By Saif Ansari
Illustration by By Chloe Chan
In biosemiotics, a field of study that focuses on signs and codes in biological systems, there is a term for an organism’s model of its own existence. An organism processes and reconstructs its surroundings into this model, which is then used as a reference to reality in order for the organism to carry out its essential functions. The term referred to here is the German umwelt. One could say that one’s umwelt is similar to one’s point of view, and while there is a relationship between the two terms, they do not refer to the same concept. Umwelt is more than a simple outlook, it is a bubble of a world that each of us owns, lives in, and grows in. One’s point of view is severely dependent on one’s umwelt, but there lies a separation between point of view and umwelt. Umwelt is what points one’s view in a certain direction.
There are two important factors that contribute to the development of an umwelt. The first factor is the ability of an individual to perceive a certain type of phenomenon, or more explicitly, what senses the individual possesses. This factor is dependent upon what species the individual belongs to. The term species is defined in different ways for different applications, but one of the more commonly utilized definitions of a species is “a group of related organisms that share common characteristics and are capable of interbreeding” (“species”). The second factor that influences umwelt is what an individual deems notice-worthy. Despite the abundance of stimuli in an individual’s surroundings, only those stimuli that correspond to, or affect, one of the individual’s needs, wants, or values will make a lasting impression on it and its umwelt. For humans, these values are often a product of the culture of the time and environment, personal experiences, and how those experiences are understood by the individual. In some cases, similar experiences within a community heavily influence group thinking on a scale that makes the umwelt of every member of the community a global, rather than personal, matter.
Vaccine refusal is the widespread refusal to accept vaccination for an illness, and in recent years it has been a major setback for international efforts to eradicate diseases such as polio and measles. In an article from the April 2013 edition of the New England Journal of Medicine, public health researcher Dr. Saad Omer discusses the relationship between disease incidence and vaccine refusal within a community. Omer supposes that populations refuse vaccines when the diseases they prevent are absent, or present in extremely low proportions, in the region. He writes,
if aggressive control efforts have substantially reduced a disease’s incidence, few people in a given community may have direct (or indirect) experience with that disease. Therefore, successive age cohorts have only a vague collective memory of the disease’s dangers, whereas people may frequently hear about real and perceived adverse effects of vaccination. Parental perception of risks and benefits associated with vaccines is thus altered, and vaccine refusals often increase (Omer 1).
The absence of disease in a community drastically alters the umwelts of its members, making the community less fearful of disease outbreak as a whole. In contrast, previous generations from the same community might have witnessed the consequences of such outbreaks firsthand, and their umwelts might be left heavily impacted by the horrors of disease. Such impressions likely pointed the older populations to view vaccination as a solution to disease. But their descendants are far removed from those horrors, and therefore their descendants’ umwelts do not point to vaccination as their ancestors’ did. Instead, contemporary umwelts might point away from vaccination because of the “real and perceived adverse effects of vaccination” (Omer 1) that today’s society is becoming increasingly fearful of. Evidently, umwelts play large roles in deciding an individual’s actions, and in turn, deciding an entire community’s actions.
Umwelts can also play a role in conditioning the individual’s mind into a state of familiarity, causing neglect on the possibility that other, substantially different, umwelts exist. In his essay, Life Beyond Earth, Joel Achenbach recounts an expedition with a team of exobiologists to a cave in southern Mexico. The purpose of the expedition was to study the unique microbial life present in this remote, inhospitable cave. The microbes’ living conditions were unsuitable for humans to the point that Achenbach and his colleagues were forced to wear gas masks in order to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning. Achenbach’s friend, Penny Boston, who was also on this trip, said of their exploration, “We have discovered organisms thriving in environments harsh to us but essential to them. It broadens your perspective… It’s good for your soul, and good for your intellect, and good for your work to have your imagination stretched, to be open to the possibilities.” (Achenbach 22). At the very least, Boston is describing the cognitively satisfying feeling of having witnessed a new umwelt seemingly from a realm separate from Earth’s entirely.
While life under extreme conditions is observable and examinable, some are fascinated by the possibility of life that has not yet been proven to be in existence. And this, as Achenbach impresses upon the reader in Life Beyond Earth, is a possibility that has captivated our imaginations, findings its way into everything from film and literature to actual scientific research. One possibility Achenbach offers in his essay is that there might be only a few incidences of life in the universe, and therefore our odds of finding life outside Earth, if it exists, are extremely slim. Another possibility he mentions is that extraterrestrial beings exist and are aware of our existence on Earth, but that they choose not to reveal themselves to us. This hidden existence of extraterrestrial beings would supposedly account for the various reports of flying saucers, UFOs and alien abduction stories over the course of the last century.
