The Umwelt

Jakob von Uexkull was an early German ethologist (student of animal behavior) who became interested in how animals perceive their environment. A field of grass and wildflowers would be seen very differently through the compound eyes of a fly travelling through the air,  in black and white by a dog running through the grass (who focuses much more on the smells of the field than its sights), and from the perspective of a blind tick searching for mammalian blood, and the passage of time is no doubt very different for each of these organisms, with lifespans that differ by one, two, or three orders of magnitude. Uexküll called these subjective worlds Umwelt, which literally translates (I am told) as environment, but describes more the world as perceived by an organism, weighted by the stimuli most important for its own survival, flourishing, reproduction. This is similar to Nicholaas Tinbergen’s later theories of releasers and superreleasers, but rather than focusing on a particular stimulus of importance to the developing organism, the Umwelt describes the world as modeled, simplified, stylized by the organisms own perceptions. In the introduction to A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humansvon Uexkull writes:

TICK!.png

[von Uexkull continues]…

in the skin. The blind and deaf bandit becomes aware of the approach of its prey through the sense of smell. The odor of butyric acid, which is given off by the skin glands of all mammals, gives the tick the signal to leave its watch post and leap off. If it then falls onto something warm — which its fine sense of temperature will tell it — then it has reached its prey, the warm-blooded animal, and needs only use its sense of touch to find a spot as free of hair as possible in oder to bore past its own head into the skin tissue of the prey. Now, the tick pumps a stream of warm blood slowly into itself.

Experiments with artificial membranes and liquids other than blood have demonstrated that the tick has no sense of taste, for, after boring through the membrane, it takes in any liquid, so long as it has the right temperature.

If, after sensing the butyric acid smell, the tick falls onto something cold, then it has missed its prey and must climb back up to its lookout post.

The tick’s hearty blood meal is also its last meal, for it  now has nothing more to do than fall to the ground, lay its eggs, and die.

 

As the philosopher Giorgio Agamben paraphrases:

This eyeless animal finds the way to her watchpoint 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.

What is the Umwelt of the developing human child? It is no doubt more complex than that of a tick searching for blood, and no doubt varies by culture and place and time, but surely the world created by the internal life of the family and most importantly that created by groups of children at play- the combination of fantasy and reality that children create in groups almost instantaneously- is central to that Umwelt. But that communally constructed world is strangely almost vanished, replaced by the professionally shaped, technologically crafted Umwelt of mass media, television, video games, toys.  As a middle school student once told me, hypothesizing why the American crime rate has fallen so far, so fast, “everybody is inside.”  After many centuries of children’s noise and play, streets are mostly silent, mostly empty of all but vehicles. Children see each other at school, and in scheduled activities, through the edited glimpse of electronics, and rarely else.

The interior, dreamlike Umwelt we as adults have entered thanks to electronic media no doubt has abated some violence, while also perhaps contributing to obesity, ill health, and whatever composites of despair are causing rising suicide, overdoses, and alcohol-related deaths. Like the tick, we are built for a certain world, which we perceive in our own, limited and stylized way. The human Umwelt is most centrally made up of other people and their relations with one another, and we participate in creating that Umwelt by engaging with one another continuously, variously, in family, commerce, community, enmity, shared fantasy and myth. The world as perceived by animals is always, as von Uexkull understood, a kind of stylization, a kind of illusion. But when we rebuild the world to be nothing but those stylizations, nothing but those illusions, our own role in creating them for one another may one day be gone.

2 thoughts on “The Umwelt

  1. When I was in school, knowledge was emphasised. I was pretty good at that. Now (a zillion years later) I realize abstract knowledge takes a backseat to being able to deal with people. Maybe if I was smarter I would have realized that sooner. Or maybe I’m just a child of the scientific community. I am wondering if this is going to sort itself out or whether we are headed for the edge of world and we are all going to plunge over the edge.

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