Semiotics on the Move

From Interaction to Symbol: A Systems View of the Evolution of Signs and Communication. By Piotr Sadowski. John Benjamins Publishing Co, 2009 (300 p.).

Rather than conceiving the dynamic of signs as an abstract philosophical notion such as semiosis or dialogism, the author confronts head on in this volume the emergence of signs as an evolutionary process, that is, through natural selection. This requires a drastic move. Piotr Sadowski courageously steps out of the current Peircean doxa and bluntly asks, in any other words, at the onset of his book: Why do we take uncritically for granted the philosophical pronouncements of a handful of so-called founding fathers? Show us the evidence rather than invoking the principle of authority. This is the way epistemological revolutions start. What Sadowski advocates is “a divorce between semiotics [on the one hand] and philosophy and pseudo-science [on the other], and a subsequent remarriage of semiotics with real science”. In his quest, the author will adopt the guidance of systems theory which “blends deductive logic with empirical validity and general usefulness”. For him, “the same kind of methodological rigor, logic, and verifiability normally expected in scientific inquiry can also be applied to the study of signs.” (p.17). Later in the book, Sadowski brings nuances to his argument but unfailingly remains steady in his radical critique of the current semiotic “doctrine” and its indoctrinating of generations of philosophical and literary students.

The book is divided into eleven chapters which successively develop a robust Darwinian argument focusing on the evolution of communication (why sharing information?) and the emergence of language and symbols. Chapter 1 deals with Systems Theory and elaborates a holistic approach; Chapter 2 reconsiders the tenets of the semiotics of communication and signification; Chapter 3 grounds semiotic behavior on needs and emotions, thus emphasizing its fundamental contiguity with the body and its environment; Chapter 4 addresses the origins of referentiality; Chapter 5 to 8 recast the problematic of the visual arts (photography, film, painting) in evolutionary cognitive terms; Chapters 9 to 11 focus on issues of language origins and the emergence of symbolism.

Like any undertaking of this scope, the book is bound to have some weaknesses that critics will certainly not fail to identify but the debate it will trigger is long overdue in semiotics. The discourse on signs has drifted over the last decades toward an open-ended recycling of notions and narratives from another age to the extent that nobody pays any attention to it beyond some restricted circles of complacent semioticians. The contrarian posture of Piotr Sadowski is a welcome wake-up call.

Honest Signals: How they Shape our World. By Alex (Sandy) Pentland. The MIT Press, 2008 (184 p.)

Alex Pentland is a professor and researcher at the Media Lab of MIT. His numerous publications are bearing upon the social dynamics of communication and the collective nature of human intelligence with reference to the evolution of the nervous system and the new environment created by computer networking. Honest Signals is an insightful book which addresses fundamental semiotic issues. Although his targeted audience is the corporate world rather the much smaller constituency of the philosophers of signs, the book displays a great deal of semiotic sensitivity and details a cornucopia of empirical data that bears witness to the ways in which humans are immersed in a sea of signs, or signals to use Pentland’s user friendly terminology.

“Honest” signals are those signs which would be too difficult or costly to fake. In a job interview, for instance, an applicant can rather easily monitor and control to a great extent his/her demeanor (which even may have been carefully rehearsed), and communicate verbally in a manner which he/she feels appropriate to the situation. However, self-awareness and naïve outside observations are poor predictors of the outcome of the interaction. A battery of sensors which Pentland calls “sociometers” reveals a flow of embodied information which is more trustworthy than any contrived interacting performance. These signs are robust because they have been selected as reliable indicators by evolution and we process them below the threshold of our consciousness. Advances in sensor networks and mobile computing have revolutionized the investigation of actual semiotic behavior at the finest scale of analysis and in real time.

This volume makes accessible to a wide audience the results of qualitative and quantitative inquiries into the ways in which signs irrigate and mold the form and dynamic of social interactions well below the threshold of our awareness. It offers on the way innovative vistas from which the occasional sensationalism of the style should not distract the serious reader. After an introductory chapter devoted to the definition of “honest” signals,  the author deals in the six following chapters with “social roles”, “reading people”, “survival signals”, “network intelligence”, sensible organizations”, and “sensible society”. The three appendices provide, in a simplified form, details on the methods used to gather the data and elaborate the bigger picture. Although “honest” is not taken by the author in its moral sense, the book is not devoid of ethical considerations, notably in its epilogue when the double-edged capability for pervasive control that such a semiotic technology implies is evoked in terms which should resonate among the proponents of semio-ethics.

The Dopaminergic Mind in Human Evolution and History. By Fred H. Previc.  Cambridge University Press, 2009 (214 p.).

How cultural changes impact our lives – how technologies become agents of natural selection – is one of the most pressing issues at a time when the Moore’s law modifies our environment at a faster pace than ever in human evolution. But this process started with the advent of stone tools. The Baldwin effect – from James Baldwin’s (1861-1934)  observation that the artifactual environment is a source of new selective constraints and adaptations – must be kept in mind when one tries to understand human cognitive evolution. Fred Previc’s book belongs to the gene-culture co-evolution stream of thought which construes culture as an evolutionary force. Cultural innovations – by necessity or by chance – can become indeed a mode of natural selection. The contemporary exponents of this movement include for instance John Odling-Smee, Kevin Laland, and Marcus Feldman (Niche Construction 2003), Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson (Not by Genes Alone 2005), and Mark Stoneking ( ).  An often given example (see for instance the link above) is the evolution of lactose tolerance which primates lose when they are weaned. The domestication of sheep, goats, bovines and horses provided those humans whose lactose tolerance genes were not turned off in their early years with the rich source of proteins found in milk, hence the spreading of these genes in large population of pastoralists and their demographic success. Marion Blute’s Darwinian Sociocultural Evolution (2010) offers a high-level textbook on this approach.

Previc identifies such a cultural change in deeper time, some 100,000 years ago, when humans migrated along the coast of Eastern Africa and started to feed consistently on shellfish which are particularly rich in iodine and stimulate the production of dopamine in the brain. Previc’s hypothesis is that this change in diet triggered a co-evolutionary process – a kind of “cultural Big Bang” –  which gave a marked advantage to those whose cognitive competence and long-term planning capability were enhanced by an increasing supply from the Dopaminergic systems of the brain. He develops this scenario as a plausible explanation for the rather sudden (by evolutionary standards) emergence of modern human intelligence and the fast pace of the technological advances that followed.

The book first documents the abundant literature of the last few decades on the role of dopamine in brain functions (largely motivated by intensive research related to Parkinson’s disease), then applies the knowledge that has accrued from this research to biological and cultural evolution. What emerges from his argument is a theory of the origin of the properly semiotic mind, the enabling of second and third order knowledge in Anatomically Modern Humans as an intriguing case of gene-culture co-evolution. The third part of the book extrapolates this hypothesis to a tentative explanation of historical events focusing on the assumedly dopamine-rich brains of the great conquerors and empire founders. Probably fewer readers will follow the author’s interpretation of history although it would be tempting to claim, tongue in cheek, that semioticians must be particularly high on dopamine!

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