The purpose of this chapter is to consider what the communication theorist may expect from the domain of communication behavior in animals. Such an aim places this paper in the field of what in America is called bionics, i.e., the study of the implications of the performance of certain tasks by living organisms for the physical and technical domains.
One can indeed have doubts about what we are looking for: can information theory help the zoologist, or the reverse, can the study of the animal world help the communication physicist? Mere civility would suggest a noncompromising answer; each can help the other. But we consider it more profitable to restrict ourselves to the second case only. Such a perspective will sketch the scarcity of evidence and will thus allow us to raise a series of queries which are in fact problems to be solved or programs to be carried out.
DEFINITION OF COMMUNICATION THEORY
Let us first consider briefly what communication theory really is and, more precisely, what it is not. It is not linguistics, but a physical science underlying linguistics. Neither is it reducible to the famous Shannon formula for computing the entropy or complexity of messages which has given birth to the unfortunate word “information.” Communication theory is:
1. A terminology: the notions of message, repertoire, complexity, information, redundancy, and signal stem from this theory. One could reasonably contend that what information theory brings to the ethologist is a vocabulary and its accompanying concepts (as much as the possibility of making false interpretations).
2. A corpus of doctrines which generates itself quite independently from applications and which tends toward a general theory of interrelated systems. It tries, for instance; to provide a rough sketch for the architecture of the “message” considered as a hierarchy of elements. This suggests, for instance, the existence of scales of complexity either in the universe of messages and signs or in the universe of organisms producing these messages.
3. An attitude of deliberate refusal to understand the problem phrased in a conventional manner—putting the meaning into parentheses in order to introduce it back at the end. This attitude has two features:
a. It is definitely structuralistic at the start, i.e., it affirms that one can split the world of phenomena into atoms, count them, and build again a model by using a series of rules called “structure,” and it is definitely “gestaltist” at the end in building a dialectic between message and noise.
b. Until now, it has had a statistical character essentially, for it emphasizes generality by statistical algorithms; it looks first for the mode and then for the deviation. This now shows signs of change through the introduction of long-distance ordering principles, among which Chomsky’s rules are the best known.
Such an attitude ignores, for the sake of communication behavior, the specificity of animals; it is integrative in the sense that it takes into account only a common aspect of their behavior. It reenters this specificity only at a later stage with the so-called “ectosemantic” factors of the message.
Communication theory is also suggestive of a specific method; that of models, i.e., simulation processes in a restricted range of phenomena.
APPLICATION OF COMMUNICATION THEORY
Now this corpus of words, theories, and attitudes is to be applied in the realm of animal communication. We have already recognized the methodological distinction between transmitter (T), message, receiver, repertoire (R) considered individually and the repertoires of each of them which have some commonality (see Fig. 1). Between T and R something is exchanged which is measured by its amount of novelty or originality and which ensures the sharing of a vicarious experience. Now, are we dealing with the subjects in the act of transmitting or with the flow of messages? In the first case, the theory makes possible a complexity doctrine of communication networks; in the second, a theory of acceptability of messages. It seems that throughout the whole literature on the subject the two have been intricately mixed, a difficulty which arises at all times especially when the observer can be certain about the reception only by eliciting a response which is an action that is often a new patterning of the communication network. This leads necessarily to confusion between situations, giving rise to a repertoire of situations, and signs exchanged, giving rise to a repertoire of signs. Are we looking for a semantics of animal life or a semiotics of communication material? As long as this distinction is not sharply drawn, there will be difficulties, but this confusion itself raises the problem of a list of situations preliminary to a study of the messages exchanged.
Here, communication theory brings some useful suggestions.
1. A measurement of the complexity of situations (Fig. 2). The author is personally involved in a piece of social research in which he tries to develop a theory of situations of objects and of actions, where one of the greatest difficulties is to define exactly what we mean by an “action” or a “situation”—what is the beginning and the end of such? How is it possible to isolate it in the time continuum or the flow of events? In animal communication, we see the ethologist working with these notions without too many conceptual difficulties, and this is a positive contribution to the problem of communication at the human level. The measurement of the complexity of situations could be based on the number of elements of the Umwelt involved, the relative entropy of them, and the like.
2. A device for the hierarchization of actions or situations through an optimalization algorithm relative to the choice of splitting elements.
3. Some kind of classification of signals according to the animal that emits them, which would be a most interesting relation for phylogenetic studies (Fig. 3). Such a classification would be at least two-dimensional, based on the scale of complexity of the organs or organisms studied, which can be ranked without too many difficulties, and the scale of complexity of the signals produced. It is already known that in order to explain the properties of such a diagram, e.g., through the theory of evolution, it would be useful to introduce a third dimension: the redundancy of the structure compared to the rate of tolerable error in the signal reception and utilization (noise, accuracy, mistakes, failures in the receiving nervous system).
