The Treasure Chest

Semiosis without Borders

By Paul Bouissac

Biosemioticians and evolutionary semioticians, as well as others, can equally appreciate the three books briefly reviewed here. They are loaded with fascinating, mostly new data pertaining to the ways in which various species make use of complex signaling systems which have evolved with respect to particular ecologies and social networks, and fine tune locally adaptive behaviors that they transmit through observational learning to their offspring, thus creating proto-cultures. These books are felicitously light on ideology but rich in details reporting the field experiences of the researchers. I should add, to answer questions I have been asked, that this rubric is free of commercial binds. All the books I review in the Treasure Chest are books I have bought because they have come to my semiotic attention either through surfing the Internet or simply browsing in my neighborhood bookstores. I usually read them while traveling or exercising on a stationery bike at the University of Toronto gym. SemiotiX does not solicit books for review. Publishers and authors who would like to submit their works for a detailed review in The Semiotic Review of Books should send review copies to the Editor in chief of SRB, Professor Gary Genosko, for consideration.

Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds

By Bernd Heinrich. Harper Perennial Edition (paperback). 2006 (first published in 1999)

The ill-famed raven of western literature turns out to be a bird endowed with an extraordinarily attractive and resourceful mind in this book by distinguished biologist Bernd Heinrich. Written with scientific candor – failures are reported and successes are framed by bigger questions -- this narrative covers the author’s involvement with raven research for over two decades, and leads the reader from staggered surprises to sheer wonderment. Even for an athletic academic like Heinrich (see his firsthand account of Why we Run), studying ravens in the wild is a challenge because they tend to nest in inaccessible tree tops and fly long distance. They are also keenly aware of being watched. In order to observe at close range their behavior Heinrich raised his own ravens in a specially built aviary, and espoused the demanding role of parents when taking them out in the wild. He could then follow their behavioral and cognitive development, a process that would have otherwise remained for ever beyond reach. This, and further experiments as well as some monitoring of the life histories of these birds, open many vistas on a rich zoosemiotic landscape which explains why, in some human cultures which have not been distracted from nature by ideology and technology, ravens enjoy a high symbolic status. Over their long life span, ravens construct personal social networks, supported by rich, multimodal repertories of expressive signs that allow them to selectively convey their mood (for instance, their facial muscles can change the orientation of feathers so as to produce a variety of significant patterns) and to communicate about events occurring in their environment. Their resourceful acoustic competence gives rise to what has been commonly described by researchers as area-specific “dialects”. Heinrich confesses however that he is far from having deciphered the “code” although the great variety of typical sound patterns uttered in particular circumstances suggest that these patterns are more than mere signaling noise. There are abundant tale-telling anecdotes in this book, from reports on ravens as endearing pets to the difficulty of playing matchmaker with a species which still tightly hide many of its semiotic secrets. But the reader is also introduced to the bigger evolutionary picture with insightful considerations on the joint deep-time destinies of ravens and wolves, in which hunting (and warring) humans represent a “newly” added resource. This latest paperback edition is supplemented by an interview with the author who also provides a “Raven Update” and a list of recently published research on Corvus corax.

Among Orangutans: Red Apes and the Rise of Human Culture

By Carel van Schaik. Photographs by Perry van Duijnhoven. Harvard University Press. 2004.

Among the great apes, orangutans have received comparatively less scientific attention than chimpanzees and bonobos. Their arboreal life in environments that are not easily penetrable has shielded them from scrutiny. Research on the behavior and cognitive capacities of captive subjects raised by humans had generally been considered tainted by such unnatural circumstances. The solitary life that was assumed to be a characteristic of the species on the basis of observations made in a particular geographic area (Borneo) did not trigger the same level of interest as did the interaction-intensive mode of existence of chimpanzees. During the last decade, this view has been upturned by Dutch primatologist Carel van Schaik, now a Professor at the University of Zurich, who has conducted challenging research on wild orangutans in a lesser known and still less penetrable habitat, the swamp forest of the western tip of Sumatra. With abundant photos by Perry van Duijnhoven, and some illustrative maps and drawings, the author retraces the stages of this multi year scientific saga conducted with a team of local assistants in a socio-political context that was becoming increasingly dangerous in addition to the perils intrinsic to the swamp forest itself. The reward, however, is impressive. As van Schaik states, and demonstrates, more evidence has accrued that culture is not the Rubicon that set humans apart from other species. Tool making, complex vocalizations, nest building, gestures and other transmissible behaviors form cultural assemblages that vary from area to area, being most distinct from one another when populations are separated by large rivers that orangutans cannot cross, thus creating cultural isolates. These cultures also vary with the types of environments in which they emerge and prosper. Does this all satisfy the definition proposed by Tuttle, for instance, as quoted by van Schaik: “a symbolically mediated, shared system of meaning”? (p. 139). The author of Among Orangutans thinks that this amounts to equating too narrowly culture to language, and prefers Imanishi’s notion that culture is essentially socially transmitted innovation (innovation followed by diffusion). This is why, in addition to learning from the evidence concerning the versatile social, cognitive, and semiotic skills of Pongo abelii (once called Homo sylvestris), semioticians will be engaged by the discussion of the cultural nature of orangutan behavior and by van Schaik’s claim, in the subtitle of his book, that such behavior offers a glimpse of “the rise of human culture”.

Hunter and Hunted: Relationships between Carnivores and People

By Hans Kruuk. With drawings by Diana E. Brown. Cambridge University Press. 2002.

Hans Kruuk, a former student of Niko Tinbergen, is the author of landmark volumes on The Spotted Hyena (1972) and The Social Badger (1989). His latest book concerns another predator: the ecology, behavior and conservation of Otters (2006). Hunter and Hunted addresses an issue that has fascinated him during his entire research career: the relationships between predators and preys. The relevance of this topic to evolutionary semiotics is obvious as it involves mutual adaptations of signaling behavior and the emergence of strategies and counter-strategies based on cooperation and communication.

All species of predators (including humans) are reviewed in the beautifully illustrated twelve chapters of the book. The impact of predation on the formation of human cultures (their technologies and symbolic representations) is thoroughly discussed and provides interesting insights into hominid evolution as well as cultural evolution. The traditional “prehistoric hunter” icon glosses over the fact that human populations were also fiercely hunted by smart predators. But the data he marshals in offer a richer picture. Predators and preys co-evolve not only biologically but also culturally. For instance, as he shows in the chapter devoted to wolves, local conditions can contribute to create preferences for certain types of preys which are transmitted with the appropriate hunting strategies from parents to offspring, thus forming predation cultures. This would account for the differences between the symbolic representations of the wolf in traditional Europe (where wolves used to prey on humans) and in native American cultures (where wolves “preferred” to prey on species other than humans, and were not perceived as a major threat to human life unless, of course, through stories that later were imported from Europe). He also shows with comparative statistics that man-eating tigers are a tiger-culture phenomenon that has been observed in some particular areas of Southern Asia.

It seems that the importance of predation for the evolution of human psychology has been overlooked. Those who are familiar with A.J. Greimas’s fundamental narrative structure, which can be abstractly summarized as the lack or loss of an “object” and the quest to acquire or recover it thanks to helpers and in spite of opponents, may remember that mathematician topologist René Thom remarked on several occasions that this schema formally coincided with predation, thus unwittingly perhaps suggesting a direction of inquiry for evolutionary narratology.

A translation of his book into French was published in Switzerland by Delachaux & Niestlé in 2005 (Chasseurs et chassés: relations entre l'homme et les grands prédateurs).