Talk: Berkeley-Tartu biosemiotic summer seminar July 11 2019

After a successful 2019 Biosemiotics Gathering in Moscow, I’m happy to be sharing a deeper look at my project at the University of Tartu, in Estonia, giving a talk on Multi-level semiosis – and the impact of supernormal stimuli in the human superorganism and holobiont.

This is as part of the Berkeley-Tartu biosemiotic summer seminar in Tartu.

Part I: June 26, with Jeremy Sherman

Part II, July 11, with Yogi Hendlin

Part III: July 15, with Terrence Deacon.

Here is information about the part II.

On Thursday, July 11, at 14.15, Jakobi 2–336, Yogi H. Hendlin (University of California and Erasmus University of Rotterdam) will give a talk

Multi-level semiosis – and the impact of supernormal stimuli in the human superorganism and holobiont

Abstract. This talk draws on classic ethology and insights for humans as superorganisms living in artificial environments. It first describes the case for seeing the human body, and not just cultures, as itself a superorganism, but through the unconventional form of defining superorganism not as cells or individuals only of one species, but as inherently an interspecies phenomenon. Second, I describe how the holobiont view of the human organism helps make sense of this definition of the superorganism as interspecies. Finally, I’ll look at both classical and cognitive ethology to examine how even individuated human cells or other endosemiotic symbionts can also become affected by unfamiliar stimuli stronger than those their evolutionarily-geared heuristics are geared for. This overflow or flood of response to certain stimuli I see as a relevant form of supernormal stimuli, as Niko Tinbergen described this condition, even as I extend it to endosymbionts, beyond Tinbergen’s use of the concept specifically on the individual animal.

After a break, the meeting will continue at 6 p.m. at Vikerkaare 7–8. 

We also expect to discuss some new ideas from the recent Gathering in Biosemiotics that took place in Moscow.

Everybody very welcome! 

A semiotic analysis of WSJ article on Bayer’s glyphosate problems

The original article, published here, takes a rather pro-industry “we’ll engineer our way out of this” approach. Rather than observing a fundamental problem in putting artificial inputs unsustainably into agriculture, the article plays to the upbeat agribusiness narrative of getting over “minor” problems, and that the “health” of a business or industry should and does outweigh the health and well-being of life on earth. A bit quixotic, sure, but such are the narratives of industrial epidemics.

In this blog post, I will take this WSJ article on Bayer’s glyphosate as a paradigmatic example of what George Orwell called “Newspeak,” and what Harry Frankfurt calls “Bullshit”–the use of words and framing to sophisticly make the weaker argument the stronger and the stronger the weaker. In other words, we’re dealing here with the oh-so-common muscular relativism which subordinates truth to power.

Bayer AG BAYRY -0.67% plans to invest €5 billion ($5.64 billion) on developing new ways to combat weeds over the next decade, as the German chemicals and pharmaceuticals giant seeks to win back trust in its business in the wake of thousands of lawsuits alleging its Roundup herbicide causes cancer.

Exhibit A of not taking responsibility: call for more “Research” when plenty has been done, and most says that we need to go to organic regional farming with reduced or no inputs.

A big legal fight over the blockbuster weedkiller—inherited with its takeover of Monsanto Co. last year—has plunged Bayer into one of the worst crises in its 155-year history. The company has lost the first three jury trials to plaintiffs claiming Roundup gave them non-Hodgkin lymphoma, with the highest award topping $2 billion. In response, its shares have almost halved over the past year.

Both Bayer and Monsanto had their origins in poison manufacture, so it makes sense that Bayer would be interested in buying Monsanto. It was a huge mistake, but then again, if you are Bayer, and see Monsanto as a profitable buy, then you know the sort of company you keep. If you’re a shareholder in Bayer, you can only say mea culpa.

It’s not like Bayer’s stock price is going to go up either, any time soon, if ever.

While Bayer is appealing the jury verdicts and continues to vigorously defend the safety of Roundup and the active ingredient glyphosate, its announcement Friday shows how the company is being forced to change tack under pressure from its legal woes. Bayer said glyphosate would retain an important role in its portfolio but that it was also “committed to offering more choice for growers.”

