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Swarm Semiotics

Posted in Uncategorized by ce399 on 12/07/2010

A swarm has been defined as a set of (mobile) agents which are liable to communicate directly or indirectly (by acting on their local environment) with each other, and which collectively carry out a distributed problem solving. The body can be understood as a swarm of cells and tissues which, unlike the swarms of bees or ants, stick relatively firmly together. However, the swarm of cells constituting a human body is a very different kind of swarm from that of the social insects. The body swarm is not built on ten thousand nearly identical units such as a bee society. Rather it should be seen as a swarm of swarms, i.e., a huge swarm of more or less overlapping swarms of very different kinds. And the minor swarms again are swarm-entities, so that we get a hierarchy of swarms. At all levels these swarms are engaged in distributed problem solving based on an infinitely complicated web of semetic interaction patterns which in the end can only be explained through reference to the actual history of the body system, evolution.

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The swarming body

By Jesper Hoffmeyer

Paper presented at the 5th IASS congress in Berkeley, June 1995. In Irmengard Rauch and Gerald F. Carr (eds.): Semiotics Around the World. Proceedings of the Fifth Congress of the International Association for Semiotic Studies. Berkeley 1994. Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter 1997, pp. 937-940.

In the fifties the French biologist P.-P. Grassé made a semiotically very interesting analysis of nest construction in termites (Grassé 1959). This work may be taken as a nice illustration of a general phenomeneon in the life sphere which I have termed semetic interaction (from Greek: semeion = sign, etos= habit): Semetic interaction refers to the tendency of living systems to make signs based on any persistent regularity: Wherever there has developed a habit there will also exist an organism for whom this habit has become a sign.

When termites initiated nest constructing the following sequence of events was observed by Grassé: First, hundreds of termites move around at random, while they exhibit a peculiar habit of dropping small pellets of masticated earth in places which are elevated a little bit from the ground. In spite of the disorganised character of this activity, it results in the formation of small heaps of salivated earth-pellets. Second, these heaps of earth-pellets are interpreted by the termites as a sign to release a new habit. Every time a termite meets a heap it energetically starts building earth-pellets on the top of it. The effect of this activity will soon be the formation of a vertical column. The activity stops when the column has reached a certain species-specific height. Third, if the column has no immediate neighbours the termites completely stop bothering about it. But if in an adequate distance there are one or more other columns, a third habit is released. The termites climb the columns and start building in a sloping direction towards the neighbouring column. In this way the columns become connected with arches.

Grassé introduced the term stigmergie `incite to work’ for this kind of achievement, in which no direct interaction is necessary between the animals, since co-ordination is assured solely through the artefacts resulting from their behaviour. E. O. Wilson has later on renamed this phenomenon “sematectonic” (from Greek tecton = craftsman, builder) communication (Wilson 1975). The amazing fact is that through a seemingly haphazard sequence of events a nest is actually produced which cannot but elicit the feeling in the observer, that there must have been some kind of intelligence behind it. Can blind habits and ignorant signs create intelligence?

1. Swarm intelligence

Researchers in the new discipline of artificial life tend to think so, and they have baptised the term swarm intelligence for this phenomenon. A swarm has been defined as a set of (mobile) agents which are liable to communicate directly or indirectly (by acting on their local environment) with each other, and which collectively carry out a distributed problem solving. Based on this generalised concept of a swarm, French researchers have actually been able to simulate the termite’s nest-building behaviour on a computer by applying a very simple “stigmergic algorithm” (Deneubourg et al. 1992). From nest building in termites to the dreams and fantasies which imprison human intelligence is a long jump, and I personally don’t believe that intelligence can ever be modelled at all in a disembodied medium. It is tempting, nevertheless, to think of intelligence as a swarm-phenomenon, because this would bring us away from the ever returning homunculus problem: that there seems to be nobody – no homunculus – inside our brain who does the thinking, there just is no central processor to control the activities of the mind.

My point is that the swarm in which intelligence manifests itself is exactly that entity we call the body. Biologically speaking, the body can be understood as a swarm of cells and tissues which, unlike the swarms of bees or ants, stick relatively firmly together. However, the swarm of cells constituting a human body is a very different kind of swarm from that of the social insects. The body swarm is not built on ten thousand nearly identical units such as a bee society. Rather it should be seen as a swarm of swarms, i.e., a huge swarm of more or less overlapping swarms of very different kinds. And the minor swarms again are swarm-entities, so that we get a hierarchy of swarms. At all levels these swarms are engaged in distributed problem solving based on an infinitely complicated web of semetic interaction patterns which in the end can only be explained through reference to the actual history of the body system, evolution.

I want to emphasise: I am not claiming that the detailed dynamics of the body swarm is analogous to that of swarms of social insects. I only claim a formal analogy pertaining to the swarm phenomenon as defined above.

