing in the brain of a worker ant represents a blueprint of the social order… The superorganism exists in the separate programmed responses of the organisms that compose it… colony life is the product of self-organization. (7)
Life is a self-replicating hierarchy of levels. Biology is the study of the levels that compose hierarchy. (7)
The diversity of castes is severely constrained by moment-to-moment, unpredictable shifts in the environment and the exigencies they impose on the colony. To approach maximum efficiency, the workers must be able to change from one role to another, often within a few minutes. (91)
Information can be conveyed by cues as well as signals, a distinction first proposed by James Lloyd, and characterized by Seeley thus: “Signals are information-bearing actions or structures that have been shaped by natural selection specifically to convey information, Cues are variables that likewise convey information, but have not been molded by natural selection to express this information.” (168)
Here we see a window into how important empirical research is to make any clear statement about how biosemiotics really works, the superorganism is a prime phenomenon for such an exercise. However, they do not consult any semioticians relying instead on Thomas Seeley’s 1995 work on bees and James Lloyd’s 1983 work on bioluminescence as well as insects, By doing so they exclude important theoretical work for the sake of a virtue for empirical work. This could be the key dividing phenomenon, that primary researchers in the biological life sciences tend to dislike theorists and philosophers in the humanities. If this is truly the case, the reliance on the discovery of algorithms to explain how an ant interacts with its environment in decision making seems to define the biosemiotic placement of intentionality and interpretation in the cell as merely theoretical. Or Holldobler and Wilson appear to take an agnostic stance on the question. Their statements “self-replicating hierarchy” and “closed system of communication” do not lend themselves to any room for intentionality by some sort of interpretation of a greater awareness of the colony’s sign system. Yet, in quotes (3) and (7), they seem to leave room for the active participation of natural context in shaping the superorganism. Here their discussion of how the role or “ego” development within a social caste system in ants must remain somewhat plastic hints that there is room for the theory of biosemiotics to better explain how semiotics in social insects works.
The famous German bee scientist, Karl von Frisch, a researcher cited by Holldobler and Wilson, conducted interesting experiments in the 1920-50’s to determine whether bees could keep track of time that illustrate his support of the biosemiotic method and theory, but not necessarily completely that of cellular intentionality. However he is certainly more inclined to develop his experiments from the biosemiotic perspective more so than Holldobler and Wilson present in their book. In his experiment, an observer placed sugar water out on a platform at a certain time and counted the number of bees and marked them to track their returns. They recorded results for an initial test, only placing syrup out at one time period for three days. In the second test “Fig. 15” from The Dancing Bees, included a training period and multiple syrup times.
Bees demonstrated that they could remember time and make punctual students. In his prose, albeit translated, von Frisch himself illustrates the biosemiotic method and has an exploratory mind that supports biosemiotic thinking. He explains his experiments on bee time-reckoning further by describing how he went about inquiring how the bees might be thinking and thus tracking time. He conducted experiments on their hunger as a clock by providing increasingly abundant sugar water and then dropping supply abruptly. He tested their sense of the angles of the sun as a clock by enclosing them in a room both dark and continuously artificially lit. Neither test resulted in confusing the bees sense of time.
“It is now clear that we are dealing here with beings who, seemingly without needing a clock, possess a memory for time, dependent neither on a feeling of hunger nor an appreciation of the sun’s position, and which, like our own appreciation of time, seems to defy any further analysis.
They always returned to the sugar water test platform on time or early and so von Frisch concluded that they indeed can tell time, but on further testing, the bees were found to be limited to a 24hr cycle.
Lynn Margulis and Bonnie Bassler never worked together that I know of, but shared a powerful sense of wonder and commitment to microbiology and in particular how inter and intra cellular communications systems evolved and affected cellular evolution. Their takes on cellular intentionality via the Gaia hypothesis and time-reckoning via quorum sensing are particularly insightful. Here is Margulis’s comments on her interactions with the independent atmospheric scientist James Lovelock and the Gaia Hypothosis:
“Proprioception, the sensing of self, probably is as old as self itself… Gaia, the physiologically regulated Earth, enjoyed proprioceptive global communication long before humans evolved… Life is a planetary-level phenomenon and the Earth’s surface has been alive for at least 3,000 million years. To me the human move to take responsibility for the earth is laughable–the rhetoric of the powerless. The planet takes care of us, not we of it… Rather, we need to protect ourselves from ourselves….James Lovelock, author of the Gaia hypothesis… was the first to claim, in the early 1970’s, that the sum of life optimizes the environment for its own use. Biologists rankled at the word optimizes. How–they chided–could life plan anything?… Many scientists are still hostile to Gaia, both the word and the idea, perhaps because it is so resonant with anti-science and anti-intellectual folks… Gaia the system emerges from ten million or more connected living species that form its incessantly active body.”
