The Front Shelf


Semiotics as it stands now is bloated with philosophical speculations that indulge in worn-out grand narratives but it is sorely short on methods which could sustain the bold scientific agenda of its earlier pioneers. Current semiotics is heavy in wordy interpretations which do not advance human knowledge. Far from being a discovery process, semiotics has turned into a textual and conceptual archaeology. Many semioticians keep restating the Scholastic doxa and the nineteenth-century dogmas of natural philosophy. They have not updated their methods of inquiry since the mid-twentieth-century in spite of an exponential development of new tools, concepts, and knowledge since then. Their analysis of human behavior remains at the macro-level of introspective phenomenology. It is not surprising that semiotics is practically never acknowledged in the emerging disciplines which tackle problems that were once the focus of the semiotic literature.

These mini-reviews call attention to three recent books which, among many others, could be fruitfully perused by semioticians who are eager to open new frontiers rather than contemplate the past and restate the trivial. These books are not meant to offer an epistemological panacea but simply to provide glimpses of possible directions on the path to a better knowledge of how humans make sense of themselves in their social and natural environment within an evolutionary and developmental context.

The Bounds of Reason: Game Theory and the Unification of the Behavioral Sciences. By Herbert Gintis. Princeton University Press. 2009 (286 pages).

Herbert Gintis is an economist with broad interests in anthropology, sociology, game theory, and evolutionary biology. His latest contribution to Behavioral and Brain Sciences (2007) introduced a framework for the unification of the behavioral sciences. This has always been the more or less explicit agenda of semiotics with Saussure variously assigning future sémiologie to sociology and general psychology; Peirce wandering with ease across the disciplines of his time; and, somewhat more recently, the Vienna Circle and Charles Morris aiming at the unification of all sciences by using the concept of sign as the common denominator. Some French semioticians of the 1960s rhetorically declared that sémiologie was to be the science of all sciences but soon forgot their goal by lack of a method. Gintis’s take on the issue is more credible and should command attention. He denounces the feudal cultures and organizations of the disciplines that map the behavioral sciences today, and offers a detailed blueprint for their unification through the epistemological idiom of Evolutionary Game Theory.

The book is divided into twelve chapters which lead the reader from a thorough review of the basic concepts of Decision Theory and Game Theory, showing how they apply to human behavior (Chapters 1-3) to a long concluding chapter demonstrating the relevance of Game Theory to the unification of the behavioral sciences: communication, cultural dynamics, sociology, economics, and psychology (Chapter 12). The intermediary chapters cover a wide range of issues reviewing the various strategies formalized by the Game Theory paradigm both in mathematical terms and as exemplary narratives which encapsulate alternative decisions and their consequences: the hawk-dove game, the prisoner’s dilemma, the traveler’s dilemma, the surprise examination, the centipede game, and so on. In all these cases Gintis makes clear how the calculus of Game Theory applies to an understanding of rationality and human sociality. But reading the last chapter before working one’s way through these more technical intermediary chapters help one to appreciate their relevance to some crucial issues which should be under the purview of an updated semiotic agenda. For instance, conceiving signs as fluid social norms or as routine decision-making processes whose fitness can theoretically be measured, may open novel perspectives and provide challenging heuristic models for semioticians eager to engage in dialogues and cooperation with the new disciplines which map twenty-first century epistemology.

The second edition of the author’s previous book, Game Theory Evolving (2009), appeared at Princeton University Press at the same time as this new, more ambitious and provocative volume. Gintis’ Mathematical Literacy for Humanists is available on his website.

Foundations in Evolutionary Cognitive Neuroscience. Edited by Steven M. Platek and Todd K. Shackelford. Cambridge University Press. 2009. (224 pages) and Evolution of Communicative Flexibility: Complexity, Creativity, and Adaptability in Human and Animal Communication. Edited by D.Kimbrough Oller and Utrike Griebel. MIT Press. 2008 (356 pages).

It is generally acknowledged that biological evolution is very conservative in the sense that some basic adaptive competencies are not discarded when new ones are selected under the pressure of environmental challenges. The way in which the brain of the primates processes spatial information, for instance, has much in common with other mammals and their terrestrial ancestors which were endowed with two eyes. Comparative anatomy and physiology show a biological continuum and more than a century of ethological research has pointed out numerous behavioral homologies notably in the domain of communication. More recent approaches have further documented a cognitive continuum leading to increased complexity and improved adaptability.

