The Biological Relativity of Categories

Cognition is dependent, firstly, on the psycho-physical organization of man. We may refer here in particular to that approach in modern biology which was inaugurated by Jacob von Uexkiill under the name of Umwelt-Lehre. It essentially amounts to the statement that, from the great cake of reality, every living organism cuts a slice, which it can perceive and to which it can react owing to its psycho-physical organization, i.e., the structure of receptor and effector organs. Von Uexkull and Kriszat (1934) have presented fascinating pictures how the same section of nature looks as seen by various animals; they should be compared to Whorf’s equally amusing drawings which show how the world is modeled according to linguistic schemes. Here only a few examples, chosen from Uexkull’s extensive behavioral studies, can be mentioned.

Take, e.g., a unicellular organism like the paramecium. Its almost only way of response is the flight reaction (phobotaxis) by which it reacts to the most diverse, chemical, tactile, thermal, photic, etc., stimuli. This simple reaction, however, suffices safely to guide that animal which possesses no specific sense organs, into the region of optimal conditions. The many things in the environment of the paramecium, algae, other infusoria, little crustaceans, mechanical obstacles and the like, are nonexistent for it. Only one stimulus is received which leads to the flight reaction.

As this example shows, the organizational and functional plan of a living being determines what can become “stimulus” and “characteristic” to which the organism responds with a certain reaction. According to von Uexkull’s expression, any organism, so to speak, cuts out from the multiplicity of surrounding objects a small number of characteristics to which it reacts and whose ensemble forms its “ambient” (Umwelt). All the rest is nonexistent for that particular organism. Every animal is surrounded, as by a soapbubble, by its specific ambient, replenished by those characteristics which are amenable to it. If, reconstructing an animal’s ambient, we enter this soapbubble, the world is profoundly changed: Many characteristics disappear, others arise, and a completely new world is found.

Von Uexkull has given innumerable examples delineating the ambients of various animals. Take, for instance, a tick lurking in the bushes for a passing mammal in whose skin it settles and drinks itself full of blood. The signal is the odor of butyric acid, flowing from the dermal glands of all mammals. Following this stimulus, it plunges down; if it fell on a warm body—as monitored by its sensitive thermal sense—it has reached its prey, a warmblooded animal, and only needs to find, aided by tactile sense, a hair-free place to pierce in. Thus the rich environment of the tick shrinks to metamorphize into a scanty configuration out of which only three signals, beaconlike, are gleaming which, however, suffice to lead the animal surely to its goal. Or again, some sea urchins respond to any darkening by striking together their spines. This reaction invariably is applied against a passing cloud or boat, or the real enemy, an approaching fish. Thus, while the environment of the sea urchin contains many different objects, its ambient only contains one characteristic, namely, dimming of light.

This organizational constraint of the ambient goes even much farther than the examples just mentioned indicate (von Bertalanffy, 1937). It also concerns the forms of intuition, considered by Kant as a priori and immutable. The biologist finds that there is no absolute space or time but that they depend on the organization of the perceiving organism. Three-dimensional Euclidean space, where the three rectangular coordinates are equivalent, was always identified with the a priori space of experience and perception. But even simple contemplation shows, and experiments in this line (von Allesch, 1931; von Skramlik, 1934, and others) prove that the space of visual and tactual perception is in no way Euclidean. In the space of perception, the coordinates are in no way equivalent, but there is a fundamental difference between top and bottom, right and left, and fore and aft. Already the organization of our body and, in the last resort, the fact that the organism is subjected to gravity, makes for an inequality of the horizontal and vertical dimensions. This is readily shown by a simple fact known to every photographer. We experience it as quite correct that, according to the laws of perspective, parallels, such as railroad tracks, converge in the distance. Exactly the same perspective foreshortening is, however, experienced as being wrong if it appears in the vertical dimension. If a picture was taken with the camera tilted, we obtain “falling lines,” the edges of a house, e.g., running together. This is, perspectively, just as correct as are the converging railroad tracks; nevertheless, the latter perspective is experienced as being correct, while the converging edges of a house are experienced as wrong; the explanation being that the human organism is such as to have an ambient with considerable horizontal, but negligible vertical extension.