Bayer is not changing tack, it is taking the tried and untrue denialist path of most resistance against accountability, responsibility, sustainability, and science. We don’t need “growers” to be yoked to Bayer, Monsanto, or any other agribusiness. We need them to be free, supported by each other and society, and not in debt to a chemical manufacturer for its survival.

The company said the €5 billion earmarked for herbicide development over the next 10 years would largely fit into the annual spending of €2.4 billion that it had previously estimated for agriculture R&D in coming years. Herbicide research will represent about one-fifth of Bayer’s overall agriculture research investment, and the commitment announced Friday will include chemical research and regulatory expenses as well as new computer-driven farm-management services.

So, the WSJ’s “news” turns out to be no news at all. Instead WSJ is touting industry lies packaged as news in order to attempt to give a “convincing” face-saving “strategy” that Bayer is actually attempting to do something different. Something different is not going to make Bayer more money. If people spray less, they use less chemical, and thus make less money. They’re simply, as a transnational company hell-bent on profit above all (including god?), never going to opt for less. I guess technologization could be an excuse to demand more debt from farmers, but is that even necessary?

The company also said it would cut its “environmental impact” by 30% by 2030 through new technologies and making weedkiller use more precise, and that it would also be more transparent about the safety of its products. These measures, it said, would address health and environmental concerns Bayer has faced since buying Monsanto. Bayer also took out newspaper advertisements to promote its message.

To have a chemical and poison manufacturer say they are going to “cut” their “environmental impact” through “precision” is like death drones say they’re going to cut their kill-counts through “smart bombs.” It simply doesn’t happen and doesn’t exist. Any anybody who buys that rhetoric is doing so full well that they are swallowing some pretty grotesque bullshit. Bayer being more transparent about safety, too would be easy: publish all of your unpublished studies online. We have public documents now showing that Monsanto knew in the early 1980s about the carcinogenic properties of glyphosate. Why did we have to wait more than 30 years for IARC to come to the same conclusions? How are we going to incentivize transparency for a company that would lose even more stock price if they were honest. Again, the words belie the actual situation. Managing transparency – lying about and pretending to be transparent – is not the same thing as independent 3rd-party oversight, real transparency. The icing on the Pinocchio cake is that Bayer is more interested in advertising how it wants to reform than it actually is in reforming (maybe dissolve the company and pay reparations to farmers harmed by its chemicals?).

The company’s leadership has faced intense criticism over its decision to buy Monsanto. At a heated shareholder meeting in late April, some 55% of shareholders refused to endorse management’s actions in the past year.

A vote of no-confidence like this means that the company should come under new leadership at the least, get rid of their toxic Monsanto asset, and trigger public oversight of the company.

Bayer and other agricultural companies are already marketing new herbicides, as glyphosate’s widespread use on U.S. farms has contributed to weeds like palmer amaranth and waterhemp developing resistance to the world’s most widely used weedkiller.

The last thing we need is the next glyphosate. “Now More Deadly than Ever!” Instead, shifting away from the stranglehold of the chemical industry on agriculture is the only way humans and the rest of the planet are going to survive this thing.

Bayer said Friday that with glyphosate’s global success came “widespread use, weed resistance, and in some instances unintended misapplication.”

We call this chess move “responsibilization,” the offloading of corporate responsibility onto consumers. Its CSR in reverse, while making it seem as if the consumers have been “bad.” Really great to blame the victims of the producers’ poisons.

Monsanto in recent years launched a new herbicide based on the chemical dicamba, along with soybean and cotton seeds genetically engineered to withstand the spray.

When all else fails, repackage poison in a new name and pretend people don’t notice.

Some farmers have said the more-powerful weedkiller drifted onto neighboring fields and damaged nonmodified crops. Agricultural researchers estimate that millions of acres of crops have been damaged by drifting dicamba. Bayer has attributed the crop damage mainly to farmers misapplying the spray. In 2018 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said farmers could continue to use dicamba under tighter restrictions.