To reach something positive in this respect, one should dispose of much more material and data than presently available. This brings us to the demands that the communication theorist would like to make of the ethologist. In the zoosemiotic field we have had access to a very limited number of instances: apes, bees, porpoises, birds, grasshoppers, moths, and cats. We hear less about octopuses, ants, lobsters, rats, pecking hens, snakes, or elephants. How can the communication theorist draw some general conclusions about his own science out of such a scarce sampling: what could be a taxonomy of communication?
Indeed it would be a major contribution of zoosemiotics to communication problems to provide a number of unusual instances of communication behavior, according to what may be called “teratological method,” in order to get out of them some general features of linguistics per se. This brings us back to the question of criteria for communication behavior often raised in this field, and for which we suggested some heuristic procedures. Another interesting problem in the same category for the communication theorist would be the founding of some kind of typology of the “structuremes” themselves; i.e., the “sound objects” produced by the animals, disregarding their origin, in a like manner as phonetics does with human speech and modern musicology does with sounds produced by instruments.
Another contribution of zoosemiotics comes from an entirely different direction, issued from the basic distinction between social networks and what they carry. The systematic investigation of the mechanisms for spreading and circulating messages in a sociometrie network is one of the problems most sketchily studied, in spite of its recognized importance. It seems relatively easy to tackle the problern within animal societies: the indications given by Marler and the experiments conducted by the Busnels about the dyads of love pairs are interesting in this respect, just as is the famous paper of Rapoport (1950) about the preferences of pecking hens (see Figs. 4 and 5).
The idea of multiple channels enabling a superposition of sociometric networks of different structure brings by itself a number of problems well known to the communication theorist, e.g., background noise, diaphony, and cross-talk. This problem has not really been developed for the animal communication level. One can only wonder whether these structures—being simple in regard to the quality of transmitted material—would not be more amenable to a mathematical treatment and whether one would find stable patterns of communication arising from randomly interconnected networks. We think here of bird societies where, by random reinforcement, some special awareness (empathy) is developed into a decision of collective action. One of the suggestions put forward is of the role of the repeated signals in reverberating some information among the members of a group in order to store it; i.e., to build a “microculture” more or less permanent but, at any rate, trespassing the limits of the elementary conditioned-response reflex. This would be worthy of systematic experimentation for communication theory.
There is still another domain in which the communication theorist would like to have more knowledge. This is the process of integration—either collective, through a group such as referred to above, or individual. In short, we have not had our ration of neurophysiology in the animals in proportion to information about their behavioral patterns :
1. The study of their emitting and receiving organs is of major interest for bionics from the point of view, not of direct anatomy or physiology, but of general functional properties of the systems, with special attention to communicational properties and transformation of codings at each level toward more and more elaborate subroutines in transmission or more and more simplified codes in reception underlying the relevant features of the signals at each level, from ear mechanisms up to what the psychologists call ideation (whatever the word means). The elementary perception times as temporal slices of the Umwelt (e.g., why cannot sharks go to the movies?) certainly have a large bearing on communication behavior.
2. It is well known that such studies are very difficult, especially because our ideas about the anatomy and the various levels where the signals can be tracked are often uncertain. The simulation methods can well apply here; they boil down to the idea of an artificial perceiver. This artificial perceiver would materialize the most important and constant features already observed, especially the various levels of integration dependent on a number of subroutines, and make it feasible to enter new results of experimental work as soon as they are known. This method gains a practical importance, since the appearance in laboratories of such devices as analogue-digital converters, which alleviate some of the major burdens in the field of simulation processes by computer: the input of the signals. Models for the perception of signals can take into account a variety of different problems simultaneously and should be the work of a team. The importance of the new devices of analogue-digital and digital-analogue converters in the design of experiments in laboratories dealing with all kinds of signals has not been fully recognized until now.
Let us, finally, make a number of remarks on what appears to be, at least for the communication theorist, conclusively established in this book:
1. The growing importance of the study of the “other” channels of communication besides the visual and acoustic ones: i.e., the tactile, thermal, chemical channels. These have been almost totally neglected by communication engineers, with the exception perhaps of tactile sensitivity in man (Feldtkeller and Zwicker, 1956). They appear of major importance in animal behavior, and, for various reasons, it seems they will increase in importance in the study of man.
2. The value of perturbation methods in the study of the functional role of signals (Fig. 6). The set of errors, confusions, nonresponses, in correspondence with the set of perturbations introduced by the observer in the transmitting dyad, is a major experimental tool. In acoustic communication the introduction of high-fidelity recordings has supplied an important impetus for the use of such methods, but their principle is altogether general in that it stresses the relevant characters of a signal providing catalogues of distinctive features and confusion matrices in the broader sense, that is, between situations also.
3. The value of synthetic methods, in which the zoologist tries to “introduce himself” to the animals by lures of all kinds. These certainly require a large amount of experimental work, owing to the difficulties in ascertaining what the animal is, or is not, sensitive to. They focus upon the central problem of noise, which here has been somewhat left aside. To what extent does the communication pattern contrast with the Umwelt, how can this contrast be sharpened, and what are the different types of possible disturbances?
