Biosemiotics of Mimicry: Introductory Notes

On a rainy October day 5 years ago, I messed up my mushroom roast. We had spent a long day hiking in thick north-east Estonian forests near Lake Peipus, gathering different Boletus species from this chilly and foggy mushroom heaven. Later, back home, after spending hours cleaning and preparing mushrooms, the smell of freshly roasted mushrooms floated in the air and my mind was prepared for the dinner. The first morsel, however, brought me painfully back to reality as the roast had a distinctively bitter taste that overshadowed all other flavours and spices. In the forest we had probably mistakenly picked a bitter bolete Tylopilus felleus among young porcini Boletus edulis. One of such specimens is usually enough to make you throw away your dish. I was not a victim of, well, mimicry, but of my limited ability to distinguish similar species that had different properties or applicability. The same dilemma is faced by many species who act as receivers in mimicry, as they too need to distinguish between organisms that are edible or inedible, harmless or dangerous, species-mates or predators and so on. Even the bitter taste of Tylopilus felleus is supposedly part of chemical defence system that mushrooms have against some fungivorous insects (Hackman and Meinander 1979: 53; Spiteller 2015).

This personal story characterises well the dominant themes in my approach to mimicry. First, mimicry, as I understand it, is a semiotic phenomenon—it includes a particular organism that has a problem in making correct interpretations in regard to the objects in its environment, within the limits of its perceptual sphere, based on the sign system it is using, and taking into account its competencies and earlier experiences. Second, mimicry is an ecological phenomenon in the sense that it includes many different species of the given ecosystem. Not only does it create communicative and ecological connections between species that take part in that particular mimicry interaction (as the receiver, carrier of mimetic signals and object of imitation), but mimicry is often open to other species that can occasionally encounter and become deceived by the confusing resemblance. There appears to be some sort of mimetic landscape or mimicry potentiality in the ecosystem. There are many resemblances and relations in nature that have not yet formed distinct mimicry systems, but have potential to do so in the future under the right circumstances.

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T. Maran, Mimicry and Meaning: Structure and Semiotics of Biological Mimicry, Biosemiotics 16, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-50317-2_1

Third, mimicry is not considered in this book as a pure object of biological science, but more as a hybrid object in the sense of Bruno Latour (1993) that connects the spheres of biology and culture. People in everyday life often have a strong relation to the mimeticity of nature. This could emerge as problems making taxonomical distinctions between similar species of berries, birds, and insects, or as folk narratives about cuckoo children or werewolves. A facet of the same topic is expressed in human relations with companion species who are selected and shaped by humans according to some image or preference (for example, the Komondor and many other sheep dog breeds resembling sheep), or in a situation where valerian or catnip is offered to a cat. The natural scientific understanding, too, often relies upon and works with conceptual distinctions and models that have a cultural basis and are rooted in the long history of the concepts of mimesis and imitation in philosophy and aesthetics.

At the same time I acknowledge the complexity of mimicry as a topic in biology. In many specific mimicry cases and topics such as developmental biology of mimicry, mimicry rings of the Heliconius butterflies, complex relations between Batesian and Mullerian mimicry, mimicry in brood parasitism, and others, the research literature dates back several decades and these subjects take full effort and many years to master. Having not worked as a field biologist for a long time now, I may be somewhat superficial in discussing these specific mimicry cases. At the same time, what I hope to offer a biologist is a supplemental viewpoint toward mimicry studies from the perspective of another discipline. A different perspective brings along different concepts and questions asked, allowing even the topic of mimicry, the history of which dates back about 150 years, to be seen afresh. If the reader happens to be a true-minded natural scientist, then I hope he or she can bear with me. I use concepts that come from semiotics, linguistics and other humanities disciplines, and apply explorative thinking probably more freely than is customary in natural sciences. My concern is not always about what mimicry is in terms of facts, but what it could be, if we were willing to shift our frame of reference a little. A few questions that could be relevant to biology, and that I aim to cover in this book, are the following: What are the relations of ecological and communicative processes in mimicry? What are organisms’ prerequisites and possibilities to take part in and act on mimicry? How can sign processes constrain or influence the development of mimicry? How can human perceptional bias and interpreting activity relate to mimicry, and what possible influence does this have on mimicry theory?