Because Monsanto’s hat trick was to create GMOs resistant to their poisons, if their poisons get on plants that aren’t engineered to soak up unlimited amounts of highly toxic poisons they die. But guess what? Nothing in this universe stays in “its place.” That’s a pipedream of old white men, viz. Descartes and his gang that thought that you could abstract something, manipulate it, and then reintroduce it into the world as if that abstraction really existed. In critical theory, they call this “reification.” Drift happens. How could it now? If you pee in your own swimming hole, that pee is going to go everywhere, including on you, and those ducks, and your friends. Not cool. Quit pissing out poisons.

Rival Corteva Inc. is marketing a competing crop seed and herbicide combination, based around the herbicide 2,4-D.

As if the solution to the chemical anthropocene were just more herbicides. Again, this “engineering approach” to digging ourselves deeper into the problems we created with profit-driven synthetic chemical thinking is parasitic on actual alternative that would free us from such chemical slavery.

The legal battle over Roundup could take years to resolve as Bayer has said it would appeal decisions and wait for the outcome of a few more cases before considering a settlement.

Bayer will not win 13,400 lawsuits. Not in the US, or elsewhere. The classic technique of buying time and delay tactics mean that every day they refuse to pay up and settle or admit wrongdoing (which our handy documents here show daily that there is more and more malfeasance), is another day that they can still make a buck off of selling glyphosate products.

Investors say Bayer’s stock is likely to struggle until there is more clarity over how much the litigation will end up costing the company. Analysts’ estimates range from €5 billion to €25 billion.

These are conservative estimates based on class-action. The tobacco MSA cost about $300 billion. Let’s see worldwide what happens to Bayer when lawsuits in other parts of the world start kicking in.

Bayer is appealing all jury verdicts so far and has vigorously defended the safety of Roundup.

Vigorously defending the safety of a product or chemical has nothing to do with whether that product is safe or not. Merely, it is part of a process that has been set up so that if a company were to admit guilt, they would lose everything, so instead, they are incentivized to lie and fight as if the company depended on it, because it does. This “too big to fail” approach which does not allow for the admission of guilt and corrective measures without imploding companies doesn’t work. We need to have civil society involved much earlier on, so that the hazards of these products never get to their world-historical proportions which they do today. We need to change our laws to incentivize humility, epistemological and ethical, instead of creating rabid denialists. In a strange way, denialism is a product of a risk regulatory framework that doesn’t allow for people to admit mistakes, pay the consequences, and move on.

In 2015 the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a World Health Organization unit, classified glyphosate as likely having the potential to cause cancer in humans. That classification triggered the wave of lawsuits. Bayer argues hundreds of studies and regulatory decisions around the world show Roundup and glyphosate are safe when used as directed.

“Safe when used as directed” is another industry-standard phrase. I guess guns are safe when used as directed as well, but nothing in existence is ever used as directed. Unless you pressure test every product for all of its uses, you’re negligent, and should be held accountable so. Monsanto would have lost billions of dollars if they had ever encouraged glyphosate to be used “as directed.”

In the U.S., where Roundup has become integral to farming, Costco Wholesale Corp. recently pulled Roundup herbicides from its stores. Certain cities in California, Florida, Minnesota and elsewhere have also forbidden use of glyphosate weedkillers on municipal property while other farm-state lawmakers have defended the herbicides.

“Integral” is an interesting choice of words. Monsanto for 50 years worked to force American agriculture into its pocket, through path dependent forced coupling of seed and herbicide.

Several European countries, including France and Austria, are considering phasing out glyphosate. Early this year, a French court banned a Roundup product with the ingredient, even though it still has a European Union seal of approval. A senior executive of German public rail operator Deutsche Bahn AG told a German weekly Friday that the company together with the German environment ministry would research alternatives for combating weeds along its 33,000 kilometers of tracks.

After the German Minister of Agriculture went against Merkel and the German government’s directives to not support renewal of glyphosate in the EU, the rest of the German government decided they needed to not wait another 5 years to attend to the problems glyphosate pose to human health. The majority of their citizenry do not wish to be enslaved to a cancer-causing chemical, and no longer wish to be subjected to it. Hence, the Ministry of the Environment is taking steps throughout German society to do what failed at the EU level: protect its citizens from the harms of the next generation of poisons.

