Umwelt

Jakob von Uexküll, born into an aristocratic family in  Estonia in 1864,  lost most of his wealth by expropriation during the Russian Revolution. Aged 53 and needing to support himself, he took a job as professor of biology at the University of Hamburg where he became particularly interested in how living beings perceive their surroundings.  He developed the concept of  Umwelt (literally, in German, environment) meaning not so much one’s blanket surroundings so much as those aspects that an animal can sense and experience. By contrast, the Umgebung would be those same surroundings as seen from the particular perspective of a human observer.

He describes, for example, the tick.  “(T)his eyeless animal finds the way to her watchpoint [at the top of a tall blade of grass] with the help of only its skin’s general sensitivity to light. The approach of her prey becomes apparent to this blind and deaf bandit only through her sense of smell. The odor of butyric acid, which emanates from the sebaceous follicles of all mammals, works on the tick as a signal that causes her to abandon her post (on top of the blade of grass/bush) and fall blindly downward toward her prey. If she is fortunate enough to fall on something warm (which she perceives by means of an organ sensible to a precise temperature) then she has attained her prey, the warm-blooded animal, and thereafter needs only the help of her sense of touch to find the least hairy spot possible and embed herself up to her head in the cutaneous tissue of her prey. She can now slowly suck up a stream of warm blood.”

Thus the Umwelt of the tick is reduced to only three carriers of significance: the odor of butyric acid which emanates from the sebaceous mammalian follicles the temperature of 37 C. degrees corresponding to the blood of all mammals, and the hairiness of mammals.

In  his most recent book, An Immense World : How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden World Around Us, Ed Yong explains that “Every Umwelt is limited; it just doesn’t feel that way.  Each one feels all encompassing to those who experience it.  Our Umwelt is all we know and so we easily mistake it for all there is to know. This is an illusion shared by every creature.” 

Take bats as another example, particularly pertinent after a recent encounter with a wounded bat which ‘screamed’ at me as I tried to capture and release it from our kitchen.  Bats are one of only two animal groups that have perfected the skill of echolocation; the other is toothed whales such as dolphins, orcas and sperm whales.  

Related to body size, the pulses emitted by bats are higher and louder than those from whales because high-pitched  sounds quickly lose energy in air  and thus must be strong enough to return audible echoes. To avoid deafening themselves, bats contracts the muscles in their  ears in time with their calls, opening them in time to receive the echo.  And because each echo is a snapshot in time bats must send out their pulses quickly to detect fast-moving  insects - consider that some species of bats can catch as many as 1200 mosquitos an hour, which is more than their own body weight in a night.  With their fast moving vocal muscles (the fastest in any known mammal) emitting as many as 200 pulses per second, and a nervous system so sensitive that, in total darkness, it can differentiate the time between the release of the pulse and receiving the echo by one millionth of a second, a bat is much more precise at detecting the position of an insect than we are.  

The point is that it is impossible for humans to imagine using echolocation to navigate, to sense danger  or to find our food, and thus impossible to imagine the reality of life as a bat.   The closest I can come is the auto sonar system which warns of another vehicle coming too close, but even that is far from a bat’s world.  The one that I rescued in the house wasn’t screaming at me, it wasn’t an aggressive display despite the surprisingly long teeth; the bat was sending out pulses to  determine the Umwelt, in this  case me, whereas I perceived it in terms of the Umgebung, or a mindset based on my human experiences.  What seemed to me to be screaming in fear was the bat’s echolocation observed up close. 

The issue of whether or not the bat had rabies is a different but very real matter.

Of all the species, humans alone (as best we know) possess the ability to appreciate the Umwelten of other sensory beings. But there is a critical difference between appreciating and experiencing - it is impossible for us to experience life as a honey bee.  I doubt it is even truly imaginable to us.  We don’t have the super sensitive antennae, the responses to pheromones, the close association with the super organism, the devotion to the survival of the species, a fragmented vision that includes infrared light, a navigational system based on the sun, the ability to work closely in the dark, the ability to fly or to create our own ambient temperature …   Their Umwelt is so foreign to us as to be inaccessible, not matter how hard we try.  Technology can recreate some of the specifics but to deny our own Umwelt and immerse ourselves fully in the sensate experience of the honey bee is inconceivable. 

Rather than simply appreciate, we barrage different animals with stimuli and language of our own making, thereby forcing them to live in our own Umwelt and perpetuating an era of biological annihilation.  We project our experiences and expectations, our Umgebung, on to the honey bee, not least by anthropomorphizing our observations and describing the behavior of a honey bee in human terms.  It can be as obvious as Jerry Seinfeld’s Bee Movie, or illustrated comic segments in the journals, or, less obvious, using human emotions like happy, angry and content to describe bees or their colony.  The use of smoke does not make bees think that the forest is on fire, the loss of a queen does not make the bees sad, worker bees do not have a maternal instinct towards the larvae they feed. 

To avoid such anthropomorphism is not easy, yet a first step is to question the conditions we have forced on to honey bees as we attempt to manage them and instead to examine more closely, a la Tom Seeley,  the criteria they develop for themselves.  Instead of requiring them to live in our world, lets try being more sensitive to theirs.  We will never fully do it but we are the only animal that can try.  This availing of ourselves to perspectives beyond our own is a profound gift which comes with a heavy responsibility.  “As the only species that can come close to understanding other Umwelten,” Yong urges, “but also the species most responsible for destroying those sensory realms, it falls on us to marshal our empathy and ingenuity to protect other creatures and their unique ways of experiencing our shared world.”

Incidentally, when Adolf Hitler was a demagogue and before he became a tyrant, Jakob von Uexküll held hopes that Nazism might bring an end to the expansion of communism and the democratization of German society, for which he had an aristocratic antipathy.  By the autumn of 1933, he had rejected the way in which his work was being used to justify Nazi policy and ideology, describing racial discrimination against Jews as "the worst kind of barbarism,” and henceforward tried to avoid political issues, much as it often proved impossible. He died on the Isle of Capri as the Second World War came to an end, aged 79.

 

 

 

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