A similar relativity is found in experienced time. Von Uexkull has introduced the notion of the “instant” as the smallest unit of perceived time. For man, the instant is about 1/18 sec., i.e., impressions shorter than this duration are not perceived separately but fuse. It appears that the duration of the instant depends not on conditions in the sense organs but rather in the central nervous system, for it is the same for different sense organs. This flicker fusion is, of course, the raison d’etre of movie pictures when frames presented in a sequence faster than 18 per second fuse into continuous motion. The duration of the instant varies in different species. There are “slow motion-picture animals” (von Uexkiill) which perceive a greater number of impressions per second than man. Thus, the fighting fish (Betta) does not recognize its image in a mirror if, by a mechanical device, it is presented 18 times per second. It has to be presented at least 30 times per second; then the fish attacks his imaginary opponent. Hence, these small and very active animals consume a larger number of impressions than man does, per unit of astronomical time; time is decelerated. Conversely, a snail is a “rapid motion- picture animal.” It crawls on a vibrating stick if it approaches four times per second, i.e., a stick vibrating four times per second appears at rest to the snail.

Experienced time is not Newtonian. Far from flowing uniformly (iaequilabiliter fluit, as Newton has it), it depends on physiological conditions. The so-called time memory of animals and man seems to be determined by a “physiological clock.” Thus bees, conditioned to appear at a certain time at the feeding place, will show up earlier or later if drugs which increase or decrease the rate of metabolism are administered (e.g., von Stein-Beling, 1935; Kalmus, 1934; Wahl, 1932; and others).

Experienced time seems to fly if it is filled with impressions, and creeps if we are in a state of tedium. In fever, when body temperature and metabolic rate are increased, time seems to linger since the number of “instants” per astronomical unit in Uexkull’s sense is increased. This time experience is paralleled by a corresponding increase of the frequency of the a-waves in the brain (Hoagland, 1951). With increasing age, time appears to run faster, i.e., a smaller number of instants is experienced per astronomical unit of time. Correspondingly, the rate of cicatrization of wounds is decreased proportional to age, the psychological as well as physiological phenomena obviously being connected with the slowing-down of metabolic processes in senescence (du Notiy, 1937).

Several attempts (Brody, 1937; Backman, 1940; von Bertalanffy, 1951, p. 346) have been made to establish a biological as compared to astronomical time. One means is the homologization of growth curves: If the course of growth in different animals is expressed by the same formula and curve, the units of the time scale (plotted in astronomical time) will be different, and important physiological changes presumably will appear at corresponding points of the curve. From the standpoint of physics, a thermodynamic time, based upon the second principle and irreversible processes, can be introduced as opposed to astronomical time (Prigogine, 1947). Thermodynamic time is nonlinear but logarithmic since it depends on probabilities; it is, for the same reason, statistical; and it is local because determined by the events at a certain point. Probably biological time bears an intimate although by no means simple relation to thermodynamic time.

How the categories of experience depend on physiological states, is also shown by the action of drugs. Under the influence of mescaline, e.g., visual impressions are intensified, and the perception of space and time undergoes profound changes (cf. Anschutz, 1953; A. Huxley, 1954). It would make a most interesting study to investigate the categories of schizophrenics, and it would probably be found that they differ considerably from those of “normal” experience, as do indeed the categories in the experience of dreams.

Even the most fundamental category of experience, namely, the distinction of ego and nonego, is not absolutely fixed. It seems gradually to evolve in the development of the child. It is essentially different in the animistic thinking of the primitives (still in force even in the Aristotelian theory where everything “seeks” its natural place), and in Western thinking since the Renaissance which “has discovered the inanimate” (Schaxel, 1923). The object-subject separation again disappears in the empathic world view of the poet, in mystical ecstasy and in states of intoxication.

There is no intrinsic justification to consider as “true” repre- sentation of the world what we take to be “normal” experience (i.e., the experience of the average adult European of the twentieth century), and to consider all other sorts of experience that are equally vivid, as merely abnormal, fantastic or, at best, a primitive precursor to our “scientific” world picture.

The discussion of these problems could easily be enlarged, but the point important for the present topic will have become clear. The categories of experience or forms of intuition, to use Kant’s term, are not a universal a priori, but rather they depend on the psychophysical organization and physiological conditions of the experiencing animal, man included. This relativism from the biological standpoint is an interesting parallel to the relativism of categories as viewed from the standpoint of culture and language.

Source: Bertalanffy Ludwig Von (1969), General System Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications, George Braziller Inc.; Revised edition.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *