Provisional Abstract (Version sent to Poli 2004.02.14):
Semiotic Ecology — A Generic Evolutive Assumption and Conceptual Tools for Understanding the Human Condition
Alfred Lang, Univ. Bern, Switzerland
info@langpapers.org      http://www.langpapers.org

Ours is an evolutive world. I mean, in all respects, from the formation of atoms and small molecules, stellar clouds and bodies, and minerals and crystals to the formation and change of living beings and their environments, of individual life courses, and of cultural traditions. An ontology or "systematic account of existence", then, should attempt to specify how things come about, change, and demise rather than what they are supposed to be. For there is no sovereign epistemic platform in evolutive systems, as there is no occasion for a fundamental split of the universe into realms requiring to become related, because everything emerges from something else. In consequence there is no need for any kind of metaphysics. I thus suggest inquiring into how entities we can discern and infer constitute each other, ourselves and our cultural environments included. Reducing our contribution by operating on procedures of comparison we can conceptually reconstruct, in part, of course, the net of conditions that bring things and events about and we can tentatively derive what is impossible, what is likely, and how it can be influenced by human action. But we cannot model our world and its course. This would require a duplicate of our world which makes no sense. For in spite of being rather regular, events in an evolutive world are not predictable.

This perspective – perhaps a "dynamic ontology"? – dissents from religious or scientific traditions thinking our world following a masterplan or universal law. Because it separates and opposes spirit and matter, ideal and fact, subject and object, this tradition is tearing humans asunder. John Dewey and, more than a century before him, Johann Gottfried Herder have developed similar attempts to reconstruct philosophy and our understanding in an evolutive perspective – without sustainable success;  not to mention the mostly failed attempts of Nietzsche, Heidegger or Wittgenstein in  more specific intentions. My own attempts to develop psychology into a science of both, the natural and the cultural aspects together of human existence have so far failed (mainly for social reasons; people demur to abandon their habits and loyalties), and have therefore led me, after 3 decades of preparation, to draft thoroughly new foundations towards Understanding the Human Condition. By Human Condition, I mean both: whatever can condition humans and whatever humans can condition. I want to find out how far one single and quite simple assumption taking evolution serious can carry me. And I invite you to show me, should I flounder anywhere.

Semiotic Ecology (SemEco for short) is a conceptual toolkit made for describing evolutive processes of all kinds and applicable on various levels of concreteness and scope. It also allows theory construction ranging from real to nominal, specific or highly general. It has been developed by observation guided elaboration of the Evolutive Assumption which blends the generalisation from ample observation that ours is a thoroughly Evolutive World with the single postulation that whatever we can discern or infer or invent is resulting from Interaction of extant Stuctures and nothing else. Structures are (dynamic) Matter-Energy-Formations or -Organisation articulate enough to being recognized and compared or perhaps (nearly) replicate or being replicated. Hereby are regular or repeating processes, physical or biotic, structural in the above sense; our distinction should not matter.

I have found it mandatory and enlightening to inquire things we discern and infer including their evolutive ancestry and possible descendancy whenever possible on the concrete level of singular events. This contrasts heavily with Platonian and Aristotelian paragons combined that have firmly established an ideal-real opposition and treating of both in terms of classes of things, rather than of concrete things when they are singular. In an evolutive world few things are not singular, in spite of many being composed of exchangeables like atoms. Classes of things interact in the heads or computers of the researches only and not in the settings of our common real world. Class logic is as unrealistic as hard to evade for humans; yet it cannot describe evolutive systems. I think we should look for understanding of our world on levels of symbolization as tightly as possible bound to real things and events, i.e. to concrete entities having their effects. (Wirklich ist, was wirkt oder wirken kann.)

