Swarms, semiotic fitness, ecologies – ideas triggered from J.Hoffmeyer’s papers

January 18, 2009

I have been reading some articles of Jesper Hoffmeyer about the swarms, semiotics, semiosphere and ecologies and doing some thought connections with niches, affordances in new learning ecologies.

I believe that in new media communities the meaning/action based traces are left in the environment that determine the niches for these communities and also influence the niches of other communities.

The communities perceive/anticipate/translate meaning and action relevant cues (affrdances) from ongoing meaning-making and actions, as well as, from the traces of meanings and actions left in their niches.

The translation from cues/traces left in the environment and the relevant actions of the communities are explainable with the swarm-phenomena and with the general cultural semiosphere model.

Swarms are communities in which decision-making takes place based on cues/traces left by individual swarm members in the environment or picked up from their real activities. These cues determine the semiotic niche for the swarm community.

The semiotic fitness term applies to describe that specific cues are recognized and interpreted in the semiotic niche to establish well-being for the swarm.

The integration of the cues of other swarms may influence the swarm behaviour. The swarms need to translate the align, unfamiliar action relevant cues from the environment to their own system.

In general each swarm always deals with the semiotic niche that is dual – our own cues and align cues.
The borderline between common and align cues in the semiotic niche is constantly re-developed in the course of action.
The cultural semiosphere model (see Lotman, 1990) describes such a dual structure as a necessary condition for translation acts to take place, which may lead to new types of meanings and actions to emerge in the semiotic niche.

Since the swarms are entities at different levels, consisting of other swarms we can also talk of semiotic sub-niches for a particular community. The actions distinguish one niche from another – in principle the same ecology may provide different niches in which specific semiotic fitnesses are in operation.

Communities are not different of termites – they pile meaning and action traces as artifacts or system use preferences, and orientate and make decisions using these piles.

If we look communities in action – the same set of tools and artifacts may be interpreted and used differently in the course of individual learning, and when these individuals switch to collaborative problem-solving actions. Personal learning environments are changing in different semiotic niches.

Some interesting parts from the Hoffmeyer papers:

Hoffmeyer, J. (1995). The global semiosphere. 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. 933-936.

The behavioural and communicative aspects of animal life are considered but they are generally not allowed to play any fundamental role in the dynamics of ecosystems or in evolutionary theory (Levins and Lewontin 1985). This bias towards the material and energetic aspects of ecosystem dynamics may have blinded us to the importance of the semiotic web unfolding throughout ecosystems.

Survival through semiosis implies a dynamic creativity. In addition to vertical semiotic system, i.e. genetic communication down through the generations, all organisms also partake in a horizontal semiotic system, i.e. communication throughout the ecological space (Hoffmeyer and Emmeche 1991).

The horizontal or ecological semiotic network has gained an increasing autonomy relative to the genetic semiotic system, i.e. the authority to make decisions was gradually delegated from the genomic systems to the organisms themselves.

The most important in horizontal semiotic system is the organisms’ capacity for anticipation, the possibility of foreseeing actual events and protect oneself against them or otherwise derive advantage from them.

The populations of organisms are forced to occupy specific semiotic niches. The organisms will have to master a set of signs of visual, acoustic, olfactory, tactile and chemical origin in order to survive in the semiosphere. This semiosphere poses constraints or boundary conditions to the organism populations.

The semiotic demands to populations are often a decisive challenge to success.

Note. In another article he uses term semiotic fitness.

Wherever there has developed a habit there will also exist an organism for whom this habit has become a sign. There can be no doubt that the principle that one organisms’ habits becoming another organisms’ signs is at the very heart of the evolutionary process.

Ecosystems would not be stable were it not for the millions of semiotic processes built on habits which themselves were formerly built on other habits.


Hoffmeyer, J. (2005). The swarming body. 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.

Semiosis is the basic principle of life. Semiotic competence is delegated to decentralised units like swarms.

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 swarm is not built on ten thousand nearly identical units, 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.

French biologist P.-P. Grassé made a semiotically very interesting analysis of
nest construction in termites (Grassé 1959). His conclusion was: “No direct interaction is necessary between the animals, since co-ordination is assured solely through the artefacts resulting from their behaviour.”

Hoffmeyer defines a swarm conception at the body-mind level: 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.

