The Many Universes of Earth


A century ago German biologist Jakob von Uexküll developed the concept of Umwelt (plural Umwelten) to describe the unique  sensory world or subjective universe of every sort of creature. A wonderful exposition of Umwelt for children or adults is The View from the Oak: The Private Worlds of Other Creatures by Herbert Kohl and Judith Kohl.

Whether it is the super-hearing of owls or dogs, or the ability to sense electric fields by sharks and bees, each animal's constellation of senses has evolved to meet its needs for finding food, evading predators, and seeking mates. We humans are no exception. Vision is our dominant sense, taking up the most brain space and accounting for up to 80% of our sense impressions. A dog, on the other hand, gets a lot more of its information from an ability to smell that may be as much as 100,000 more acute than ours. Cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz has written several best-selling books about the world from a dog's eye view or rather a dog's nose view.

Each kind of creature is bounded by the things that it evolved to notice. Each living thing assumes that its sensory universe or Umwelt is the full reality. Even so, although we humans may lack senses such as sonar or magnetoreception or ultraviolet vision that some other creatures possess, yet we are sure that our own reality is the 'real' one. While we have made up for some of our deficiencies with inventions, we are hardly in a position to say "My sensorium is the best of all possible sensoria." What do we not know that we do not know?

Horowitz says that the scientific study of animals was transformed a century ago by Uexküll's insights. But many scientific-minded people fail to realize that the purely materialistic science of Watson and Skinner has been outgrown. Uexküll says in The Theory of Meaning that like the color-blind, the materialist is "meaning-blind." He is "like a chemist confronting the Sistine Madonna. Although he can see the colors, he cannot see the picture."

Uexküll's ideas have been further explored by philosophers such as Ernst Cassirer and Martin Heidegger, and they are part of the modern field of semiotics: the study of signs, meaning-making, and communication.

Neuroscientist David Eagleman says that the concept of the umwelt should be part of the public lexicon. "It neatly captures the idea of limited knowledge, of unobtainable information, of unimagined possibilities."

Here's one such possibility. What if each of us lives in a slightly different universe, an alternate world? And what if every owl and every octopus and every honeybee also lives in a slightly different world, not only a species world but an individual world? There could be trillions of perceived universes out there.

It's a lot to think about.

Category: Miscellaneous Musings


Jakob von Uexküll, Umwelt, Magnetoreception