The two volumes briefly reviewed here document this perspective and update the branch of semiotics concerned with this evolution. The term zoosemiotics was coined not to create a new discipline but to bring under the purview of semiotics the research of the pioneers of ethology by underlining the obvious continuity with, and relevance to human semiotic behavior. The goal of zoosemiotics was, and still is, a meta-analysis of the scientific literature concerned with the modes of intra- and inter-specific interactions. Since then, the methods of inquiry have greatly improved and productive models of interpretation have been developed.

Foundations in Evolutionary Cognitive Neuroscience is an introduction to the new paradigm which is undertaking to merge evolutionary psychology and cognitive neurosciences. It includes eight chapters by leaders in the various aspects of this new field. The chapters blend arguments and empirical results. The data are provided by the methods of inquiry used in the respective fields of their authors. Each chapter comes with an extensive bibliography.

Evolution of Communicative Flexibility endeavors to retrace the evolutionary roots of human complex communicative competencies. Its fifteen chapters are organized into four parts: “Cross-species perspectives on forces and patterns of flexibility in communication”; “The role of flexibility and communicative complexity in the evolution of language”; “Underpinnings of communicative control: Foundations for flexible communication”; and “Modeling of the emergence of complexity and flexibility in communication”. A short introduction by the editors emphasizes the parallels between human communicative flexibility and flexibility found in a wide variety of additional species, with reference to their previous edited volume published in 2004 in the Vienna Series in Theoretical Biology. Of particular interest in this respect is Chapter 6 in the present volume, which deals with “contextual sensitivity and bird songs: a basis for social life”.

The two books summarily reviewed here offer an opportunity to update readers regarding the state of the art in zoosemiotics, a discourse which tends to be long on anecdotes but short on theory, data and methods.

The Human Amygdala. Edited by Paul J. Whalen and Elizabeth A. Phelps. The Guilford Press. (429 pages).

The brain’s gross anatomy has suggested for a long time that some distinct areas could be involved in the various behavioral and cognitive functions which define humans, starting of course with the early discoveries by Paul Broca (1824-1880) and Carl Wernicke (1848-1905) of regions that broadly correlate with specific linguistic competencies. For about a century, the mapping of brain circuitries in relation to various cognitive domains depended on the study of pathologies (behavioral and cognitive) that could be attributed to post-mortem evidence of tumors or other local damages. As neuro-surgery improved its methods, more knowledge was amassed on the complex correlations between features of the brain and abilities of the mind. New methods of investigation soon made possible in vivo experimental explorations of better defined regions of the brains of primates at the micro-level and revealed fine-grained correspondences between the firing of some neurons and well-defined cognitive behaviors. With the advent of noninvasive techniques aimed at monitoring brain events associated with well-defined cognitive functions, the brain has ceased to be a mere “black box” and light has been shed on many of its processes. Even if the human brain as a whole has not yet fully understood itself, some functional parts of it are better known, albeit incompletely, than others. This is true of one of its most evolutionarily ancient organs: the amygdala, which the focus of this volume.

The Human Amygdala is a state-of-the-art reference for the students of brain-behavior relationships, including domains pointedly relevant to semiotics such as the decoding of facial expression (fear, anger, happiness) or the positive reinforcement of associations. Of particular interest are the chapters dealing with the responses to facial expressions of emotion (265-288) and the role of the amygdala in the recognition of, and response to socially salient stimuli, more generally, its social function (289-318). But all chapters offer some insights which address fundamentally semiotic issues on a level that is much more informative than the broad categories used in contemporary semiotic discourse. This book also provides an implicit incentive to move from mere phenomenological descriptions of semiotic behaviors to addressing the challenging epistemological goal of explaining such behaviors.

No less than 42 researchers in the cognitive neurosciences have contributed to this volume which includes 18 chapters organized into three parts: “From animal models to human amygdala function”; “Human amygdala function”; and “Human amygdala dysfunction”. The first two chapters offer a clearly written introduction to the neuroanatomy and functions of the amygdala complex, a heterogeneous group of nuclei and cortical regions located deep in the medial temporal lobes. Earlier gross anatomy described it as two small almond-shaped groups of nuclei, hence the Greek name of amygdala (almonds). The perusing of these two chapters by the non-specialists will make the reading of this volume relatively easy and highly informative as it reports the latest knowledge on the main site of what could be characterized as primal semiotic functions.

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