For semiotics and especially for biosemiotics, I hope to offer a thorough treatment of a topic that truly has a semiotic nature. It needs to be emphasised that communication, as an exchange of information and messages between organisms, appears to be the core of mimicry indeed. Biosemiotics could benefit from having more object-focused research than is customary, which could consequently lead to novel developments of the biosemiotics theory. Studying mimicry appears to open up many theoretical questions that could be relevant for the general field of biosemiotics. Some of these discussed in this book include: What are the relationships between signs and their (dynamic) objects in biosemiosic processes? What are the limits or borders of a sign, both in regard to the number of different interpreters as well as the scope of possible interpretations? What is the relationship between mimicry and iconicity? What is the role of abstract or symbolic sign complexes in ecological semiotic systems?

In a biosemiotics framework that deals with semiotic processes in intraorganis- mic, interorganismic and ecological levels, my research focuses mostly on semiotic and communicative relations between organisms and the role of semiosis in ecosystems. My primary concern is semiotic ecology of mimicry—how different species can become intertwined by mimicry in an ecosystem, and what the role and effect of mimicry as a semiotic process could be on this broader semiotic-ecological realm. Much of what I write about mimicry could be generalisable to other types of semiotic-ecological relations, which Jesper Hoffmeyer (2008a: 189) has denoted as semethic interactions in the ecosystem. In my understanding, the level of ecological relations is the most natural level for studying semiotic processes in nature, and yet much work needs to be done in this area in biosemiotics. The main issue from a biosemiotic perspective would be how ecological relations and processes at the ecosystem level translate into qualitative forms that can be perceived by organisms in their subjective and local presence.

My other area of interest within this book lies in the semiotic dynamics of mimicry. On the one hand, I try to observe how this diverse phenomenon of nature is translated into a scientific concept, i.e. how it is specified and defined, and how, at a certain point, it obtains an identity of its own. The concept is further applied to describe biological processes and to make typological distinctions, and some problems emerge in this process. The major source of problems in mimicry studies appears to be the incompatibility between the diversity of the biological world and human attempts to describe this diversity through a unified theory and by applying clear conceptual models. In this book, a different methodological approach is taken as my aim is not to establish a strong unified theoretical core. Rather, I make use of works of various authors—from Thomas A. Sebeok to Roman Jakobson and from Jakob von Uexkull to Wolfgang Wickler—and this loosely organised set of ideas gives me a modelling device suitable for bringing forth and analysing different aspects of mimicry as a complex phenomenon.

On the other hand, I focus on the position of the organism in the mimetic interaction: what its semiotic activities and behavioural dilemmas are and how this contributes to mimicry resemblance. It is foremost the activity of the living organisms—their memory and the ability to distinguish and to make mistakes—that influences what features are promoted in the evolution of mimicry resemblance and what will diminish in time. Thus my interest in mimicry has a twofold focus—humans as cultural sign users and animals as semiotic beings, and how mimicry as a semiotic phenomenon emerges when their activities are being juxtaposed. Thus my approach corresponds to what has been recently called bi-constructivist or multi-constructivist ethology (Lestel et al. 2014; Jaros 2016). Dominique Lestel et al. (2014: 128) describe bi-constructivism as follows: it is “ethology as the science of the human interpretation of animal interpretation” that regards as “axiomatic the subjectivity of animals and the situational emplacement of their human observers as living beings themselves.” I think that as a practical means of research, biosemiotics allows us to understand this dynamic quite well as it provides a framework and methodological tools to also take into account the semiotic activity of other animals. It is not just humans that create the description of the reality, but other animals also. Therefore, it would be important to attribute the position of the subject to other animals. Humans are not the only observers and researchers of mimicry. Other species, within the limits of their perceptual capacities and cognitive distinctions, also try to make sense of what is what in mimicry.

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