The transformation of molecules to signs opens for an unending semiogenic evolution based on semetic interaction patterns between entities at all levels. 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.


Hoffmeyer, J. (1998). The Unfolding Semiosphere. In Gertrudis Van de Vijver, Stanley Salthe and Manuela Delpos (eds.), Evolutionary Systems. Biological and Epistemological Perspectives on Selection and Self-Organization. Dordrecht: Kluwer 1998, pp. 281-293.

Darwin was careful to underline that natural selection was a process very different from artificial selection in that no intention or purpose lay behind it. Natural selection was a selection without a selector (or even a selection principle since organic evolution had no privileged direction).

Note: If we consider that basic functioning of organisms appears through swarm-based semetic interaction patterns (units in swarms and swarms of swarms communicate directly or indirectly by acting on their local environment with each other, and carry collectively out a distributed problem solving), is it really the natural selection without a selector? It seems that in this case these units of swarms and the sub-swarms, and finally the swarm itself becomes a selector?

In the macro evolutionary perspective we can distinguish at least three dominating instances of emergence, which changed the rules of the evolutionary game:

a) The emergence of galaxies (the emergence of difference, i.e. the creation of lumps of certain matter in the middle of nothing).

b) The emergence of life (emergence of distinction, self-interpretation and code-duality, i.e. as analog codes the organisms recognise and interact with each other in the ecological space giving rise to a horizontal semiotic system, while as digital codes they (after eventual recombination through meiosis and fertilisation in sexually reproducing species) are passively carried forward in time between generations.

DNA does not contain the key to its own interpretation.
In sexually reproducing organisms only the fertilised egg ‘knows’ how to interpret DNA, i.e. to use its text for the construction of the organism.The interpretant of the DNA message is buried in the cytoskeleton of the fertilised egg (and the growing embryo).

Note: The role of ecological pressure and niche influence in the evolution may be considered as part of swarm-swarm interactions?

The appearance on the planet of self-interpretation leads us to the emergence of linguistic culture.

c) The emergence of linguistic culture (emergence of experience and cultural evolution through translations back and forth between experience of reality and its linguistic re-description).

Being self-conscious selves humans are the result of the evolutionary creation of a whole new kind of code-duality, a ‘meta’-code-duality so to say, a
duality of reality as analog coded experience perpetually interacting with its digital linguistic redescription in an unending chain of translations back and forth. The dynamic properties and creativity of this code-duality is the core of cultural evolution.

Note. Can we consider evolutionary interactions of organisms with their niches (eg. affordance-based approach) from the semiotic perspective. In this case the emergence of ‘liguistic culture’ between various swarms and their niches appears as a ‘cultural evolution’ already before self-conscious humans?

Semetic interactions refer to interactions in which regularities (habits) developed by one species (or individual) successively become used (interpreted) as signs by the individuals of the same or another species, thereby eliciting new habits in this species eventually to become – sooner or later – signs for other individuals, and so on in a branching and unending web integrating the ecosystems of the planet into a global semiosphere (Hoffmeyer 1993)

Semiotic fitness

Fitness depends on a relation, something can be fit only in a given context.
Genetic fitness may be a useful term in genetics, but if evolution is concerned what matters is not genetic fitness but semiotic fitness.
Genes may be fit only under certain environmental conditions.
But if genotypes and envirotypes (Odling-Smee and Patten 1994) reciprocally constitute the context on which fitness should be measured, it seems we should rather talk about the fit in its relational entirety, that is as a semiotic capacity.

The semiotic fitness, should ideally measure the semiotic competence or success of natural systems in managing the genotype-envirotype translation processes.
The optimization of semiotic fitness results in the continuing growth in the depth of interpretative patterns accessible to life.

Note. Semiotic fitness applies for the inhabitants active in niches and thus provides the interrelated activity/meaning measurment characteristic for spaces.


One comment

  1. […] Hoffmayer’s papers of semiotic fitness and niches seem to talk of the same things, how we translate from genotype to environment? Here environment is all these artifacts in the web. Survival through semiosis implies a dynamic creativity. In addition to vertical semiotic system, i.e. genetic communication down through the generations, all organisms also partake in a horizontal semiotic system, i.e. communication throughout the ecological space (Hoffmeyer and Emmeche 1991). […]

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