Applying the Evolutive Assumption in this concrete way to all further observation a novel conception of everything becomes feasible. Among other things a Generic Theory of Evolution can be constructed which reaches from the prebiotic over the biotic and the individual to the cultural evolutions. The first refers to (a) the proto-evolutions or the physico-chemical formation of elementary particles, the cosmic formation of heavenly nebulae and bodies, and the mineral formation of complex Matter and Energy aggregations on the planets including the hydro- and atmosphere that prepare the conditions for what is known as life. The latter three are the genuine evolutions: (a) the biotic evolution: emerging living beings and their common environment; (b) the psychic or individual evolutions: the life-long organization of experience making and using of individual beings in their Umwelt; (c) the cultural evolutions: the emergence of traditions with their self-generated environments and forms of living together especially in communicative human groups. The same set of concepts can describe them all and in consequence makes possible genuine comparison and comprehending commonalities and differences instead of analogical transfer from Bioevolution. If Evolution itself evolves, so must the conceptions describing them. I give a sketch of some of the more important concepts and themes.

In spite of this bewilderung variety of phenomena the Evolutive Assumption can be specified in very simple terms: Evolution is ongoing Structure Formation by Interaction of (analytically) two Structures encountering and so generating a third or modifying, actualizing, demising one of them. Thus conceived, the basic triadic causative Relation of every evolutive event is both innovative by generating new Structures and regulative or effecting coherence and consistency by involving Structures systematically generated earlier. Our world then shows increasing complexity and systematic regularity while not really being predictable yet not exploding in infinite diversity. Evolutive systems considered in time, form structure-relational nets branching and merging or both diverging and converging at the same time, essentially directed, yet with recursions. Analytically, any node must have at least three relational legs. If we observe more than three, they can likely be reduced to combines of triads; with only two legs, as in traditional notions of necessary causation, there could be no evolution. My conception has evolved from Charles Peirce's Logic of Relations.

Evolution in general can then be conceived as Structure Formation (generation, change, actualization, demise) by Interaction of existing Structures in triadic Relations. The world becomes a dynamic and largely stabilized net of related Structures with innovative branching and restricting merging more or less balanced.

In Semiotic Ecology this evolutive foundation is elaborated with emphasis on human culturality but presumably pertaining to all known evolutions and showing how they can have emerged and how influence each other. Of great import is the ecological embeddedness from which result the specific affinities of all living beings in their Umwelt. SemEco also reveals how the interactive encounters can gain semiotical character based on the emergence of Meaning or Transaction in addition to direct physico-chemical Interaction. Prebiotic Structures mainly interact with their neighbors, distant relations such as field effects notwithstanding, on the basis of qualities directly accessible, e.g. motion attraction or repulsion, chemical valances etc. Living Structures simply cannot exist without their suitable environment and they 'know' about all pertinent features of their environment including other living beings. That is, they are time and again in their encounters transcending the actual present by registering their past which allows them to become a project into their and their world's future. Already protozoic cells have receptor structures that recognize molecules and selectively let only suitable ones pass the membrane to be assimilated and so gain matter and energy allowing procreation of their kind. This idea extends Jakob von Uexküll's conception of the Function Circle which is spiralling intro (=into) and extro(=onto) all organisms and thereby generating and accumulating Structures intra (=inside) and extra (=outside) these organisms as long as they are alive and which I name thus the semiotic  Function Cycle.

In fact organisms and their environments have co-evolved and non of the can exist and operate without exchange with the other; accordingly, they must be studied together as ecological units. Organism-environment Relations thus differentiate into an immediate, 'surface' quality governed level and deeper layers of potentials not immediately recognizable but 'known' to co-evolved and interacting entities of the two parts, organisms in particular. This amounts to what is known as Meaning. Meaning presupposes Structure differentiated with surface qualities and deeper properties, so that they can be recognized by the former ans eventually interact or rather transact by the latter. Meaning thus lies in Relatioms, not in Structures, which simply lets many Structures to realize many Meanings in different encounters. A conception of semiotic so becomes possible without postulating anything like a mind or Geist. Meaning is not in Things but in their Relations.

