Mimicry as a Communicative Interaction

When analysing mimicry in the semiotic discipline, different viewpoints can be taken and different aspects emphasised. For instance, mimicry could be described as a communicative phenomenon or as a specific type of sign structure. The first approach would consider mimicry as an interaction between participating organisms, with relation to the classical transmissional communication model that includes sender, receiver, message, signal, environmental noise (corresponding to the pragmatic dimension of the sign relations[1]). The second approach would focus on the specific signs of mimicry, describe the possible types, combinations and series of these (corresponding to syntactic and semantic dimensions).

Mimicry as a communicative interaction appears to follow the general logic of communicative processes, being dependent on a channel or a medium, a communicative code (rules and habits of combining different messages and interpreting those) and participants’ intentions and/or biological functions. A good analytic tool for distinguishing and analysing such aspects would be Roman Jakobson’s model of linguistic communication, where he distinguishes between six components in communication and six corresponding communication functions. Jakobson proposed his communication model in the late 1950s, combining various sources and influences including the works of Karl Buhler, Bronislaw Malinowski, and Russian formalists. The basic components of Jakobson’s communication model are: (1) addresser (sender); (2) addressee (receiver); (3) message; (4) context that surrounds the message or what the message refers to; (5) code, which forms the basis of coding and decoding the message; and (6) contact, including both the communication channel, as well as the psychological contact between the sender and the receiver (Jakobson 1981: 21-22). By asking what happens if any of those factors dominates in communication, Jakobson distinguishes the following six functions of communication: (1) emotive or expressive when the utterance is focused on the sender’s (addresser’s) own intention or attitude; (2) conative when the utterance is directed at and aims to influence the receiver (addressee); (3) poetic function when the utterance foregrounds the properties of the message, for instance its internal aesthetics; (4) referential function when the utterance is focused on the meaningful relations with the context; (5) metalingual function when the utterance makes a reference to the communicative code at the meta-level; and (6) phatic function, in which case the aim of communication is to establish or keep the contact between the sender and receiver (Jakobson 1981: 22-27).

Jakobson’s functions were originally developed in the studies of human linguistic communication. Later, it has been shown (for instance by Dario Martinelli 2010: 77-80) that they can also be effectively used in the context of animal communication. Although mimicry is a relatively simple communicative phenomenon, Jakobson’s functions also appear to be operational in the context of mimicry. Thus mimicry can predominantly be about giving a false impression about the mimics’ intention, thus having an emotive dominant (for instance behavioural mimicry such as broken wing display in Charadriidae and others), or it can be focused on influencing the receiver’s interpretation and behaviour, thus having a conative dominant (sexual mimicry as that of bee orchid Ophrys sp.). Referential function is in the foreground of most cases of Batesian mimicry that abuse the reference between aposematic colouration of the model and its poisonousness or other defences. Metalingual function appears to be in the foreground in, for instance, satyric mimicry and other mimicry cases that combine several contradicting messages to create the mimetic effect. In such cases, it is the code relation between the animal’s appearance and its applicability that is taken advantage of and undermined by the mimic. Poetic function appears to be in the foreground in cases where it is the message’s inner structure that makes imitation or deception possible (e.g. in vocal mimicry). Phatic function can be considered dominant in cases when the mimic manipulates the communicative contact with the receiver. The latter is true in most cases of cryptic mimesis and camouflage colouration. It appears that functionally, mimicry cases are quite diverse as they make use of different facets of communication. This structural diversity can be well analysed based on Jakobson’s typology of different communicative functions.

Mimicry as communicative interaction also relates to other communicational phenomena in nature. Namely, mimicry is often dependent on the predominant communicative interaction that takes place between the model and the receiver. Depending on the mimicry case, model-receiver communicative interaction can take place between aposematic insects (models) and insectivorous birds (receivers), between females and males of solitary wasps (as in the case of reproductive mimicry of the fly orchid), as chemical communication among countless ants in the ant colony (exploited by many myrmecophilic insects, e.g. larvae of Lycaenids Aloeides dentatis, Maculinea rebeli) and so on. Correspondingly, mimicry as a communication system can be schematised as the interaction or mergence of two communicative interactions—model-receiver and mimic-receiver—, where the mimic is sending a message similar to that of the model, thereby intercepting the model- receiver communication. Such a schematisation has been used by Australian military scholars Carlo Kopp and Bruce Mills (2002) in the context of information warfare studies by contextualising biological mimicry among several other possibilities of destructive communication (see Fig. 4.1). Interpreting mimicry as a combination of two transmissional communication sequences allows for describing many specific aspects of mimicry (communicative dominant, the role of channel and noise, etc.).

