Friday, 20 February 2015

Abstract for Gathering in biosemiotics 15: "The ontogeny of precocial vs. altricial Umwelten"

Yesterday around Midnight I composed the abstract below and submitted it to the 15th international Gathering in Biosemiotics (Copenhagen, 30 June - 4 July 2015).


The ontogeny of precocial vs. altricial Umwelten

Morten Tønnessen, University of Stavanger

The model organism in Uexküll’s Umwelt theory (Uexküll 2010 etc.) is an adult organism. In the case of embryos, fetuses and, in many species, neonates and young specimen, his dictum that an animal’s Umwelt only consists of those questions that the animal can answer does not apply. As Magnus (2011: 41) observes, Uexküll distinguishes between the time of becoming and the time of being, where “[t]he time of becoming equals the time needed for developing functioning organs; the time of being on the other hand covers the time when the organs have acquired their final form and as such are ready for use.”

The human species is not the only species that is not born ‘ready-made’. Whereas individuals of precocial species are relatively mature and mobile from the moment of birth or hatching, and thus quite independent from the outset, individuals of altricial species, whether mammals or birds, are relatively helpless as newborn/newly hatched, and require adult care. As Starck and Ricklefs (1998: 23) write, many insectivores, all rabbits, many rodents and most carnivores

give birth to small neonates that have closed eyes and ears, and no hair, are generally poorly developed, and are dependent on maternal care for a long lactation period. Newborn marsupials and monotremes are extremes, resembling early embryos, even compared to other altricial mammals. Precocial neonates are found among the ungulates […] and several rodent taxa.

Given the noticeable, axiomatic correspondence between physiology and Umwelt, the Umwelten of altricial species are at the beginning of life radically different from the Umwelten of precocial species. Briefly put, whereas precocial Umwelten are largely functional from the outset (and can thus be studied in isolation, as it were), altricial Umwelten become fully functional only gradually (and must therefore be studied in conjunction with the Umwelten of other individuals on which they depend).

In the course of this presentation I will also offer a brief overview of the ontogeny of the embryonic, foetal and infant human Umwelt (Tønnessen 2014). Fundamental questions that will be addressed include: At what point does the human Umwelt emerge? What Umwelt transitions can be identified in the ontogenesis of the early human Umwelt? What is characteristic of the Umwelt trajectory of human embryos/foetuses/infants? And, how are Umwelt objects established/crystallized/fixated in the human Umwelt?

Acknowledgement: This work has been supported by the research project “Animals in Changing Environments: Cultural Mediation and Semiotic Analysis” (EEA Norway Grants/Norway Financial Mechanism 2009–2014 under project contract no. EMP151).

Magnus, Riin 2011. Time-plans of the organisms: Jakob von Uexküll’s explorations into the temporal constitution of living beings. Sign Systems Studies 39(2/4): 37–57.
Starck, J. Matthias; Ricklefs, Robert E. 1998. Patterns of development: The altricial–precocial spectrum. In: Starck, J. Matthias; Ricklefs, Robert E. (eds.), Avian Growth and Development: Evolution within the Altricial-Precocial Spectrum. New York: Oxford University Press, 3–30.
Tønnessen, Morten 2014. The ontogeny of the embryonic, foetal and infant human umwelt. Sign Systems Studies 42 (2/3) (Special Issue “Sign evolution on multiple time scales” guest-edited by Kristian Tylén and Luis Emilio Bruni): 281–307.
Uexküll, Jakob von 2010. A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans with a Theory of Meaning [orig. Uexküll 1956 [1934/1940]; O’Neil Joseph, trans.] Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press.

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