I consider Bambi Schieffelin and K. David Harrison, grouped with Rodrick Nash, a scholar of environmental intellectualism, and Dorion Sagan with John R. Skoyles two scholars as co-authors on the evolution of human intelligence as comparable in their search for tangible roots to reciprocity, bio-rhythms, and the functions of symbolism in the brain. Shieffelin and Harrison, while working separately, describe the social reciprocity of space-time recognition in how language enables syncing up individual space-time continuums to the social group’s with natural context intact.
The importance of an “in-sync” space-time awareness and how indigenous-traditional languages enable this is demonstrated by K. David Harrison in chapter three of When Languages Die. (Harrison 2007 : 61-100) While he devotes only 39 pages of his discussion on the importance of language to self awareness and essentially to free-thinking expression, it is a key concept to his thesis for what is lost when language divesity is lost: a significant sense of self in relation to a particular geography’s biorhythms and elemental rhythms. Linguists like Schieffelin and Harrison demonstrate with ethnographic evidence that the human “self” is an intimate socially connected space-time continuum. A further and essential function of language in time keeping is when language is more than a phonemic skill, it is a skill of relating to our local space-time as embodied by our peers such as described by the ade relationship in Kaluli Papua New Guinea. This example of Schieffelin’s illustrates the linguistically structured means of respecting the local moral authority of relations with peer groups and gradual degrees of small groups. (Schieffelin 1990 :112-135) The ade relationship is a relationship of a cohesive space-time system that anchors the biosemiotic rights of nature–the judgement and government by and for our closest natural siblings and other natural peer groups is a right of natural context. There has been recent discussion about the psychological significance of our peers and in particular our older siblings.
Nash, Sagan, and Skoyles compare in their discussion of the environmental, or natural context as a source for symbolic thinking; the natural context of the evolution of human intelligence is essential to human meaning making and meaning receiving as are a careful accordance of the relational nature of natural history. “People communicate two kinds of information: relationship and nonrelationship… But we also do and express things with gestures that convey the emotions that make up a relationship.” Nash discusses the importance of the “natural” in “Natural Rights” leading to “The Rights of Nature.” He details that short intellectual track and in doing so reminds us, like a biosemiotician, that human rights have always been about naturalness, without a natural context, political, social rights are meaningless. This relates back to Schieffelin’s description of the importance of a peer group relational concept like ade is essential for a humanistic movement towards an earthling recognition of “natural rights” that compares directly to Nash’s review of Magna Carta. Later I’ll mention a popular ecologist-magician who takes the concept that began with Magna Carta, the writing down of “constitutional rights” further and provides another key “Outlier” link to the “Insiders” of biosemiotics. Ultimately books like Up From Dragons confirm the cultural intellectual importance of a discipline as community like that of Biosemiotics. Both Dorion Sagan and his late father Carl Sagan, investigated Jakob von Uexkull’s work when looking for early sources. Dorion Sagan, is in echo of Carl Sagan’s 1977 book Dragons of Eden and 1992 book Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors all of which touch on the concepts of communicating with the other, in the last case communicating with the potential ET origin of life on earth, which of course is what C. Sagan’s Cosmos, novel was most directly about. My point is that authors like these appear to be forming a quasi intellectual culture around exactly what the Biosemioticians have established a direct culture around, and in light of the fact that the Copenhagen University in Denmark’s Tartu University in Estonia are established in cultural anthropology and semiotics, it appears that Biosemiotics is not just the science of life signs systems, but the study of how deep cultural communication systems really go into biologic past; the study of cultural emergence.