A possibility that is not explored by Achenbach is that life is present in an umwelt so differently from ours that its existence is nearly incomprehensible to that of human beings. On Earth, life is based on a few major elements: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen. These four elements, in addition to some other less common ones, are omnipresent in biological molecules found in all life on Earth. Accordingly, many searches for extraterrestrial life involve looking for traces of these elements in organized molecules. While this method of inquiry is reasonable within the bounds of modern biology and chemistry, it leaves out potential for the discovery of a more discrete form of life.
Cosmic dust is a kind of plasma, a state of matter in which electrons are removed from atoms, leaving behind a cluster of charged particles. These dust particles are often a product of exploding stars, and are present in abundance in our solar system. In a paper from the New Journal of Physics, physicist V.N. Tsytovich of the Russian Academy of Science discusses research he conducted on cosmic dust and its exceptionally life-like properties. Using a dynamic computer model, he and his research team found that cosmic dust particles not only have the tendency to self-assemble into helical structures, but that these helical structures can interact with each other, compete for food (which is scattered plasma itself), induce self-replication, and evolve structurally, with less stable structures being terminated in favor of more stable structures. Based on these observations, Tsytovich concludes that “… complex self-organized plasma structures exhibit all the necessary properties to qualify them as candidates for inorganic living matter that may exist in space provided certain conditions allow them to evolve naturally” (Tsytovich 1). If Tsytovich’s conclusion stands true, then Joel Achenbach might have some new, unique evidence to contribute to the search for extraterrestrial life. The life that our civilization has been searching for could be present in dust, matter so valueless to us that our umwelts never point to it unless to clean it from our floors and shelves. The idea that a substance so miniscule and unassuming could actually possess life and vitality is entirely novel to humans. Our umwelts, limited by our senses and values, do not point us to the possibility that life exists in such a discrete form. And yet, there are other, more obvious possibilities that our umwelts fail to point to despite all the senses and values we attempt to develop.
“Not in France,” the police officer stuttered as he pointed to the speed gun, which read “218 km/h”. He motioned for my driver’s license, and I, with my heart pounding, produced a week-old New York State driver’s permit. I was sixteen years old, speeding down the A10 autoroute west of Paris in a dark blue sports car, when I noticed a pair of blue police lights perched on top of stationary Peugeot on the side of the road. I muttered to myself, “Oh shit,” and slammed on the breaks long enough to bring the car down from 230 kmph to 218 kmph, the speed that the officer clocked me at. The car I was driving did not belong to me, but to my friend Constantin, who was in the passenger seat next to me. When I pulled onto the shoulder of the motorway and came to a stop in front of the police car, our worlds began to shift dramatically. A concerned police officer got out and approached my window, saying something that I could not understand. Had we been ordering crème brûlée after dinner, Constantin would have translated, or done the talking for me entirely. But the world was now vastly different than the one we were in minutes before. Constantin sat back silently and blankly in his seat, making no reaction to the situation at hand. Our umwelts were partially overlapped at this point, but he was not receptive to communication. Turning to the officer standing at the window, I vocalized a mixture of mispronounced French and apologetic English to fill in the gaps, trying to indicate that I did not speak his language. He, in an equivalently deficient manner, attempted some English, amounting to “Not in France”, as he pointed to the speed gun.
When I first sat in the driver’s seat of Constantin’s car, something inside me changed. The lens I saw the world through was changing very rapidly in a way it had never done before. This was certainly not the first time I had taken a rash action, but it was the first time such an opportunity presented itself to me, and the effect this experience had on me was not like Penny Boston’s when she discovered novel life in barren caves of Mexico. I was not fascinated, I was not cognitively satisfied, but simply fixated on the only thing my umwelt pointed me to: the road ahead of me. My values became distorted by the sound and power of the car, and this, in turn modified the world for that amount of time in which I was behind the wheel. Nothing mattered but the force pushing me back in my seat. Later on, I learned Constantin’s fear was that the police would impound his car. According to French traffic regulations, if a foreign driver cannot pay the fine for a speeding ticket on the spot, the car is to be impounded to ensure the fine is paid. When we were pulled over, Constantin’s umwelt was occupied with the harsh reprimanding he expected from his parents and the difficult process of retrieving his car, while mine showed me the events of the past few minutes through a lens of regret and youthful irresponsibility.
The umwelt is a very powerful accessory of life. Umwelts can cause disease outbreaks, discover new life, and spawn massive speeding tickets. To a vaccine refuser, what is a new, abstract form of life? To a structure of cosmic dust, what is recklessness? To a speeding teenager, what are particle physics and the adverse effects of vaccination? Without our models of reality, none of these questions would be answerable. And yet, those models themselves can render such questions unanswerable by way of their never-ending limitations.