One of the impressive recent efforts to bring the physical sciences and the social sciences and humanities back onto “consilient” speaking terms (to use E. O. Wilson’s terminology, though his own efforts at this have been unimpressive) is Wendy Wheeler’s The Whole Creature: Complexity, Biosemiotics and the Evolution of Culture. Wheeler is a humanist, an English lit specialist whose work emerges out of the Raymond Williams tradition of British cultural studies, and her foray into biosemiotics and complexity science is highly original and ambitious. She’s an editor at British Left-political cultural studies journal New Formations , having produced special issues on complexity and ecocriticism in recent years. Complexity research has been making some waves in sociological and cultural theory circles for a while now (e.g., in Theory Culture & Society), but biosemiotics is more of a newcomer on these intellectual (humanistic/culturological) shores. The book is blurbed by leading biosemiotician Jesper Hoffmeyer, author of, among other things, Signs of Meaning in the Universe (Indiana U. Press, 1996).
While I’ve only read parts of the book (and a few outtakes in other venues) and am not qualified to comment on its use of complexity theory or biosemiotics, it’s heartening to see Donald Favareau’s very favorable extended review, “Understanding Natural Constructivism” in Semiotica, which has been a leading venue for biosemiotic research and theory for several years. I strongly recommend it both as a summary of Wheeler’s book and as an introduction to biosemiotics.
Favareau acknowledges (as others do) that biosemiotics is as yet more a proto-science, a discourse community working out alternative ways to remedy a gap in knowledge, than a full-fledged scientific research program, yet he sees Wheeler’s book as heralding an enlarged conversation, both in that other social scientists and humanists may pick up on it (sign me up) and that the biologists and philosophers who’ve been working the fields of biosemiotics will begin to see some links and potential insights from humanistic fields that might apply to their own more biological research areas (e.g., verstehen, lebenswelt, co-construction, etc etc).
For those new to biosemiotics, Favareau’s description of the gap being addressed by this field is, basically, that there is no widely accepted and interdisciplinarily adequate account of representation, that is, of how it is that “x can stand for y to system z at time t” — a set of relations that one can find not only among human users of language but in all of life down to its most basic and microscopic levels. Semiotic (that is, communicative and significatory) relations, in other words, can be found “all the way down,” with language and culture being merely late and particularly complex (and self-reflexive) forms of these.
Wheeler tries ultimately to derive a political ethic — a humanistic democratic socialist one, put loosely — from the sciences she draws on, which, of course, gets us into the messy zone of naturalistic fallacy issues (just because something is some way doesn’t mean it should be that way), but which is evocative nevertheless. Favareau refrains from following her in this move, arguing that biosemiotics is at least equally compatible with the free-market capitalism of Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek as it is with Williams’s and Wheeler’s neo- (or post-) Marxist humanism of sociality and responsive connectivity (as opposed to the atomized individualism of our neoliberal capitalist market relations). The argument here may ultimately boil down to whether distributed governance — multi-lateral, self-organizing, individual and collective rights sensitive, democratic decision-making processes loosely institutionalized across nested levels and scales — belongs more on the political Left or the Right. That, one might think, is an empirical question — to which my vote would go to the Left, if I had to choose, but I’ll admit there’s a lot of historical evidence notwithstanding.
Both Wheeler’s book and Favareau’s review resonate across a wide range of other approaches to mollifying the ‘two cultures’ divide. These include the uptake of Piercian (i.e., non-Saussurian) semiotics by Deleuzians as well as one-off works like Nils Elliott’s Mediating Nature; the embodied cognitivism of Humberto Maturana, Francesco Varela, and Evan Thompson; the developmental systems theory of Susan Oyama and others; post-Uexkullian philosophical ethology (e.g., see Brett Buchanan’s Onto-Ethologies); and the whole range of network-based post-constructionisms and post-humanisms, from Latourian actor network theory to the assemblage theories of Deleuzians like DeLanda and post-ANTers like John Law to complexifying processualist emergentists like Prigogine and Stengers to the relational and hybrid geographies and “social natures” of Doreen Massey, Noel Castree, Sarah Whatmore, Steve Hinchliffe, and others. (My own effort to bring together these theoretical threads proposed that an “ethic of circulating agency” can be derived from actor-network theory and related approaches, but I haven’t developed that much further, in print at least, since then.)
It seems to me as if all of those working in these fields might as well admit that we’re working towards a “grand unified field theory” of our own to parallel (and meet?) that of the physicists. Impossible challenges are always fun…
Incidentally, for a rather more muted response to Wheeler’s book, it’s worth reading Peter Harries-Jones’ review of it. Bateson is an important precursor to biosemiotics and cultural anthropologist Harries-Jones a challenging interpreter of his work.