Different Yet Equal: The Umwelt And Its Ethical Significance

morning-507569_640Every species in existence has its own specific way of interpreting the world; different species live at different speeds and different scales. Depending on how it has evolved, it may utilise sight as its main means of environmental interpretation, or maybe a sense of smell may be its chief sense, or perhaps sound is it central means of modelling the surrounding universe.

Whatever sense an animal primarily uses to interpret the world around them, it nonetheless creates a profound connection with the universe – that of consciously experiencing the physical world. For example catfish are completely covered in taste buds – the relationship it has with the physical world – its umwelt – is of a kind that we can only struggle to imagine. 

Regardless of which means an individual being uses to interpret and make sense of the world, all beings equally strive to attempt to understand their environment. To be skilled at interpreting the environmental world is the most important skill for any sentient being – it is the amount of information and sensory input that determines how well an animal adapts to life.

The 1900s saw German ethologist Jakob von Uexküll coin the word umwelt to essentially describe the unique worlds experienced by every individual organism. Every conscious being has its own subjective interpretation of the universe. What is most significant about this realisation is that no matter how an animal being interprets the world, they are all equally different perceptions of the same objective universe. That is to say that a bat’s view of the world is no less valid than a dog or a humans.

Uexküll’s idea was criticised by Joseph Pieper, who argued that reason allows humans to live in the “real” world, whilst other animals live in an umwelt; humans do not. Of course this ignores two major points – that humans are animals and that we cannot lay claim of even ourselves perceiving the objective universe, that our species are the centre of the universe. We do depending upon the definition of “objective”. It is unavoidable that there are natural limitations to our intelligence and sensory perception and we must remember this when discussing human superiority and the justificaton for our current relationship with the rest of nature.

What this criticism also fails to appreciate is that our interpretation of the world through our eyes and reason is still nonetheless only one of many; one incomplete information, just as every species can only perceive a part of the totality of the world around them.  One can also argue that whilst opur species potential for intellectual reasoning is vast, in practice the majroity barely utilise these abilites in our passive consumer culture.

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Let us consider  the umwelt of a slug. The feel of moist moss passing underneath – . Sensing change in humidity – what that must feel like is difficult for us to imaigine, however we can be certain that a slug experiences the world on its own level, in its own way, at its own pace and its world is as real or unreal as ours.

Some species of birds, including the garden warbler, have been shown to have special neurons in their eyes that allow them to see the magnetic field of the earth as a visual pattern. To destroy fellow being is a great crime – it is the extinguishing of a life that is seeking to thrive, seeking food, shelter and comfort , just as we do. We all seek out food and shelter, avoid threats, seek comfort and contentment. It is these similarities that put all living beings firmly in the same grouping. Rights for one means rights for all.

The umwelt concept really gets to the heart of the matter of animal rights – ultimately our perceived superiority and increased moral worth is a delusion, one we apply terribly as a justification for our abusive relationship with nature. Our ill-treatment of fellow individual beings is morally untenable when one considers this equality of species. To unnecessarily – often with great ferocity – kill sentient, conscious, physical beings is ethically abhorrent.

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