Cephalopod Semiotics


by Justin E. H. Smith

Jaron Lanier, of virtual-reality fame, was permitted to hold forth a few years ago in a Discover blog space on the topic of ‘morphing’ in molluscs.

The result is messy: Lanier introduces the analogy between cephalopod intelligence and extraterrestrial intelligence three times, each time as though it is the first. He says that cephalopods offer “the best standing example of how truly different intelligent extraterrestrials (if they exist) might be from us,” only to go on a few paragraphs further to wonder, “if cephalopods someday evolve to become intelligent creatures with civilizations, what might they do with their ability to morph?” Well are they morphing already because they are intelligent, or aren’t they? Is morphing just a preadaptation that might someday facilitate a different kind of communication than we are used to, or is it already a self-evident sign of intelligence?

Lanier wants to suggest, evidently not in the interest of paradox-mongering, but simply as an account of what he thinks is going on, that the ability of certain marine invertebrates to radically transform their shape, color, and pigmentation is a variety of ‘post-symbolic communication’. He imagines that if we ourselves could communicate through morphing, we might ‘simulate’ our own transparency when we are hungry, so that our friends could see our empty stomachs and be given to know of our condition. But just the vaguest familiarity with the semiotic tradition would have dissuaded Lanier from calling the display of the empty stomach an instance of non- (because post-) symbolic communication.

On C. S. Peirce’s influential view, for example, molehills are secure in their standing as signs of burrowing moles, as smoke is of fire. A fortiori, if one intentionally flashes an empty stomach to a friend in the interest of pressuring that friend into serving as restaurant accompaniment, one is not communicating directly the message ’empty stomach’, in which case the sign and the object would be identical (but even here I don’t think the message would be non-symbolic). One is rather using the empty stomach as a sign for communicating something like ‘let us get something to eat’. (Compare in this connection the familiar male primate gesture of flashing an erect penis. Surely the message there is not, or not just, erect penis. Rather it’s what might possibly be done with the primate male member that makes this an eminently symbolic display.) Since moles make molehills, molehills signify moles; and since hunger depletes the contents of the stomach, an empty stomach signifies hunger. There’s nothing post-symbolic about it.

We’re left with the possibility that cephalopod morphing is either a non-symbolic preadaptation to what might someday evolve into a visual-corporeal language, as opposed to an oral-aural one (which Lanier seems to believe when he imagines what cephalopods might someday become); or that it is already a language in the proper sense (which Lanier seems to believe when he identifies cephalopods as ‘the strangest smart creatures on earth’). In deciding between these two, it’s worth noting that the range at least of a cuttlefish’s morphing options seems rigidly determined by the features of the environment in which it evolved. If placed in an environment with unfamiliar color patterns –as, for example, on top of a chess board– it will do its best to take on these patterns, but clearly performs better when in its own natural element.

This footage suggests that there’s nothing at all like the infinite recursiveness that characterizes human language in the limited range of transformative options of which a cuttlefish can avail itself. In this respect, to call its transformations ‘intelligent’ is to take a leap of faith. Once one has conceded that the activation of a cuttlefish’s chromatophores by changes in its environment might be the result of intelligence, there is no good reason not to suppose that any stable phenotypic feature of a species that has appeared gradually across generations through natural selection is not also a mark of intelligence. This is what is known as ‘Intelligent Design’ –the idea that organisms have the features they do because there is some intelligent concern, in them or in an external agent, to accommodate their interests in the universe–, and it is universally despised in respectable company.

Judging from his most recent cri de coeur, I gather that Lanier is a skeptic about all varieties of techno-utopianism, and has gravitated towards something that feels like its opposite and that might be called a species of primitivism. It looks to the animals and to nature to give us what technology and human innovation turn out to have falsely promised. In this Lanier is joining up with a long tradition, one that vastly precedes his own coming-to-consciousness of the limitations of the Internet, &c. This tradition is exemplified by Zhuangzi in the 4th century BCE, who, as if to offer an anticipatory rebuttal of Thomas Nagel’s claim that you cannot know what it is like to be a bat, for example, insisted that he himself could clearly apprehend wherein a fish’s happiness consists. And it consists, not surprisingly, in swimming around and doing what comes naturally to a fish.

To the extent that happiness and rationality are two sides of the same coin, this perspective is taken up again in early modern European libertine thought, as in Girolamo Rorario’s 16th-century treatise, Quod animalia bruta ratione utantur melius homine (That Brute Animals Make Better Use of Reason than Man). The idea here, and then later even more prominently in the work of the Baconian philosopher John Bulwer, is that animals seek out what is in their natural interest directly, without the mediation of language (in Bulwer’s terms, the animals’ language is the language of the body; we slow ourselves down when we rely on the language of the mouth). Nature is rational, so action directly in accordance with nature is a direct expression of reason. Human exercise of reason-through-language is already mediated, distantiated, or cut off from the realm of reasons itself. It is approximative, whereas animals, lacking speech, are able to have directly what humans only approximate.

Rorario and Bulwer would surely have been enthusiastic about the cuttlefish (and probably knew ancient anecdotes about octopus intelligence via Aelian and Aristotle’s Historia animalium). Lanier’s interpretation of what is going on in the animal realm has a long history. This is a venerable history, and one the claims of which I myself find very compelling. But these claims rest on philosophical commitments that don’t simply flow from the self-evidence of a cephalopod’s corporeal transformations, or from facile comparisons to the world of virtual reality.

Piece originally posted at Justin E. H. Smith’s website