Behavior Perception and Action

Perception forms the basis for every living organism activity. Life is perception or, if you prefer, cognition. In particular, animals have the capacity to enter into relationships with "neutral" objects. A neutral object is an object primarily defined by human perception. It is considered neutral as an assumption that this object can be perceived by all organisms, but this is not true. Von Uexkull easily demonstrated this, reporting an example of a stone that a man can take on the road to chase an angry dog. The stone remains a stone also when it is in the hand of the man, but the meaning changes soon because the stone is used to chase a dog. The stone changes meaning and becomes a carrier of meaning when it enters into contact with a subject. When a neutral object enters into contact with a subject, specific qualities appear, such as a "sitting quality" for a chair, "drinking quality" for a water glass, and "climbing quality" for a ladder.

The quality that an object acquires was called in 1977 by the psychologist James J. Gibson "affordances" (Gibson 1986). He defined affordances as all "action possibilities" latent in the environment, objectively measurable and independent of the individual's ability to recognize them, but always in relation to the actor and therefore dependent on their capabilities (Fig. 8.1).

Every organism enters into contact with objects, and this contact creates a "subjective universe," the Umwelt of von Uexkull. This author distinguished for plants that are organisms without a nervous system a Wohnhulle - a cover of live cells by which they select their stimulus and enter into contact with the "phenomeno-logical world" (Fig. 8.2). A subject that enters into contact with a meaning-carrier can be considered a meaning-utilizer. The Umwelt is considered a closed unit in itself. This vision overlaps largely with the autopoiesis hypothesis of Maturana and Varela (1980), but also the semiotic closure of semioticians. The concordance of these ideas from such different perspectives, ontogenetically independent from each other, reinforces the conviction about the strength of a paradigm based on perception/cognition to be introduced into the realm of ecology. Every organism, according to the resolution of the sense organs, creates a locality or field. For psychologists this cognitive domain is also called cognitive maps but also mental maps or mind maps. They can be defined as "mental processes acting by a series of psychological transformations by which an individual can acquire, code, store, recall, and decode information about the relative locations and attributes of phenomena in their everyday or metaphorical spatial environment." Such maps change character, spatial

Fig. 8.1 An object composed of two long poles and several short poles can be a ladder when it is propped against a wall or a tree, and a fence when the long poles are horizontal. The different assignment to one category (ladder) or to another (fence) depends on a cognitive process of identification. The same object shows a different affordance

Ladder

Fence

Fig. 8.2 Every organism has a subjective universe created by the perception toward the external world and powered by the internal autopoiesis. In this case every organism (a, b, c) is living in a separate perceptual-cognitive domain or Umwelt (a', b', c')

Fig. 8.2 Every organism has a subjective universe created by the perception toward the external world and powered by the internal autopoiesis. In this case every organism (a, b, c) is living in a separate perceptual-cognitive domain or Umwelt (a', b', c')

resolution, and importance in every day life according to human categories (young, adults, male, female) and health condition (Bechtel and Churchman 2002).

Von Uexküll said "everything that falls under the spell of an Umwelt (subjective universe) is altered and newly shaped until it has become a useful meaning-carrier."

It is necessary to distinguish two different components in the meaning-carrier: a "perceptual cue-carrier" and an "effector cue-carrier." In the first case, the perception is the mean attractor (for instance the color of a flower for a butterfly), and the composition of the flower allows or does not allow a butterfly to stop for its nectar. In the second case the effector cue-carrier allows the linking of perception with action.

The theory of meaning offers the possibility of expansion into the concept of the eco-field. Eco-fields can be considered a "spatial configuration meaning-carrier."

The eco-field can be considered the space of existence (domain) of the meaning-carrier when this carrier enters into contact with the subject (Fig. 8.3).

Without spatial configuration, an organism can't recognize the meaning-carrier for a specific function. For instance, a roosting place for starlings is represented by old trees in urban parks. The spatial configuration meaning-carrier is represented by such groups of trees. The inner part of the tree crown is the meaning-carrier for roosting. Both meaning-carriers are necessary to allow a flock of starlings to stop and roost.

For a butterfly like Argynnis paphia, the foraging eco-field is represented by a first (spatial configuration) meaning-carrier (context quality): a forest clearing with clumps of Eupatorium cannabinum. A second (food quality) meaning-carrier is represented by the flower of this plant. For every function, the coupling of the first meaning-carrier with a second meaning-carrier is necessary. Using the eco-field paradigm, the first meaning-carrier is the eco-field.

This perspective is not far from hierarchy theory, but hierarchy theory does not explain the mechanisms; it is just descriptive about the position of a function or process.

While the Umwelt is easily explained in animals, plants require other premises. In fact plants do not have direct perceptor and/or effector organs; nevertheless, plants are living organisms with cognition and capacities to respond to external stimuli. But in plants there is no ability to select a specific Umwelt using movement. Plants probably react to the environment in two distinct ways: the first is linked to the seeds or spores. The dislocation of successful seeds is the indirect reply to a favorable or unfavorable environment. Success or failure is not a matter of individual choice, but is a matter of the numerousness; we could say lucky or

Fig. 8.3 The eco-field can be considered the space configuration meaning-carrier (sensu von Uexkull), indispensable for assigning meaning to every neutral object after a specific function is activated. Needs are connected with resources via active functions and the eco-field interface

Fig. 8.3 The eco-field can be considered the space configuration meaning-carrier (sensu von Uexkull), indispensable for assigning meaning to every neutral object after a specific function is activated. Needs are connected with resources via active functions and the eco-field interface unlucky seeds. Survivability and adaptability are in the hands of a collection of seeds. The seed stock is the "individual" that shows sensitivity to the medium. In contrast to animals, plants have a great difference in shape and requirements according to the age and the condition in which they grow. Their morphological plasticity is very high. The shape design is open and not as fixed as for animals. This is probably a compensatory mechanism for the small capacities of plants to move around. Moreover, according to the age of a plant, difference becomes a necessity, and consequently difference is key to the relationship with the environment in terms of nutrients, water, and competitive tolerance. Plants and animals have organs with the capacity to use the meaning-factors that are external to their bodies. Every organism lives in an "operational world" sensu Loeb (1916) that is the representation of sensors (either organs like eyes, tactile sensors, hearing for animals, or chemical reactions by membrane tissues of plant cells). The external world is perceived by organisms in a specific way. An example is given by the spider web. The web of a spider is like a suit for a tailor. But the tailor first measures the body of the customer, and a suit is the hollow shape of the human body. This is not possible for the spider, which nevertheless can build a web to capture flies; thus a web is for a spider the image of the fly! The spider can not measure a fly like a tailor measures a man for a suit, so the web is the idealization of the archetype of fly. This idea opens the way to many interesting arguments about the representation of meaning-carriers, like maps or aerial photographs for a geographer. A vegetation map is an idealized space around us and not the realistic representation of vegetation per se. A map, like a web, captures emergent properties of a space such as heterogeneity and diversity; a spider web captures flies directly. For von Uexkull millions of Umwelts exist according to species and their sensory capacities.

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