Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Elizabeth Carolyn Miller reviews The Machines of Evolution and the Scope of Meaning

Gary Tomlinson. The Machines of Evolution and the Scope of Meaning. New York: Zone Books, 2023. 328 pp.

Review by Elizabeth Carolyn Miller

18 January 2024

What is the scope of meaning, how does it differ from information, and can we find meaning or even culture in the animal world? Gary Tomlinson sets out to answer these questions and more in a syncretic study that draws on philosophy, biology, and anthropology to stake out what he calls a “middle ground” between maximalist ideas of meaning (“semantic universalism”) that make it synonymous with information transfer and therefore a common feature across the animal kingdom, and minimalist versions of meaning (“humanist parochialism”) that would limit it to homo sapiens (p. 33). Although Tomlinson ultimately comes to the conclusion that meaning is likely limited to mammals and birds—with the possible exception of cephalopods—and that based on current knowledge, culture can only be said to exist in human and chimpanzee social worlds, part of the work of his argument is to attempt to undo the sense that semiosis equates to value, and that species who make meaning are inherently superior to those who trade only in information. In other words, he wants to shift meaninglessness “from an ethical to an ontological category,” and to suggest that one need not have a sweeping view of meaning to appreciate the complexity and value of animal sociality across the web of life (p. 12). We can value both the semiosis that “arise[s] from a mutuality that an animal enters into in the context of its lived environment” and the biochemical signals that drive, for example, the asemiotic sociality of honeybees (p. 61). Although meaning relies in part on such signals, socio-chemical signals alone are not meaning.

Tomlinson positions his argument within the larger sphere of inquiry known as the extended evolutionary synthesis, a poststructuralist school of biological thought that offers a fluid vision of life in motion: all species constantly adapting and in progress rather than fixed or discrete, and all in dynamic relation with the “structures outside them, likewise in motion” (p. 17). Such a view of the profound mutability of species and their radical openness to a constantly changing environment was implicit in the theory of natural selection, thus, Tomlinson says, “the forebears of poststructuralism include Darwin too” (p. 16). Within this context he suggests that meaning-making comes from a late “swerve” in evolutionary history, though he raises the possibility toward the end of the book that the potential semiotic capacities of cephalopods might suggest that meaning developed independently in two different branches of the tree of life (with mammals and birds on one branch, cephalopods on the other) (p. 13). Whether singular or multiple in its evolutionary etiology, meaning-making in Tomlinson’s understanding is one of evolution’s “abstract machines”—processes and dynamics that have emerged over the fullness of evolutionary time and that operate complexly, irreducible to any singular mechanism (p. 25). Still, the abstract machine for meaning-making, Tomlinson shows us, requires cognitive capacities in the area of memory and attention that are structurally present in some animals’ brains and not others, which explains why semiosis is evident in some animals’ behaviors and not others. The third section of Tomlinson’s book explores two case studies, birds versus bees, and demonstrates in this analysis a powerful respect for the superorganisms of bees while resisting the idea that their forms of communication, such as the waggle dance, qualify in a technical sense as meaning-making.

Trained as a musicologist, Tomlinson brings a humanist perspective to the biological and evolutionary debates in which his book engages not through an assumption of human singularity or superiority but rather through an insistence on the fundamental importance of meaning as a category of inquiry. Of the emergence of meaning in the history of evolution he writes, “To mark this semiotic machine as a fundamental development in evolution is not customary among biologists, but it calls out to be ranked among the ‘major transitions’” in the history of life (p. 26). One might argue that this insistence on the rise of meaning as a watershed in evolutionary history has the perhaps unintentional effect of elevating the category of meaning as a criterion of value, despite the book’s commitment to eschewing such valuation. But scholars of the arts, literature, and the humanities—those who toil in the fields of meaning—will nonetheless appreciate the book’s rigorous attention to the question of what meaning is, exactly, and how far it extends. Tomlinson’s generous estimation of his readers, finally, is that we are not too imaginatively impoverished to appreciate the beauty and value of that which is meaningless.