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Donald Favareau. Tartu, Estonia, September 2022. Photo: Oscar Miyamoto

“Don”, as his friends call him, is a down-to-earth New Yorker. He loves pizza and does scuba diving. He is also one of the most prominent semioticians out there, but he will listen to everyone with a genuine curiosity. This contrast has earned him nicknames such as “the glue of biosemiotics”, “the godfather of biosemiotics”, and “a master of intellectual empathy” (Kull & Cobley 2017: 5). I could not agree more.

Kalevi Kull, one of my teachers in Tartu University, once pulled out a book with the name ‘Donald Favareau’ on it, “Essential Readings in Biosemiotics”. I knew next to nothing about this topic. By the end of that course in 2018, however, I felt like I had discovered the most fascinating research field ever: biological phenomena as interpretative processes. Next thing I knew, I got on the train of biosemiotics, full steam ahead, and the name “Favareau” was all over it. Four years later, in 2022, I got to sit down with the ‘Boswell of biosemiotics’ to ask him some questions. What follows are the in-depth answers I got during an interview in Tartu, Estonia.

“Semiotics is the study of sign use. Traditionally it was thought to be the study of human sign use. But when Thomas Sebeok came along, he made a strong intervention in that tradition, such that one could not ignore the sign use of animals prior to humans or living beings other than humans. Frederik Stjernfelt makes a very good point when he says that unless you acknowledge the continuity of semiosis, or semiotic capabilities developing over time in organisms, then you can make no sense out of the appearance of the sign use that we see in human beings.”

“Life has been thriving on Earth for 4.5 billion years. Unless some miracle happened, as ‘touched by divinity’ or some incredibly, astronomically unlikely, genetic mutation (that brought the entire monopoly of semiotic capacities into human beings), then the only other alternative is that these semiotic capacities developed out of prior abilities. This is Terrence Deacon’s argument: it is from the indexical and iconic abilities of most multicellular and moving animals that something like human symbolic reference can, at least, come to be. And even that still presents quite a puzzle.”

“If you take Charles Peirce’s notions seriously, then you begin to see how something like human cognition is an event in the world that is not miraculous and certainly could not have been ‘invented’ at one time. Take for instance the understanding of fire within the whole natural world. Other animals also experience fire, but we learned how to domesticate fire. I kind of think the same thing happened with signs. Signs were throughout the whole world, and there were signs that were basically, like fire, the product of the world that animals have come to understand. We learned how to domesticate signs for our own ends.”

“John Deely would say ‘we learn that signs are signs, and not the things themselves’. And once we had that realization, you could see how fast human symbolic culture developed after that. When you are free to make your own signs and assign you own meanings to them, and not just be limited to the iconic and indexical meanings that require certain types of recurring patterns in the physical world, there is almost no limit to the type of sign systems you can build, and this is what we see with mathematics and language. Semiotics is the study of a way of being that goes beyond human beings. However, the way of being of human beings is distinctive.”

“How is it that my sensations are put together so that they feel seamless to me? How is it that I can remember things that are not in front of me right now? How is it that wherever I go there seems to be a voice inside my head that is talking to me in a particular language that I did not invent? How much is the influence of language and culture shaping my thoughts? All these questions, usual questions about what it is to have a mind, got me into semiotics.”

“We have no evidence whatsoever to think that inanimate objects have a mind. But we certainly believe that we have minds. We speak with each other as if we had minds. When I got into philosophy of mind I certainly thought ‘the mind is something that comes out of the brain’. But current theories (which see mind as a distributed, extended, and embodied phenomenon) would reframe the question as ‘what kind of situation outside of the brain allows us to have a mind?’ That might include culture, learning, and things that we do not even register into our consciousness, such as the way our environment is shaped, and the history of the concepts that we have come to inherit; ‘mind’ might indeed be one of them.”

“When I was studying philosophy of mind back in the nineties, very few of those questions were being addressed, at least by my professors. Instead, they were coming out of a tradition with an analytical perspective and hypothetical arguments from natural language. But that was not what I was looking for.”

“After I finished my BA in philosophy, I wanted to learn both about language and the brain. The nineties were the so-called ‘decade of the brain’. A lot of funding was going into brain research. There were a lot of books about how the ‘brain would make the mind’. For example, Antonio Damasio, William H. Calvin, Gerald Edelman, Rodolfo R. Llinas, and all these interesting thinkers.”