The unity of space and time is a key concept of ecologist David Abram’s book The Spell of The Sensuous; I believe it is a key concept of any form of natural rights, rights of nature, or of natural context. He is an outlier to biosemotics likely only because he has developed his own theories alongside and prior to some of the biosemioticians, plus he appears to be a bioregionalist or sorts. He explains the “epistemic cut” as a function of a phonetic alphabet. In fact to Abram, the time-space continuum was severed in the human mind when humans started thinking to themselves–exclusive of natural or mythical images. The syncing up of time reckoning with language that Harrison mentions, was forever and continually severed and altered at least in the social sphere with other cultures and other living species and with the non-living geography when the “self” began to script itself down on paper.
Unlike linear time, time conceived as cyclical cannot be readily abstracted from the spatial phenomena that exemplify it–from, for instance, the circular trajectories of the sun, the moon, and the stars… The precise contour of the horizon varies considerably inn different terrains, yet whenever we climb to a prominant vantage point, the circular character of the visible world becomes explicit. Thus cyclical time, the experiential time of an oral culture, has the same shape as perceivable space. And the two circles are, in truth, one:
‘The Lakota define the year as a circle around the border of the world. The circle is a symbol of both the earth (with its encircling horizons) and time. The changes of sunup and sundown around the horizon during the course of the year delineate the contours of time, time as a part of space.’
This is distinct from Jesper Hoffmeyer and Thule von Uexkull, as well as Sebeok who suggest scripting, being semiotically active is essential to life, but Abram echos them if we compare the Umwelt to the Hopi Indians manifesting and manifested theories of time and the Australian Aboriginal’s Alcheringa or Dreamtime theories, which he cites as examples of a space-time unity.
PART IV The Outsiders:
Most of these researchers and innovators are directly working for the same goal as the biosemioticians, to understand the nature of life and humanity in particular, yet most of these people are highly specialized and tend not to work interdisciplinary like the biosemioticians. Some of the people in this column might seem odd, such as “Satanist,” and “Creationists” but I find the phenomenon of religious speech as haunting and sticky as Bruno Latour expressed in Rejoicing: The torments of religious speech, and I find some of the tendency toward rhetoric or propaganda, or simply statements of advertisement, hauntingly similar across these disparate voices. Those whom have claimed to have had powerful experiences of life, tend to seem religious or quasi-religious, if only in their sales pitches. What seems most relevant to this odd grouping is in comparison to the voice of biosemioticians or outlying biologists, they are extremely confident about their world view and view of the “self,” yet they are not as skilled in explaining their own sign systems as the biosemioticians are.
Initially, I provide an example of bio-tech entrepreneurs who are envisioning a cell-based therapeutics system as distinct from current biotech practices. I’ve included a chart from one very recent article that sums up this group efficiently.
This team of researchers is supported by UC San Francisco and funded by the W. M. Keck Foundation which places them in an innovative research category rather than strictly in an investigative one. They nicely lay out the distinction between two camps of biologists practicing without relation to biosemiotic theories. The former, small molecular biologic therapeutics and Biologics, sees the cell as lacking “complex sensing and response systems” but capable of “molecular recognition.” Thus one more definition of biosemiotics in human medicinal therapeutic terms is that it is sees the cell as capable of a performance that is more than those biologists outside their sphere of inquiry. Going further, more meaningful than. This is ironic as these authors state they are in need of a good theory to guide their research. At first look, their concept sounds like they are suggesting employing the knowledge of cellular sign systems towards self awareness in health and wellness remediation, which is what Thule von. Uexkull had envisioned should be done. Much of the theories of biosemiotics, while firmly based in evolutionary theories, are in a social niche so conversationally unique that the explosion of the biotech industry has no time to read or fully investigate them. Or that biosemiotics has been set aside as if it were another divergence of creationism, like the intelligent design scare, or maybe an attempt at a microscopically enlightened speciesism. With this reflection we see a fuller dimension of what biosemiotics really is in relation to the biosphere as a whole.
