Total Umwelten Create Shared Meaning the Emergent Properties of Animal Groups as a Result of Social Signalling

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In this paper, I discuss the concept of ‘shared meaning’, and the relationship between a shared understanding of signs within an animal social group and the Umwelten of individuals within the group. I explore the concept of the ‘Total Umwelt’, as described by Tønnesen, (2003), and use examples from the traditional ethology literature to demonstrate how semiotic principles can not only be applied, but underpin the observations made in animal social biology. Traditionally, neo-Darwinian theories of evolution concentrate on ‘fitness’ or an organism’s capacity to survive and reproduce in its own environmental niche. However, this process also relies on underlying signs and sign processes, which are often over-looked in traditional ethology and behavioural ecology. Biosemiotics, however, places the emphasis on sign process, with signs and signals comprising a semiosphere. Significantly, whilst the semiosphere is formulated as physical phenomena, specifically energetic and material signs which can be detected and transmitted as signals from one individual to another, it is the Umwelten of living organisms which give those signals meaning. Further, two or more Umwelten can merge, giving rise to a ‘Total Umwelt’, which facilitates shared meaning of signs between two or more individuals. Across and within generations, this gives rise to cultural interpretation of signs within populations. I argue this is the fundamental basis for emergent group properties in social species, or indeed in solitary living species where individuals interact to mate, defend territories or resources, or in raising altricial young. I therefore discuss a fusion of traditional behavioural ecology- based theory with semiotics, to examine the phenomenon of ‘shared meaning’ in animal social groups.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 02 Nov 2020


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