The forest and the trees

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © César Enrique Giraldo Herrera and Gisli Palsson. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau4.2.011


The forest and the trees

César Enrique GIRALDO HERRERA, University of Iceland

Gisli PALSSON, University of Iceland and King’s College, London

Comment on Kohn, Eduardo. 2013. How forests think: Toward an anthropology beyond the human. Berkeley: University of California Press.

How forests think presents a refreshing approach, aiming toward an anthropology beyond the human—that is, one that is in line with the relations Amerindians and many other peoples around the world maintain with nonhuman beings. Anthropology, Eduardo Kohn points out, cannot limit itself to studying how humans understand other beings; given the character of those relations and their importance for humans, it has to find ways to address and encompass them. In doing so, anthropology opens up the “complex whole” of culture, in Tylorian terms: “appreciating what it might mean ‘to live’ . . . in worlds that are open to that which extends beyond the human might just allow us to become a little more ‘worldly’ “ (2013: 29). Kohn seeks to achieve such an opening largely through Peircean semiotics. Articulating his ethnographic experience among the Ecuadorian Quichua-speaking Runa, and informing it with biosemiotics, he takes a crucial step toward acknowledging that life, both human and nonhuman, is intrinsically semiotic. Kohn substantiates his claims through a powerful narrative rich in ethnographic observations and profound insight. In the following, we offer a commentary on some of the key issues invited by his book, emphasizing both its strengths and weaknesses from our point of view.

Insightfully, and this is one of the key strengths of the book, Kohn demonstrates the crucial importance of nonhuman perspectives for human life. If paraphrasing Harré’s comment (2009: 10) on interactions with chimpanzee, we asked, what if animals have their own agenda in interacting with those who are observing them? The Runa reply: of course, animals have their own agendas, jaguars for instance do, and if you fail to acknowledge it, fail to notice the jaguar, or yet fail to demonstrate that you have an agenda of your own, the jaguar’s agenda might include you as part of the menu. Failing to establish appropriate intersubjective relations with a jaguar, a potential predator of humans, can have fatal implications. Moreover, Kohn demonstrates the extent to which hunting depends on the ability of the hunter or the predator to understand the prey’s perspective, and to establish an intersubjective relation through which this perspective can be manipulated. He explores the relation of the Runa with their dogs, how this relation exemplifies and constitutes part of the colonialized interpretation of Runa life, their relations with the forest, and with “whites.” He shows how humans also come to understand the world through the perspectives of their dogs and how they come to realize that the canine, like human, interpretations of the world can at times be erroneous.


For us, the central problems with Kohn’s analysis derive from his take on the nature-culture divide. In addressing the hyphen of “nature-culture,” he rightly suggests that “an anthropology beyond the human seeks to find ways to move beyond this analytic mixture” (2013: 41). Yet, he firmly reintroduces it through his use of Peircean semiotics. Kohn argues that the classification of signs in indexes, icons, and symbols allows us to distinguish different ways through which things can come to mean something to humans and nonhumans. Then he shows the underexplored richness of indexical and iconic modes of reference, the important role these modes of reference play in interspecies relations, and how they come to constitute and inform Quichua. However, in a relapse, Kohn falls into the same reductionist trap he criticizes: searching for the characteristic that distinguishes humans from other beings.

After showing the potential richness of nonsymbolic forms of representation, he assumes that symbolic thought is a uniquely human attribute, one unprecedented in our planet, a species specific property (Kohn 2013: 133, 168). The ethnographic material does not grant this conclusion: precisely because even if symbols were a property of the human condition, for the Runa this condition is not species specific (95). Classical works in biosemiotics (Pattee 2007) one may add, conclude that multiple biological processes are, indeed, symbolic. For some, enzymes are verbs (Paton and Matsuno 1998).

Kohn offers an insightful approach to the communication between species, instantiated through the relation between humans and dogs. Initially, he shows the complex relations between Runa and their dogs; the latter may be subservient but they also have the potential to act as predators of the Runa. He also points out how dogs’ relations with their owners mimic both the relation of jaguars with the masters of game and that of the Runa with masters of game and white masters. This, however, is followed by what would seem as a number of unwarranted claims. The author starts exploring the issue of Runa interpretation of human and dog dreams. If, in a dream, the dog barks he will hunt the next day but if he whines he will be killed. If a Runa dreams he killed a chicken, the next day he will kill a wild bird. The reason the human dream is interpreted this way is that wild birds are seen as chicken by the masters of game who own them and give them to a subservient hunter. The account of the hierarchies involved is fascinating. But then Kohn concludes that whereas Runa interpret their dog’s dreams literally they interpret their own dreams metaphorically. How can one ascertain whether in a dream a dog killed a chicken or a curassow—in other words, whether the dog is dreaming metaphorically or not?