“I signed up for a course in applied linguistics, since the person running it was working with neurobiologists. I wanted to have a sense of the neurobiology of language. Then, I got into a reading circle with John Shuman and other colleagues. We would keep up with all the latest books, trying to get a hold of this brain-mind conundrum. But again, as interesting as those books were, they would end up saying something like ‘somehow the brain stores representations, and a representation of a representation, and somehow these chemoelectrical events act like messages in the brain, somehow they carry memories.’ This was great, except that this was limited to talk about the physical requirements of these mechanisms. What was not being addressed is what are we looking for when we say ‘representation’, ‘message’, ‘thought’, or ‘meaning’? What are these things that you think the brain is ‘making’?”

“Philosophers of mind like David Chalmers would start their articles with ‘I intend to solve the problem of consciousness’. But then at the end of those articles they solved some problems about the physical mechanisms of the brain. As a reader I felt cheated, because they had not really solved the problem of consciousness. They had not shown how out of these physical workings, somehow, consciousness emerges. This is called the explanatory gap, nothing can ‘put consciousness together’.”

“My introduction to biosemiotics happened when someone in the reading group suggested a book by Jesper Hoffmeyer. I thought they were talking about (Douglas) Hofstadter. But they were referring to this Danish author. I got a photocopy of the book and took it home. When I started reading it, I was astounded because his questions were right up front, and the author himself did not have an answer for them.”

“They were not saying that they had an answer for the mind-brain problem, but they were asking the right questions. What is it to have a representation? What do we mean when we talk about signs and messages in biology? Every few pages I would just sit, put the book down and say ‘wow, this is fantastic!’. I only got to page 30 or so and thought ‘I have to find out who this person is’. I went on the web and searched for the name ‘Jesper Hoffmeyer’. I found this very garish green website with a poorly drawn ouroboros snake at the top of it. It said ‘GIBS, first annual conference in biosemiotics’, and whatever date in 2001. The conference was just six days away.”

“I had been doing some work with neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni, from the UCLA research group on mirror neurons, so I decided to write to Jesper. ‘You do not know me, but I am a graduate student from UCLA, I am halfway through your book, and I must come to your conference’. I was expecting a rejection reply since I wanted in just six days before the conference. In a very phlegmatic manner, very Jeseper, I get a short email answer simply saying ‘well, if you must, you must’. So that was my permission to come over to the first GIBS in Denmark, organized by Jesper, Kalevi Kull, Claus Emmeche and others. They did not know if anybody would show up to this first conference fully dedicated to biosemiotics.”

“When I got there, there were over forty people from all around the world.  Czechia, Turkey, Italy, France, United States, England, Scandinavia, from everywhere. Very few knew each other, but over the course of the conference it became clear that everyone there was motivated by the same type of nagging disappointment in their own field. So, Kalevi started that conference by saying ‘dear friends’, and by the end of those four days we were indeed dear friends.”

Gatherings in Biosemiotics 2022. Olomouc, Czechia. Photo: Oscar Miyamoto

“At that point I knew I had found my academic niche. It was so different from any of the other things I had been exposed to in academia. Usually, you go to these conferences and there is a thousand people, tons of parallel sessions, there are superstar speakers who get paid and get keynotes, and there is the lonely graduate student. But in GIBS it was not that way, everyone was completely even keeled. Everyone had something interesting to say, graduate student or seasoned researcher. It kind of became a promise to myself that, as much as I could, I would do what I can to help keep this annual conference going.”

“Over time I became good friends with Jesper, Kalevi, Claus, and many of the others. It has been 22 years now that we have never missed the opportunity to have a GIBS. I have seen the field grow, watch the journals come up, book series, and bright young students. It has been good to watch the development of this tiny group. When they made that first conference, in a certain sense, they were taking the stance that there was enough here within this subgroup of semiotics to start having its own conference and book series.