In conclusion, we should like to emphasize some remarks of a methodological or epistemological character which could be of use in building a zoosemiotics. This book tries to present the first general survey of a field which is fundamentally new, even if some of its results have been known for centuries (Fig. 7). This field has been exposed to light through the efforts of individual scientists who had rather extensive training in communication problems. One could say that zoosemiotics is more of semiotics than of zoology, that one of its purposes is to lean toward a general theory of communication in a world containing different species, living, in that respect, more or less in ecological equilibrium.
Its purpose converges with the theory of Umwelt, this Umwelt being built with living or nonliving beings, which are to be considered as fundamentally alike from the point of view of any species of these beings. In other words, the distinction that man has, at least in past times, sharply drawn between living or nonliving beings seems quite irrelevant to the animal world. This latter appears to be an homogeneous conglomerate of signals, some coming from lifeless nature, some coming from other species, some coming from the same species, since the individual who receives the signals and the difference in consciousness which exists between these kinds of transmitters are quite irrelevant. One could, for instance, wonder whether the perception of the receiver, which is of a categorical nature, does not fall more readily into two categories, i.e., unmoving elements of the Umwelt and moving elements of the Umwelt, these being more or less like the receiver.
This raises a methodological problem which appears quite conclusively in endeavors to build a zoosemiotics: the difficulty that a mind has to break through the human category of mind in the study of another medium. The scientist is always conscious of this need, but this is not enough. Communication theory, in its systematic refusal to view beings as something other than “black boxes,” provides substantial help in this direction, since the specific qualities of the individuals in communication are progressively added to a pattern, quite independently from them and entirely determined by an abstract process.
We have shown elsewhere (see our bibliography) that some methodological techniques could provide fruitful elements in the same direction; such as, for instance, the building of scales related to the accomplishment of communication behavior at various levels of the animal world. They are also ways of driving out the ghost of consciousness, which blurs the phenomenological point of view.
This remark leads to a second one. The plan of this book was built on the concept of “listing”: the authors were supposed to bring to bear on their topics the maximum number of relevant pieces of information and then to classify them in some way. This is the inductive process: getting a number of results and trying to explain them. In fact, we must acknowledge that, at the present level of science, this purpose is far from being achieved. The listing of the groups of animals, the communication behavior of which we have some knowledge, is rather restricted, and it certainly does not explore the whole of the animal kingdom. Yet it appears conclusively that the communication process is one of the fundamental patterns of behavior, which develops more or less continuously along the whole scale from worms to men, and that we must admit that the pattern of communication is fairly universal. Consequently, the other species of animals which are not present in our list also have communication behavior, and we should study this. Here, again, anthropomorphism has played an important role, and we have taken for granted that communication was what man considers as communication, i.e., visual and auditory channels being the most important, and we have been content with them, limiting our efforts to extending the ranges of frequencies (e.g., ultrasonics, infrasonics) of conducive media (e.g., liquids, vibrations of solids). One can wonder whether other dimensions will not appear when we have covered the field more adequately. We know, for instance, of the importance of chemical messages. A spur left by an animal in the space-time domain where he lives, and which is capable of being perceived as such by another animal, should, strictly speaking, be considered as a communication process. Communication thus becomes coextensive with the perception of the world and should be studied as such.
Along these lines, we have already pointed out that sociometry and communication are very strongly linked. One can suggest as fundamental factors of zoosemiotics: first, the ability to communicate in various species; and second, the “sociality” of various species, a fact which seems so evident when we compare crows with chameleons. Is there some common metric for such different levels of the animal world? This is one of the questions that the communication theorist asks of the zoologist. We need for this, first, a much better listing, and second, some kind of standardized procedure for studying cases of communication which could be of use to the semanticist.
On epistemological grounds, one must underline that another pitfall in zoosemiotics is the anthropomorphic concept of “language.” There is no such thing, properly speaking, as animal language, but there are plenty of communication patterns. These patterns can be built on the use of elements, which are to be enunciated and numbered: this brings us very close to the attitude of structuralism which is inherent in language studies. We are eagerly looking for phonemes, morphemes, atoms of situation or behavioremes; when we can ascertain one of them, we feel that we have got a piece of reality. The basic scheme of discrete communication channels on which we rely in itself leads to this quantification of the world. In fact, if such an atomic method finds its values in its own artificiality because it confronts the world of appearances in which we are so comfortably immersed and forces us to abstract significance, one can wonder what are the epistemological limits of such an attitude? It may be quite artificial to split the behavior of the whale diving in Neptune’s vast ocean or of the grasshopper in the act of lovemaking into discrete elements (“before,” “during,” “after”). In this respect, the recent history of communication theory in more developed sciences, e.g., psychology, shows that one of its major features has been to take into account in a comprehensive manner the concepts of continuity and gestalt, that is, of a direct opposition between a message as a whole—not elementary signals—and background noise. Communication theory in zoosemiotics will meet just the same difficulty. Structuralism is perfectly suitable at the first stage of a study devoted to the semantic characters of communication behavior. It obliges us to reconstruct the world just as a god-scientist should. As Husserl (1928, p. 54) says, “Philosophy is the deciphering of the Universe.”
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