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Thomas Sebeok “Perspectives in Zoosemiotics”

Sebeok, Thomas A. 1972. Perspectives in Zoosemiotics. The Hague: Mouton.

Animal Communication (63-83)

The communicating organism’s selection of a message out of its species-consistent code – as well as the receiving organism’s apprehension of it – proceeds either in accordance with a genetic program dictating an almost wholly prefabricated set of responses, or with reference to each animal’s unique memory store which then determines the way in which the genetic program is read out. (72)

The practice of territoriality is a concrete example of a convention, and a convention is a kind of code. (74)

A code is that set of transformation rules whereby messages are converted from one representation to another, a message being a string generated by an application of a set of such rules, or an ordered selection from an agreed, that is, conventional, set of signs. The physical embodiment of a message, a signal, is a sign-event or a sequence of sign-events where, in the domain at issue, a small amount of energy or matter in the source, an animal, brings about a large redistribution of energy or matter in the destination, the same or another animal. (75)


Semiotics and Ethology (122-161)

Zoopragmatics is concerned with the manner in which an animal encodes a message, how this is transmitted in a channel, and the manner in which the user decodes it. Since any form of physical energy propagation can be exploited for purposes of communication, a primary task is to specify the sensor, employed among other members of a given species or between members of different species, and emerging subdivisions of the field are commonly organized in terms of the properties of the channels used. (124)

The basic assumption of zoosemiotics is that, in the last analysis, all animals are social beings, each species with a characteristic set of communication problems to solve. All organic alliances presuppose a measure of communication […] (130)

At present, zoosemantics consists largely of a heterogeneous collection of ad hoc proposals, and this partly for practical reasons, deriving from the enormous complexity of the structure, psychology, and social organization of animals, as well as the relative inaccessibility of the habitats where many of them dwell […] but, even more fundamentally, because semantics suffers from lack of a theory adequate to cope with the data of animal communication. (131)

Pure zoosemiotics is concerned with the elaboration of theoretical models or, in the broadest sense, with the development of a language designed to deal scientifically with animal signaling behavior. Descriptive zoosemiotics comprehends the study of animal communication as a natural and as a behavioral science in its pragmatic, semantic, and syntactic aspects, as briefly sketched in this essay. Finally, applied zoosemiotics aims to deal with the exploitation of animal communication systems for the benefit of man. (132)

In animals, as well as in man, a zoosemiotic event has six dimension, conveniently discussed under three headings: zoopragmatics, which deals with the origin, propagation, and effects of signs; zoosemiotics, which deals with their signification; and zoosyntactics, which deals with codes and messages. (133)


Zoosemiotic Structures and Social Organization (162-177)

Four principal kinds of behavior patters, relevant to communication, may be said to inform the organization of animal societies. The first of these is territoriality […] Territoriality refers to a variety of behavior patterns associated with the active defence of a certain site by an animal. […] The term is somewhat misleading, for one reason, because territorial behavior can take temporal as well as spatial forms, and, moreover, because it conveys a suggestion that the defended area is immovable. Actually, as Hediger pointed out, the defended area, bubble-like, may float with the individual. (172)

The second form of behavior relevant to social organization is based on dominance relations. Dominance refers to a variable condition according to which animals are ranked; the positions in the hierarchy may, under certain conditions, be interchanged. The establishment of a convention of precedents lends organized society a certain stability, counteracting the spacing effect caused by aggression, and facilitates patterns of communication by defining, with more or less precision, their social context. (173)

A third phenomenon is leadership, which may or may not be linked to dominance status. It is found in schools of fish, flocks of birds, and especially among mammals whose social structure persists over relatively long periods. The leader is the individual that emits the signals initiating movement of a group, determining its direction and rate; or that sets it mood, triggering, with the appropriate signs, alarm or feeding behavior. The definition of leadership is thus essentially a semiotic one. (173)

Finally, parental care and other forms of shared stimulation (as well as its converse, the shutting out or inhibition of social stimuli which may provoke aggression) are responses that tend to be associated with complex and long-lasting social bonds. Here belong the mutual grooming behavior of monkeys, as well as the reciprocal visual and auditory displays observed in many fish and birds. (173)

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