“If I have made any contributions at all, I would say they come down to two. One which I think has been successful, and one which I have yet not been able to make understood in the way that I want to. As for the former, I mean institutionalizing biosemiotics in a healthy way. My efforts in building this community and keeping it from becoming the kind of academic community I do not want to see it become. There have been major transitions in our biosemiotic society, like establishing our journal, organizing conferences, editing book series, helping students, and what not. But in addition to that, and this comes down to my personal interest, I have been writing about the history of biosemiotics.”

“After the second GIBS we were on a bus on our way to Puhtu, in Estonia. Kalevi was going to show us Jakob von Uexküll’s house and, of course, we had to have a side stop at a bog so he could show us the biodiversity. I remember Anton Markoš saying to Kalevi ‘the problem with these Americans is that they do not know the history of theoretical biology’. I knew that was exactly correct. I never thought about the history of theoretical biology, and in fact I never know if I ever had heard the term ‘theoretical biology’. I told myself, ‘I need to take up this challenge’, so I started reading theoretical biology: Waddington, Uexküll, and Baer.”

“It kind of sparked in me an interest not just in the concepts and ideas, but also in the people behind them. I just find that kind of intellectual history fascinating. I am interested in human beings, the real people behind science, with their friendships, their frustrations, their teachers, and students. In a certain way I became the ‘Boswell of biosemiotics’: writing down the history, trying to get everything on paper so that it is always there. This includes a movie project I have started to archive, featuring some of the people that are no longer with us. I sit them down for a two-hour interview, so future people can not only read, for instance, Jesper Hoffmeyer or Wendy Wheeler, but also hear how they sounded. This is an ongoing project of mine.”

Gatherings in Biosemiotics 2023. Copenhagen, Denmark. Photo: Oscar Miyamoto

Uexküll says ‘life comes to the organism in the form of questions’. I think all of us are always posed on the edge of what Stuart Kauffman calls the ‘adjacent possible’. We are in a context that has been created, and our own next action will create the next context. Sometimes I call this ‘collapsing the wave function of possibility or meaning’. It is an existential situation where all we have are signs to guide us into what might happen. Even at the organismic level, our bodies are undertaking this kind of choice-points at every moment: is it too hot? Is it too cold? Is there enough of these proteins? Should these substances be broken down or built up? So on and so forth.”

“To me that is the moment of semiotic action. When all the signs are there, and you must do one thing, to ‘collapse’ into a singularity that field in which you are. And by collapsing or actualizing it you are bringing into being the next field of possibilities. This is a central intuition of mine that I always thought it was a deeply biosemiotic one. I feel I have not made it central to biosemiotics yet, but perhaps there is still time.”

“As a teacher it is ethically ambiguous to recommend students a career path. The future of many things, including some aspects of academia, does not look like something I would suggest a student to involve themself in. They may end up doing things that are against their principles, like being exploited. Sometimes they find it is difficult to make a living out of it. What is out there, sometimes, is not the idealistic or romantic picture of academia.”

“Other forms of education are probably going to supplant the current one. We are talking about something that started in the Middle Ages, in very different social and technological settings. How long it can go on the way it is currently going on?

“I have a feeling that some things we have long taken for granted are becoming precarious, and they might not be rescued or sustainable the way they were. Instead, something else has to replace them. Big technological changes are a factor to consider, depending on where you want to start looking at it. If I start looking at it from the beginning of my own life, in 1957, societal and technological changes have only become faster, more consequential and, in a certain sense, more unpredictable.”

“Hang on to your hat, learn how to grow some vegetables, and persevere. Keep the flame of knowledge alive in any way you can. Think of ways to build your own university outside of the university, think of new ways of doing these things. Biosemiotics itself was to think how to make a discipline that does not exist per se, based on the idea of what other disciplines were not doing. Semiotic students are well equipped to do this type of thing, perhaps uniquely well equipped. I wish you all good luck with it. I do not know how much of it I will get to see”.

Donald Favareau. Olomouc, Czech Republic, 2022. Photo: Oscar Miyamoto

hortus semioticus

Hortus Semioticus is a peer reviewed online journal of semiotics featuring new generation of semiotic researchers.

Hortus Semioticus on eelretsenseeritav semiootika võrguajakiri, mis on pühendatud uue põlvkonna semiootilistele uurimustele.


Our blog is a digital resource where everyone passionate about semiotics can share their knowledge, questions and experience on stuff that matters.

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