In his chapter “A stroll through the worlds of animals and men: A picture book of invisible worlds”, von Uexküll illustrates Umwelt theory. This theory seeks to describe the phenomenal world of animals and their subjective experience. von Uexküll claims we must start by investigating an animal’s perceptual cues or what the animal experiences as meaningful in the environment. For example, he speaks of a pregnant tick picking out the perceptual cue of butyric acid through its sense of smell because this signals the presence of a warm blooded animal, and the tick needs a warm blooded host in order to feed before laying her eggs. Even though there may be a multitude of potential stimuli in an environment, the tick has adapted to respond to this particular cue. It means something to the tick and stimulates it into action. Other scents have no meaning and, therefore, do not even exist for the tick.
A house fly has the capacities to perceive spilled juice on the table through taste receptors in its feet. The juice takes on what von Uexküll might call a ‘nourishment tone’. It cannot, however, perceive a spider’s web because its vision is too coarse. One might question why flies have not evolved to have better vision in order to avoid being eaten. Shouldn’t a web take on a ‘danger tone’ rather than remaining invisible? Why do animals have certain perceptual cues which aid in their survival and not others? Wouldn’t a fly’s optimal Umwelt allow for the detection of nourishment as well as traps?
In the third footnote on p. 12, von Uexküll states, “Because of the optimal Umwelt, the environment of a species must be pessimal or the species would gain the ascendancy over all others.” This means that the very best perceptual or phenomenal world that an organism can have must be balanced with the worst environment imaginable so that the species may survive without eradicating all others. The optimal Umwelt does not pertain to the survival of the individual, but rather the entire species which is dependent upon other species which contribute to the balance of the ecosystem. While the ability to avoid more spider webs would be beneficial to the individual fly, it would be detrimental to the species because over population would eventually create greater problems for the species of house flies.
von Uexküll attributes this balance to the plan of nature. Throughout the chapter, he beautifully describes the possible discrepancies in experience between animals who have evolved with different perceptual and effector cues and their relationships with the environment as though they were each created through a perfect, intelligent design. In fact, he concludes with the statement, “Behind all the worlds created by Him, there lies concealed, eternally beyond the reach of knowledge the subject – Nature.” P. 80 Are we to take from this chapter that nature is innately intelligent (if it can have a plan), and therefore, cognition (at least in some sense) is taking place throughout every component of the universe? Does Umwelt theory ultimately lead to a type of panpsychism?
Furthermore, are humans an exception to the rule of an optimal Umwelt and pessimal environment? Have we evolved in such a way as a species that our phenomenal worlds and subjective experiences are no longer balanced with the worst environment imaginable so that we have gained ascendancy over all other species to the detriment of our own because of the unbalanced eco-system we continue to create? Does this mean we have gone against nature’s plan? How is that even possible? While von Uexküll has attempted to answer the question of how we might go about studying the phenomenal world of animals, his Umwelt theory raises more questions which he leaves unanswered, at least in this chapter.
von Uexküll, J. (1934) “A stroll through the worlds of animals and men: A picture book of invisible worlds”, In Instinctive Behavior: The Development of a Modern Concept, translated and edited by Claire H. Schiller, 8-80. Ney York: International Universities Press, Inc, 1957.