“In biosemiotics, we say that the human ability to interpret signs—which is the ability to think really, to think creatively and adaptively and learn new things—didn’t just emerge with animals; rudimentary sign reading emerged in the simplest forms of life with single-celled organisms,” says Victoria Alexander, biosemiotician, Director of Dactyl Foundation, Fulbright specialist, and author of The Biologist’s Mistress: Rethinking Self-Organization in Art, Literature, and Nature. Continue reading
We have been hearing a lot about “fake news” and “propaganda” lately, and it is as important as ever to use our critical thinking skills. But we also need to understand how propaganda works and why it is so difficult to counteract with logic. Propaganda takes advantage of the way our brains function when we are not paying attention. When we are paying attention our analytical skills are engaged. When we are not, our brains go on processing information in a non-analytical way, using what might be called a poetic logic, based mainly upon similarities, coincidental patterns, associations, repetition, and emotion. There are sound biological reasons for this mindless type of processing, which actually helps us learn faster, retain memories longer, and make appropriate decisions without really thinking. In this presentation, we will explore how and why art and poetry may actually be more helpful in developing critical thinking skills. Art also works with the poetic logic of subconscious processing, but does so in a way that is not manipulative, deceptive or dishonest.
[This is a version of a talk I originally presented at the 2018 Biosemiotics conference in Berkeley last June, re-presented on Dec 9th to a Biosemiotic study group online organized by Pille Bunnell. The video is a little rough. The brilliant Qs that sparked some of my As were cut because I neglected to get permissions from all the participants beforehand. Thank you, Pille, for organizing the session.]
Synopsis Representative Democracy, Capitalism, Communism, Socialism or Anarchy? No matter what philosophy you begin with, over time political systems tend to concentrate wealth and power. Government and individual freedom should really be co-creative of one another. Why is it that we can’t seem to achieve this? As a biosemiotician, I have learned that creative and intelligent behavior emerge in complex systems when individuals have semiotic freedom and enabling constraints. Government/culture should provide the enabling constraints (language, tradition, borders, laws, courts, currency, public buildings, hospitals, schools, mass transportation, energy and communication networks) but the people making use of those constraints should have the semiotic freedom (i.e., the ability to interpret rules and even misinterpret rules) to make their own decisions, set their own goals, and enjoy/suffer the consequences.
Victoria Alexander has been selected for a three-year term as a Fulbright Specialist, available to serve institutions in over 150 countries worldwide. Alexander is an expert in Vladimir Nabokov’s non-gradualist approach to the evolution of insect mimicry.
“As the number of students interested in arts and humanities programs declines worldwide, my work has focused on showing how these disciplines are vital to developing critical and creative thinking skills. My specialty, biosemiotics (the study of signaling and sign-use in living systems), combines the fields of poetics, complexity science, philosophy of language, aesthetics, and biology to investigate the nature of creativity, adaptation, learning, and intentionality.”
The Fulbright Specialist program is supported by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) and World Learning, Non-US institutions interested in hosting Dr. Alexander can apply at https://fulbrightspecialist.worldlearning.org/eligibility-host-institutions/
I spent last week with fellow Public Scholars as our service (2015-2018) with Humanities New York comes to an end. Going forward, I may continue with my work, now acting as consultant on planning grants and action grants in art-science-humanities projects for any New York state based non-profit. Interested? Please apply here. From left to right: Ellen Gruber Garvey, Scarlett Rebman, Sally Roesch Wagner, Barbara Tepa Lupak, Anne Mosher, Susan Goodier, Dave Ruch, Victoria Alexander, Hallie Bond, Verdis LaVar Robinson, Antonio Pontón-Núñez, and Ryan Purcell.
Schoharie River Center
Sunday, March 25, 2018 from 2pm – 4pm
Free. Supported in part by a Speaker’s Grant from NY State Council for the Humanities
Please RSVP your attendance at (518) 875-6230 or at John.McKeeby@Schoharierivercenter.org
2025 Burtonville Road, Esperance NY 12066
It’s a commonplace to say that good science requires imagination, yet scientist aren’t really encouraged to read poetry or to take up painting. Maybe they should. This talk presents the example of Vladimir Nabokov, renown Russian-American novelist and butterfly scientist who used his artistic knowledge to understand how evolution can work. He went against the prevailing theories of his day and was attacked for being unscientific, but recently some of his work has been vindicated by DNA analysis, showing that his artistic guesses were amazingly accurate and precise.
Nabokov didn’t think natural selection, a mere proofreader with no real creative powers, could make a butterfly look exactly like a dead leaf, complete with faux fungus spots. He didn’t think natural selection had gradually made the tasty Viceroy species butterfly look like the bitter tasting Monarch, allowing it to survive better. Although he believed that natural selection had shaped many of nature’s forms, he thought the one thing natural selection could not create was mimicry, which could be better explained by other natural mechanisms. This heresy infuriated scientists who thought insect mimics were the best illustration of the gradual powers of selection. More than fifty years later, Nabokov’s genius is finally being recognized. What was it about Nabokov’s way of thinking that allowed him to see what others could not? And how did his understanding of nature inspire his fiction?
Talk based on “Chance, Nature’s Practical Jokes, and the “Non-utilitarian Delights” of Butterfly Mimicry” by V N Alexander, in Fine Lines: Vladimir Nabokov’s Scientific Art. Eds. Stephen Blackwell and Kurt Johnson. New Haven: Yale University Press.