As soon as Kohn establishes symbolic thought as a uniquely human attribute, all the faculties Western humanism has traditionally attributed to humans become symbolic forms of semiosis. Early, anthropocentric clichés about tool-use, language, and cognition—of making and having culture—are simply reintroduced under the theoretical banner of symbolism, reaffirming the exceptional status of humans. In recent decades, each of the traditional indicators presumed to demarcate human culture from the natural world of nonhuman animals have proved to be erroneous or far more complex and tricky than previously anticipated. Yet, Kohn stubbornly insists that symbolic reference is “that which makes humans unique” (2013: 55). It is rather embarrassing to see such claims reintroduced, ignoring the growing evidence of all kinds of studies on sociality and cognition. Focusing on chimpanzees’ theory of mind, Martin Schmelz, Josep Call, and Michael Tomasello conclude that if one defines thinking as going beyond the information given in perception “we may conclude that not only is thinking not the exclusive province of human beings, but thinking about thinking is not either” (2011: 2). The quest for language and mind has not only been extended to other primates but also to “lower forms of life” such as honeybees. The dance of the honeybee, Eileen Crist observes, disturbs “’the great chain of being’ still at large . . . ; the picture of man (and other ‘higher mammals’) at the apex and invertebrates in the basement of a hierarchy of ability and value” (2004: 35). It has been difficult to exclude “even” honeybees from the republic on objective grounds.

Kohn’s split between symbol-users and the rest is further evidenced by his claims that nonhuman realms lack morality, and instead are constricted to value: “Morality is not constitutive of the nonhuman beings with whom we share this planet” (2013: 133). What is the evidence for such a grand claim? Does it resonate with recent studies of, say, other primates? We doubt it. This approach is not consistent with the notions expressed by the ethnographic material, in which humanity is widely distributed, and actually dependent on the point of view assumed. Moreover, at one point, Kohn discusses human attempts to reprimand and correct dogs’ laziness and their propensity to lie, barking when there is no real prey (143). Both laziness and lying are moral behavior. However, the author assumes that morality is derived from symbolic thought, which for him is uniquely human. Assuming a position not distant from behaviorism, Kohn employs the neutral term “value” to describe animal morality. What is the purpose of the grammar, however simplified, if animals have no symbolic thought? How can someone lie without symbolic thought? A bark is an index, but when an index points to something absent it has become a symbol for that something.

For Kohn symbolic thought involves deriving the meaning of a sign indirectly from its systemic relations with other signs (2013: 8, 28–29, 32). The problem, however, with refusing to acknowledge nonhumans as members of the symbolic community is that it implies that there are no systemic relations beyond the human world and that nonhumans are unable to perceive the richness of their environment, deriving meaning through the association of the signs they experience. It is as if nonhumans were Turing-machines (carrying a single operation at the time without other memory of the past than their present state) and, moreover, as if they existed in perfectly controlled experimental settings. Studies of plants and the chemical profiles of their signals suggest that plants are continuously coevolving with and in continuously changing environmental relations. One of the perennial problems in such studies, Karen Houle argues, is that scientific analysis of signaling seems necessarily to “isolate and fix its samples (genetically, geographically, temporally), and to carry-on ‘as if in a common garden.’ . . . What is lacking is the living matrix itself’ (2011: 110; our emphasis). “Whatever plants are up to,” Houle continues, “it is complex being-together in the world, an original sociality going beyond any simple sense of between” (2011: 111; original emphasis). In light of this, the application of the duality of nature and culture—of icons and indexes on the one side and symbols on the other—to the biosocial relations of the forest looks highly restrictive (Palsson 2013). The living matrix of Amazonia, with its rich symbolic forest, disappears from sight. Also, equally troubling, despite recognizing the forest of selves Kohn misses the complexity of individual trees, reducing them to single thoughts or signs. Incidentally, despite the centrality of the forest in Kohn’s account, trees are only mentioned tangentially in his book (2013: 81, 124–25, 160–62); and their relations with other selves are largely relegated to the category of nonliving forms. Yet, a growing body of anthropological works on trees, partly informed by Amazonian ethnography, addresses trees as persons endowed with human qualities (Rival 1998).


A second important problem arises as Kohn (2013) takes the semiotic argument further suggesting that selves (living organisms, from cells to human crowds and ant colonies) are signs (76). Moreover, he concludes that if living beings are signs, then signs (and thoughts) are alive (72, 99). While this may be a fascinating hypothesis, it invokes various phantasms from Western metaphysics: the metaphors of the book and the verb, which are even more deeply rooted in Western imaginary than that of the machine. It is revealing that in Western humanism language and thoughts are readily granted intentionality while this property is systematically denied to nonhumans and machines, not to mention icebergs or stones.