At the same time, we should remind ourselves that transmissional models simplify the actual communicative situations in several respects. Important features missing in transmissional communicative models are feedback and the possibility for mutual interaction. In mimicry systems, the receiver’s feedback to the mimic and the model allows cyclicity or self-referentiality to enter into mimicry. The receiver’s feedback makes it possible for interpretation to become an agency influencing the resemblance of the mimic and the model (this will be discussed further in Sect. 9.1. “Semiotic selection: definition and examples”.

In classical evolutionary accounts, the receiver’s selective feedback is mostly considered to be an epiphenomenon or secondary process in comparison to genetic causes and heritability of mimetic features. Focusing on the communication process, however, can change this classical view by taking as a point of departure a single communicative situation and considering behavioural, developmental and

Mimicry system integrated with the Shannon-Weaver communication model (Modified after Kopp and Mills 2002)

Fig. 4.1 Mimicry system integrated with the Shannon-Weaver communication model (Modified after Kopp and Mills 2002)

Different feedback cycles that can have an effect upon communication

Fig. 4.2 Different feedback cycles that can have an effect upon communication. Distinction between autocommunicative (proprioceptive and exteroceptive) and communicative feedback can be made. The latter divides between instant feedback, ontogenetic and phylogenetic feedback evolutionary processes as expansions of the communication situation at different levels. From the perspective of communicative interaction, feedback allows the relation between senders and receivers to become dynamic, and in the long run, leads to changes in messages and in the sign system in general (see Fig. 4.2). From this perspective, every communicative interaction can be understood as consisting of at least three layers: (1) an one-time event between specific individuals in a specific time, space and environmental context; (2) generalisation of interactions between specific individuals, which accumulate in individual learning and experience; (3) relationship between participating species, with coevolutionary changes. Respectively, feedback in communication can also take place: (1) within the limits of a singular communicative situation (e.g. flight manoeuvring of a mimic butterfly and an insectivorous bird); (2) in the ontogeny of the participating individuals (e.g. different effects of encountered hoverflies and wasps on the toad’s learning of how to avoid wasp-like insects); (3) in the phylogeny as a fine-tuning of colour resemblance between mimics and models by selection caused by different ecological (e.g. predation) pressures.

Among mimicry cases, the relevance of these feedback cycles may differ and furthermore, when considering a single mimicry case, participants may rely on different feedback cycles. For instance, if we consider communication in a mimicry system between small song birds (e.g. great tits Parus major) and moths with eye- spots (e.g. eyed hawk-moths Smerinthus ocellatus), then birds have a greater chance to learn from their individual experiences, whereas moths need to rely more on instant behaviour and evolutionary fixed adaptations. The difference is caused by the different lethality rate, but also by different cognitive capacities and life spans of the participants.

Mimicry as a communicative situation appears to have structural diversity in regard to functional dominants of communication, and to the location of feedback in the system. Also the balance between the sender’s and the receiver’s activity can differ. In some examples, mimicry depends more on the receiver’s capacity of perception (e.g. many cases of camouflage) where the activity of the mimic is minimal. In other cases, it is predominantly the mimic’s complex behavioural activity that creates the mimetic effect. Whatever the balance is between the activities of the mimic and the receiver in a specific mimicry system as communication, they need to fit well together for the mimicry to be operational. A communicational approach helps to highlight different possibilities for such coupling to emerge.

  • [1] Distinction between syntactic, semantic and pragmatic dimensions of sign comes from the worksof eminent American semiotician Charles Morris. Syntactics is concerned with relations betweendifferent signs (sign vehicles), semantics with the relation between the sign and its meanings orobjects referred to and pragmatics with the relations between signs and interpreters or participantsof communication (Morris 1971a: 21-22).
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