2. The floating brain

We surely should not take it for granted that our different body parts love each other, or that they have any intentions as to maintaining us. As the American biologist Leo Buss has shown, we should rather ask ourselves how it can be, that the cells and tissues of our body do in fact co-operate in creating us (Buss, 1987: 53). Buss introduced the expression somatic ecology for the striking state of breakneck-harmony characterising healthy people. The key to this “somatic ecology” seems to be the immune system. In 1976 the Danish immunologist Niels K. Jerne did an important observation when he pointed out that parts of the antibody molecules are interpreted as non-‘self’ by the organism which has itself produced them. Accordingly, the organism produces antibodies against its own antibodies. Such antibodies are called anti-idiotypic antibodies. Now, these anti-idiotypic antibodies may further provoke the production of anti-anti-idiotypic antibodies, and even anti-anti-anti-idiotypic antibodies. Therefore, as Jerne explains in his Nobel Price Laureate lecture: “In its dynamic state, our immune system is mainly self-centred, generating anti-idiotypic antibodies to its own antibodies, which constitute the overwhelming majority of antigens present in the body.” (Jerne 1985)

. The immunological network is based on communicative processes: On the surface of each cell are located millions of receptors capable of translating exterior molecular messages or signs to specific patterns of biochemical activity inside the cell. At each moment a given cell has to make a weighted interpretation of the collective state of its receptors. A given molecular message does not automatically release a certain cellular response, rather the cellular response will depend on the particular history of that cell many cell generations back in time as well as on its actual “cell-sociological” context, i.e., its relation to the surrounding system of cells. Although the system, at least in principle, might be fully described in molecular terms, its internal logic is adapted to its communicative way of functioning. There is a growing awareness among immunologists that the separation of the immune system from the rest of the body, and especially from the brain, is rather illusory. Not only are nerve fibres branching into the organs of the immune system, thymus, lymph glands, bone marrow and spleen. But more important brain function is now known to be modulated by numerous chemicals in addition to classical neurotransmitters.

The finding that surface receptors for neuropeptides, formerly believed to be exclusively found in the nervous system, are widespread on the surfaces of mobile cells from the immune system, indicates the extent of integration of the two big systems. Neuropeptides and their receptors join the brain, glands and immune system in a network of communication between brain and body, probably representing the biochemical substrate of emotion (Pert et al. 1985). Gradually a new image arises in which the brain is functionally integrated into the body: The “floating brain”. Swarms of immune cells interact with swarms of nerve cells in maintaining the somatic ecology. The view of a centralised authority in the brain controlling the ignorant body fades out of sight and is replaced by an interactive organisation based upon the distributed problem solving capacity of myriads of cell swarms working in parallel.

3. Semiotics and the swarming body

The general principle which has made this bottom-up or swarm conception of the body-mind biologically possible is the introduction of semiosis as the basic principle of life. By delegating semiotic competence to decentralised units, and ultimately to single cells, it becomes possible to ascribe intelligent behaviour to distributed systems. Stupid molecules become powerful tools as soon as they acquire semiotic quality, i.e., as soon as they are interpreted according to cellular habits. The transformation of molecules to signs opens for an unending semiogenic evolution based on semetic interaction patterns between entities at all levels. And through this evolution the semiotic aspects of material processes gradually increase their autonomy, thereby creating an ever more sophisticated semiosphere. A semiosphere which finally had the power to create semiotic systems, such as thoughts and language, which are only in the slightest way dependent on the material world from which they were ultimately derived.

4. Eight theses

1. Signs, not molecules, are the basic units in the study of life. 2. The simplest entity to posses real semiotic competence is the cell. This is because the cell is a self-referential system based on redescription in the digital code of DNA (Hoffmeyer 1992). 3. Subjectivity – or better “subjectness” – is not an either-or but a more-or-less phenomenon. Subjectness has its own natural history. 4. Living systems exhibit extreme semiogenic behaviour based on the semiotic dynamics of semetic interactions, whereby habits come to signify the release of further habits in an infinitely long and complex web stretching back to the beginning of life and forward to the global semiosphere of tomorrow. 5. Vertebrate bodies are supposed to function on the basis of swarm dynamic principles not unlike those pertaining to social insects. 6. The swarm of cells constituting a human body should be seen as a swarm of swarms, i.e., a huge swarm of overlapping swarms of very different kinds. The minor swarms again are swarm-entities, so that we get a hierarchy of swarms. 7. An image arises in which the brain is functionally integrated into the body. Swarms of immune cells interact with swarms of nerve cells in maintaining the somatic ecology. 8. Thoughts and feelings are not localised entities. They swarm out of our body collective.

References

*
*
* Buss, Leo. 1987: The evolution of individuality. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
* Deneubourg, Jean-Louis, Guy Theraulaz and Ralph Beckers. 1992: “Swarm-made architectures”, in: Varela, Francisco and P. Bourgine (eds.),Toward a practice of autonomous systems. Proceedings of the First European Conference on Artificial Life, Paris, 123-133. Cambridge: MIT Press.
* Grassé, P.-P. 1959: “La Reconstruction du nid et les coordinations interindividuelles. La théorie de la stigmergie”,Insectes Sociaux 6: 41-84.
* Hoffmeyer, Jesper. 1992: “Some semiotic aspects of the psycho-physical relation: The endo-exosemiotic boundary”, in: Sebeok, Thomas A. and Jean Umiker-Sebeok (eds.),Biosemiotics: The semiotic web 1991, 101-123. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
* Jerne, Niels K. 1985: ‘The generative grammar of the immune system’,Science 229, (4718): 1057-1059.
* Pert, Candace B., M. R. Ruff, R. J. Weber and M. Herkenham. 1985: “Neuropeptides and their receptors: A psychosomatic network”,The Journal of Immunology 135 (2): 820s-826s.
* Wilson, Edward O. 1975:Sociobiology. The New Synthesis, Cambridge: Belknap Press.

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