This particular article suggests that a “cell-based therapeutics industry” is rapidly evolving and is not far away. It is an interesting discussion and makes significant claims for medical advancements, suggesting that if we essentially team up with cells and enslave them with a “science of cellular engineering” that combines synthetic biology and genetic engineering with systems biology a patient could be the battle ground where the corporate engineers work with their human cells as avatars. The authors list the cell engineering parameters that must be met in order to develop a trust worthy industry and concludes with a bit that sounds like an exciting intergalactic battle movie,
“The ability to reprogram cell communication, including cell-cell, small-molecule-cell, and biologic-cell communication. We will also require the development of orthogonal communication systems that provide the physician with the ability to directly instruct cells using modalities such as drugs or light… One precedent is the sophisticated engineering science of control theory, which is currently used to design myriad autoregulated devices, including thermostats, cruise control systems, and autopilot systems. Control theory is founded on the basic idea that there are defined control circuits that are optimal for particular situations. Can we develop analogous theories that guide our choice of cellular control modules?” (Fischbach, Bluestone, Lim 2013)
While this is impressive and likely could save lives, it apparently rejects the concept the biosemioticians suggest, that we can learn to communicate and by that skill co-create the healthy human mind-body “biosemiotic self” without the warlord-like control of a cellular engineer as physician. Who can argue with that? If there is indeed a form of cultural emergence between cellular “cross-talk” inter-species communications systems and human cultrual communications systems, I think every being can argue with that. However, of course, who can argue with decreasing suffering of the patient from an ailment, a genetic abnormality etc.? I too am at risk of the high rates of cancer and other genetic diseases as well as environmental toxicity. My argument is not for an enforcement of natural context in a state of miserable company in suffering, but toward the very “theories that guide our choice” alluded to above that heal a suffering environment with the skills and techniques that anthropological linguistic dialogue pro-ports. The location of that “choice” is also what I place in serious consideration for dialogue: Where does ultimate moral authority rest and grow from? Is it in the translational skills of the single cells in our mind-body mosaic?
One final “Outsider” article illustrates that the velocity of biomedical advancements suggests we may have to answer that together in hind sight as the likely fashionable popularity of the masses will push us all to adopt genetic adjustments without ever knowing that cells co-create their “biosemiotic self.” Co-creative cellular self awareness seems nice…
“But compared with what’s coming next, all that will seem like child’s play. A new technology just announced today has the potential to wipe out diseases, turn back evolutionary clocks, and reengineer entire ecosystems, for better or worse…” The researchers have discovered a way to use the CRISPR-Cas9 RNA scripting molecule to add, delete, or edit animal DNA codes. “Cas9-based gene drives could be one of the most powerful technologies ever discovered by humankind. “This is one of the most exciting confluences of different theoretical approaches in science I’ve ever seen,” says Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at New York University. “It merges population genetics, genetic engineering, molecular genetics, into an unbelievably powerful tool.” (Dechant and Nelson 2014)
In a more direct quote of the director of the Broad Institute which recently received a patent on this discovery follows from the article (which I did not have access to). This illustrates the frame of mind that life science outsiders to the biosemiotics have. Keep in mind some of the fundamentals of language and conversational logic, i.e. this director is sending practical and philosophic code out to someone, speaking to someone or people in particular, they are not attempting to understand life sciences as much as the are trying to understand how to change life sciences first:
“The CRISPR-Cas9 system is an extraordinary, powerful tool. The ability to edit a genome makes it possible to discover the biological mechanisms underlying human biology and, potentially, to treat certain human diseases,” said Eric Lander, Broad Institute director.
The engineered CRISPR-Cas9 system can also be used to target multiple genes at the same time, which is another advantage that sets the technology apart from other gene-editing tools.”
Here we see more clearly how the discipline of linguistic anthropology coupled with a student who has nothing to lose and nothing to gain except everything about the foundations of life via biosemiotics, the hermeneutics of life, to learn and gain. The perspective of indifference and impartiality should be a fundamental of scientific research, but here I doubt that is the case because of the last line, “multiple genes at the same time, which is another advantage that sets the technology apart…” These are semiotically revealing phrases. The first part expresses a philosophy of time, that there is clearly not enough, too many genes are messed up for us to waste fixing one at a time. While in the case of a very sick client, that may be true, in the case of the way a body-mind semiotic system communicates to enable a “sense of self”, as Thule von Uexkull relates, the self in question here does not seem to be of concern as much as the space-time complex of the corporate personhood interests. This conflict between the way wilderness system operates and the way the city-state technologic system as our modern corporate conglomerates operates seems to essentially be of the space-time epistemic cut that David Abram notes and that K. David Harrison wars is eroding the sense of self co-created via language between person and place. In very real terms and consequential facts this article of world changing discovery is missing somethings: epigenetics has not yet been mentioned as a significant player that naturally turns gene codes on and off via the interactive structure with the environment that biosemiotics seeks to understand, nor has the plasticity of the human brain been demonstrated as it was recently with the earliest web-based cyborg experiment, nor the complex interrelationship between our gut microbiota and the blood-brain barrier. This technology, like all technology must be placed in natural context with all other options, that is essentially how a free market, open society works; not just cut-throat competition, but with the self-shaping/enhancing or detracting influences of natural context intact.