Structure Formation both within organisms and in their environment is systematic in that the former is presenting the latter and vice versa. Presentation means not simply Representation but Reference to something there with means proper to here. This is what is usually called of sign character or semiotic. Organisms leave traces out there in their environs and acquire knowledge and skills in here, i.e. within themselves, adding thus to their own differentiation and allowing themselves to thrive in their "known environments and to reproduce of their kind and of their often creative productions beyond. This happens on two levels gradually emerging: on the bio-genetic level Meaning Systems such as taxes, tropism, reflexes, and instincts build Structures within but are relating to without, specifying both the ingoing or IntrO- and the outgoing or ExtrO-Relation. On the psychic level, individuals, especially the animals of some minimal complexity, acquire their own experience and develop their genetic capacities to new individual levels and thus become effective in their environments.

Obviously, these both biotic and psychic enrichments imply Secondarization or Structure Formation within organismic Systems based and humoral and neuronal Structures and specific links to the environment which form a network of IntrA-Relations in every individual. In particular in humans this has brought capacities like language and  a self and a sense for the possible in addition to the sense for the real that dominates in animals. Humans then begin to modify their Umwelt in specific ways that can become traces in their outer world of their inner Processes. They thus form, individually and collectively networks of ExtrA-Relations in their common environment in addition to their IntrA-Systems. This allows for some of their emergences to become available to other humans and overcomes the limits of IntrA-Structures loosing functionality with the death of any individual. This is what is called culture or better Culturality, i.e. related sets of internal and external Structures, the latter stretching over generations in their traditions, the former to be acquired by every member of the traditions. Again, as Georg Simmel has well understood, Culturality is not either objective culture out there or subjective culture in here, but is the Relationship between the IntrA- and the ExtrA-Systems of some communicating Group of people.

The evolutive-ecological-semiotic conception of our world sketched here has numerous corollaries. I mention just a few:

(1) Ontology is dynamized, indeed. It can no longer state what exists but must turn to what is becoming, has been and can be becoming and how. Strategically, primacy of Relations over Things in understanding our world is mandatory. Causation is local and regular due to regularity of the Structures involved. No recourse to perhaps virtual and metaphysical conditions of uncleared status and ways of effecting such as natural or social law is required. Regularity and the unexpected are both understood on one single and simple principle.

(2) Epistemology gives way to perspectivity. Knowing something is no priviledge of any fictitious or real subject whatsoever. Rather there are many Structures 'knowing' about many Structures they may encounter. None can have an absolute position. Knowledge is no privilege of humans. Knowledge can prove substantial only in the course of its being brought to use. Error is a category of social differentiation, not of matters of fact.

(3) Concept(ion)s such as subject and object or truth and error and presumed phenomena like matter and mind (abstracted and reified rather than abstracted only) and many more turn out to need and get evolutive explanations. They can no longer play an explanatory role but are, if meaningful, entirely part of the normal course of things. By emphasizing comparison or indirect understanding our conceptions are much less tinted with anthropomorphic apprehension. Meaning or semiotic gains an entirely new understanding and role as the foundation already of simple life. It is itself emerging in new forms in psychic and cultural domains and their interchange.

(4) Anthropologically, an evo-eco-semiotical understanding of the Human Condition (a) does not isolate human beings out of their Umwelt and treat of them separately but acknowledges the mutual dependency of both individuals and groups. Priviledging either is obsolete. (b) It waives eternal law governing everything, because Interaction of enduring and replicated and affine Structures suffice  to explain both the extensive regularities of the human world as well as the unpredictability of its future.

(5) Ethically, the Human Condition by emerging secondary reflective capabilities acquires a natural foundation of freedom, i.e. of being capable of valuating and furthering or hindering this or that possible course of things. And this implies the cultural institution of responsibility, engaging and continuously re-evaluating in such effects of one's individual and collective actions which provide similar freedom and responsibility for coming generations. Otherwise, evoking and discussing one's past and possible futures is senseless. SemEco is founding an entirely new image of humans and of their world.