The Jesper Hoffmeyer Award for Promising Young Scholars in Biosemiotics rewards the ingenuity of young researchers in biosemiotics who follow along the path laid by Jesper Hoffmeyer. It is as much a tribute to Jesper’s work as it is to the contributions that build on it.
The 2022 Hoffmeyer award was granted to Rebeca Méndez and Òscar Castro for their presentation “I Contain Multitudes”: Biosemiotic notes on the holobiont and individuation in microbiome studies at the Gatherings in Biosemiotics 2022 in Olomouc, Czech Republic.
The explosion of genetic research has helped to characterize the human host, its microbes, and their relevant role in health and disease. The role of the gut microbiome in human functions is being thoroughly explored, with exciting results from the biological sciences, neuroscience, and the humanities. Several inquiries arise from understanding the relationship between humans and their microbes. However, questions about who they are and what they are doing remain unanswered. There is no doubt that gut microbes strongly influence brain function and superior activities, even with no agreement on how they work. It has great significance that there is a brain in the gut, which could even be a source of emotions: the awareness that there is more to what, and how, we feel opens a great path for us to understand what we are. The idea of the self is being reevaluated, and the notion of being human has been questioned. Some claim that we are more like an ecosystem or a holobiont, and others say that this approach needs to be taken with care. Several authors, such as Robinson (2020), have pointed out that it is important to review how we think about ourselves. We want to present certain open questions about the microbiome, from a biosemiotic approach, that require research attention: the concept of the holobiont, the individuation process and its possible mereology, and finally, some aspects linked between protosemiotics and biocommunication processes. The holobiont concept has its homeomorphic equivalent in Jesper Hoffmeyer’s notion of ‘swarm of swarms’. Semiotic competence is delegated to decentralized units such as swarms. While Hoffmeyer reflects on the de-centralized cells that swarm in the host organism, we try to ask about this concept in the set of microbiota that, for the most part, reside as symbionts in the intestine.
Our problem lies in the question of the human holobiont as a mereological and pre-individual system. Can we say that the holobiont is a whole or a single sum of its parts? Everything will depend on addressing the functional and metabolic network of the microbiome as an organism that interacts with higher hierarchies of cells. The multilevel semiosis generated between species of microbes and be-tween microbes and nerve cells and biofilms within the intestine constitutes a new development of functional individuation. Therefore, it be-comes essential to understand better the transfer of information – or transductive operation – between symbionts and integral parts of the hierarchical swarms of the human host, as well as its role in the development of mereology, agency and even consciousness (proprioception) as the dichotomy between body and mind. We propose the method of allagmatic epistemology of Simondon (2005;Karatay et al. 2016) – an exchange of information between analytical science and analogical science – as a robust model for studying the ontogenetic pre-individuation of the holobiont, as well as a new ontological and biological paradigm of the living being and, above all, of the concept of the human being and its populations.
Karatay, Vefa, Denizhan, Yagmur, Ozansoy, Mehmet 2016. Semiosis as Individuation: Integration of Multiple Orders of Magnitude. Biosemiotics 9: 417–433.
Robinson, Jake M., and Cameron, Ross 2020. The Holobiont Blindspot: Relating Host-Microbiome Interactions to Cognitive Biases and the Concept of the “Umwelt.” Frontiers in Psychology 11 (November): 1–8.
Simondon, Gilbert 2005. L’individuation à la lumière des notions de form et d’information.Grenoble: Editions Jerome Million.