Can an ad-hoc analysis of these grand new abilities be worth anything? Yes if moral authority of taking or giving life resides in the co-creative point of view single cell and in the cultural impartiality of the right of natural context. Going further, let’s look at their claimed attention to understanding life sciences, “The ability to edit the genome makes it possible to discover the biological mechanism underlying human biology…” Mechanisms. As a style of thinking and working with life this is in direct contrast to the theories of biosemioticians whom desire the same thing, they have the same ultimate goals, yet they seek to understand life sciences and diseases and physiological issues from the perspective of the health or ailment of the natural context of the patient not just of the patient, which is of course to understand how the patient naturally learns and thinks in the habitat. These direct control techniques of the “cell-based therapeutics industry” and the CRISPR-Cas9 industry seem promising and indeed hopeful, yet at one level, the most basic level, the level of co-creative complex conversational level they have an arrogant tone and I would criticize it as an arrogant way of acting. I doubt they intend arrogance at least in the end, but from this beginning, the act of patenting and asserting a sort of miracle-drug-like-value-level, these outsiders give a vantage of biosemiotics as a much more ethical and open-sourced theory of life and how to approach remedies for our daunting maladies.
The biosemioticians together, not completely separable from their “outliers” or even their “outsiders,” but certainly speaking in a distinct subjective view of “self” present a theory that encourages cross-talk and innovative dialogue for self security as well as self expression as the basis of a secular ethics founded upon biologic and geologic empirical knowledge. In his book Beyond Religion (2011), The Dalai Lama, religious leader of Tibet, exiled from globalization and nation-state proliferation suggests that compassion is an unconditional and symbiotic earthling trait that suggests a foundation for secular ethics. (H.H. Dalai Lama 2011 :45). But surely this can only be accomplished with meaningful, contextualized dialogue across world views with those world views intact… somehow. I think Biosemiotics can be defined as a way to work towards that “somehow,” as a truly universal right–beginning with the single cell–an ethical right of global (earthling) citizenship: The Right of Natural Context.
I think back to the EWU campus garden and wonder what IS the most effective way to communicate on this planet with other species, with “the other” in general. Should I have been aggressive against the insects I saw on the sunflowers and defended the seed yield like a more bio-systems engineering gardener or biologics gardener? If I had been more apt to spray chemical controls or investigate corporately engineered seeds, or even use “Miracle Grow,” (Incidentally like my aunt did this season who was a manager at Turnbull NWR, even asking her why, as if in an ethnography, would feel like a double meaning message, arrogant or awkward, but non the less ironic.) why would I have even bothered to garden in the first place? It seems that Biosemiotics is very close to an innate feeling in some people, they just try to communicate in more sophisticated ways than phonemically. In the end, all aspirations of a universal, inter-species ethics aside, a curiosity for alternative communication systems is at the core of the definition of biosemiotics. Breaking beyond the linear alpha-numeric code barrier seems to describe a future evolution of life on the planet, if anything about the human species is to evolve and last, it should surely be sent in a new tone.
ANTH 445 Fall 2014 “Biosemiotics” Dorian Curry
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- “Genetically Engineering Almost Anything” By Tim De Chant and Eleanor Nelsen on Thu, 17 Jul 2014 pbs.org NOVA
- “Judgement Day: The Day Intelligent Design went on Trial.” pbs.org NOVA
- “Broad Institute gets first patent on revolutionary CRISPR-Cas9" system Published on April 18, 2014 | CRISPRTechnology.com