Simultaneously, the author defines living beings or selves by their capacity to grow and reproduce, selectively perpetuating its form (76). Following, this definition he assumes that there are things and forms—such as snowflakes, river whirlpools, vegetal distributions on the forest, socioeconomic dynamics of rubber, and even spirit masters (179)—which, however complex and dynamic, are nonliving, thus nonsemiotic, inanimate, inert. This definition of living beings has a long tradition in the West; it can be traced back to the Aristotelian definition of the vegetative soul. It also has some Darwinian echoes. The definition of the living in contrast to the inanimate is still older. Nonetheless, the notion of the inanimate is problematic and unrealistic for many “animist” peoples, like the Runa, for whom the animate is a proxy for selfhood, or subjectivity, which are acknowledged as a function of the depth the interactions developed with a particular entity, and thus everything is potentially alive (Ingold 2000; Hallowell [1960] 2002; Viveiros de Castro 2004). Are thoughts alive? So really, do thoughts reproduce themselves? Do they even self-perpetuate? On the other hand, how does self-similarity arise in rivers and other landscape features (Kohn 2013: 162)? How is that different from other ways of reproduction? And, what is the point of negotiating with a master spirit or seducing its mistress?

The issue continues as Kohn examines Runa relations toward death. The author presents a perceptive portrait of attitudes toward dead relatives, their trip to the inside world, and describes their transformation into jaguars or mistresses of master spirits or master spirits themselves (209). He also analyses the problematic issues brought by hunting and predation, in particular situations that can lead to the condition of “soul blindness,” in which the person is unable to perceive and actively relate to the other, becoming a prey. The author also makes various observations demonstrating that the “soul” is transferred through the consumption of specific body parts, such as the gall bladder, sternum, or the possession of teeth, claws, and bezoar stones (107, 119, 164). Kohn also notes that dead bodies demonstrate a ruthless agency (112). They might be soulless but not inanimate. Therefore important efforts have to be made to reincorporate the remains and possessions of the deceased into the environment, situating and associating them with particular features of the landscape. Kohn’s analysis, however, recalls classic Western and Christian metaphysics for which the soul is incorporeal and bodies are rendered inert by death.

In this way the author reintroduces the dualism of the body and the soul. Kohn reiteratively differentiates between the corporeal interpretation of the world and what he assumes to be symbolic and uniquely human—a detached thought process. Where exactly are thought processes supposed to be? And how can we ascertain that corporeal processes are not symbolic? Indeed cognition or semiosis can be highly distributed. Nonetheless, it is always distributed over material beings. Most importantly, the particular material of the beings on which it is distributed influences both the signs and their meaning. For example, Kohn claims (2013: 75–77) that the anteater is a sign, its body the result of a semiotic process, representing the shape of ant nests that affected the evolutionary history of the anteater’s ancestors. This might indeed be the case. However, in that case the tunnels sculpted by ants in the earth, also have to be considered as semiotic responses to the shapes of anteaters’ snouts and to their behaviors. Both have affected one another establishing a relation between signs. Moreover, anteaters bodies and ant tunnels have also been affected through their evolutionary histories by a variety of signs, which are unrelated to snouts, soil structure, or ant behavior; they are embedded in a widely distributed network of signs interrelated to one another, acquiring their meaning in an ecological context. Why should we differentiate that rich ecology of selves with its forms of effortless efficacy from a more complete semiosis including symbolism? Perhaps because animals, plants, microbes, and even rocks are more than signs in the book of nature.


The book under discussion is an admirable composition in several ways. Not only does it provide rich ethnography from an important field, it is well written, thought-provoking, and theoretically informed. On the other hand, the formal semiotic distinctions seem to seriously damage Kohn’s project, reaffirming the anthropocentrism of the past by reinserting the dualism he has set out to challenge. The triadic Peircean view does not resolve dualism, it just augments the problem. Relaxing his structuralist and Peircean expectations and his assumptions of the uniqueness of humans, the author might have produced an even stronger work, attuned to recent empirical and theoretical developments in animal studies, linguistics, and related fields. Kohn’s claims that animals have no symbolic thought or morality are particularly ironic and out of place when applied to the Runa context; for the Runa, as for other Amerindians, the distinction between humans and non-humans is an issue of perspective.

Related to this, Kohn frequently refers to “the biological world,” the “entire ecosystem,” and the “particularly dense ecology” of the Amazon. The “biological” and “ecological,” however, are never defined or scrutinized, nor are they grounded in Kohn’s ethnography. Such terms seem to be taken for granted, as a textbook reference. Given the author’s concerns with the beyond-the-human and the nature-culture hyphen, this is a striking omission. The “complex whole” of culture seems to remain isolated from the rest of the “house” (oikos) within which it is embedded. The challenge is to picture humans and other beings as constituted by, and embedded in, a single, integrated ensemble of biosocial relations and to explore what such a perspective might entail for the understanding of communication and thinking—of forests, people, and trees—as they unfold in the stream of life.


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César Enrique Giraldo Herrera
Department of Anthropology
University of Iceland
101, Reykjavik, Iceland

Gisli Palsson
Department of Anthropology
University of Iceland
101, Reykjavik