HOW RELATIONALITY CONNECTS THE INDIVIDUAL AND ECOLOGICAL LEVEL OF BIOLOGICAL STUDY
Author: Morten Tønnessen
Affiliation: Department of social studies, Faculty of social sciences, University of Stavanger, Norway
Relationality – the ways in which organisms are involved in relations to other organisms – is a crucial aspect of ecology, and biology at large. From the vantage point of Biosemiotics, the logical starting point is to define biosemioticrelations as relations that involve methodical (regular or recurring) sign exchange. Organisms that are connected by such relations are biosemiosically linked.
A proper understanding of the occurrence and nature of biosemiotic relations can help us in explaining the interconnectedness of various life forms in the intricate web of life, of semiosis, and of worlds that we call “nature” (Tønnessen 2003). By mapping and describing the biosemiotic relations a specific organism engages in, and thus what it relates to as carrying meaning for it, we by and largely describe what being that organism amounts to.
Biosemiotic relationality helps us understand ecological complexity because, in combination with organisms´ biosemiotic agency, it allows for complex, dynamic living systems. Biosemiotic relationality can furthermore help us understand how the individual and ecological level of biological study are interconnected. From the individual organism´s point of view, its particular form of relationality is an expression of its “operating space”, to borrow an expression from Rockström et al. (2009). Not only is it important for the complexity and integrity of ecosystems. It is also significant for the integrity, and the living conditions, of the individual organism.
In our time of massive anthropogenic environmental change, as succinctly expressed by the term “Anthropocene” (Steffen et al. 2011), a major challenge is to work out how von Uexküll´s “subjective biology” can be applied in the context of global human ecology. From a relational point of view, we can observe that human beings take part in several co-dependent relations with animals, ranging from livestock to pets. We rely on their animal products or social company, and they rely on our good treatment and husbandry, and in some cases our social company.
In the current scientific discourse, topics related to individual human and animal welfare are largely disconnected from topics related to environmental sustainability. Biosemiotic relationality can contribute to showing how these different topics are connected. Borrowing again from Rockström et al. (2009), we could set out to determine the “safe operating space” of organisms in terms of their biosemiotic relationality. This would amount to addressing questions such as: To what extent is organism X´s relationality flexible? When considering the significant relations organism X engages in, which ones of these are irreplaceable, and which ones are replaceable or amendable? Under current ecological circumstances, many biosemiotic relations are bended or broken by extreme breeding, automated machine-handling, homogenous social environments, industrial-style indoor environments (in animal husbandry) – and depleted wildlife. What are the limits for such bending of significant biosemiotic relations, in terms of environmental sustainability and individual welfare?
By applying the notion of biosemiotic relationality in such contemporary contexts, I aim to demonstrate that the topic is worthy of theoretical discussion as well as having practical applications and implications.
ReferencesRockström, Johan et al. (2009). Planetary boundaries: Exploring the safe operating space for humanity. Ecology and Society14(2): 32. URL: http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol14/iss2/art32/.Steffen, Will, Jacques Grinevald, Paul Crutzen, and John McNeill 2011. The Anthropocene: Conceptual and Historical Perspectives. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A369(1938):842–867. doi:10.1098/rsta.2010.0327.Tønnessen, Morten 2003. Umwelt Ethics. Sign Systems Studies31 (1): 281–299. With Russian ("Этика умвельта") and Estonian ("Omailmma eetika") abstract.