The company said it would invite scientists, journalists and representatives from nonprofits to participate in its efforts to secure re-registration of glyphosate in the EU—a review likely to trigger debate about safety. The process is expected to kick off later this year, with a vote in late 2022.

(By Ruth Bender and Jacob Bunge Updated June 14, 2019 3:02 p.m. ET)

The largess of the company to invite (and pay) scientists and others sympathetic to its cause to seduce people with good names to foul them and ruin their professional reputations for the sake of short-term financial gain is overstated. Bayer is saying that it will do everything in its power to extend its network as merchants of doubt to derail science and popular sovereignty over land and food in EU countries.

New Publication: Financial Conflicts of Interest and Stance on Tobacco Harm Reduction: A Systematic Review

My colleagues Manali Vora, Jesse Elias, and Pam Ling and I at the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California, San Francisco just Financial Conflicts of Interest and Stance on Tobacco Harm Reduction: A Systematic Review. (Also available at PubMed).

Here are some sources that have blogged about the paper:


Background. Tobacco companies have actively promoted the substitution of cigarettes with purportedly safer tobacco products (e.g., smokeless tobacco, e-cigarettes) as tobacco harm reduction (THR). Given the tobacco, e-cigarette, and pharmaceutical industries’ substantial financial interests, we quantified industry influence on support for THR.

Objectives. To analyze a comprehensive set of articles published in peer-reviewed journals assessing funding sources and support for or opposition to substitution of tobacco or nicotine products as harm reduction.

Search Methods. We searched PubMed, Embase, Web of Science, and PsycINFO with a comprehensive search string including all articles, comments, and editorials published between January 1, 1992 and July 26, 2016.

Selection Criteria. We included English-language publications published in peer-reviewed journals addressing THR in humans and excluded studies on modified cigarettes, on South Asian smokeless tobacco variants, on pregnant women, on animals, not mentioning a tobacco or nicotine product, on US Food and Drug Administration–approved nicotine replacement therapies, and on nicotine vaccines.

Data Collection and Analysis. We double-coded all articles for article type; primary product type (e.g., snus, e-cigarettes); themes for and against THR; stance on THR; THR concepts; funding or affiliation with tobacco, e-cigarette, pharmaceutical industry, or multiple industries; and each author’s country. We fit exact logistic regression models with stance on THR as the outcome (pro- vs anti-THR) and source of funding or industry affiliation as the predictor taking into account sparse data. Additional models included article type as the outcome (nonempirical or empirical) and industry funding or affiliation as predictor, and stratified analyses for empirical and nonempirical studies with stance on THR as outcome and funding source as predictor.

Main Results. Searches retrieved 826 articles, including nonempirical articles (21%), letters or commentaries (34%), editorials (5%), cross-sectional studies (15%), systematic reviews and meta-analyses (3%), and randomized controlled trials (2%). Overall, 23.9% disclosed support by industry; 49% of articles endorsed THR, 42% opposed it, and 9% took neutral or mixed positions. Support from the e-cigarette industry (odds ratio [OR] = 20.9; 95% confidence interval [CI] = 5.3, 180.7), tobacco industry (OR = 59.4; 95% CI = 10.1, +infinity), or pharmaceutical industry (OR = 2.18; 95% CI = 1.3, 3.7) was significantly associated with supportive stance on THR in analyses accounting for sparse data.

Authors’ Conclusions. Non–industry-funded articles were evenly divided in stance, while industry-funded articles favored THR. Because of their quantity, letters and comments may influence perceptions of THR when empirical studies lack consensus.

Public Health Implications. Public health practitioners and researchers need to account for industry funding when interpreting the evidence in THR debates. (Am J Public Health. Published online ahead of print May 16, 2019: e1–e8. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2019.305106)

Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense

In doing some background research for my book, I remembered that I had read about a year ago of a US Congressman who was working to get rid of the imperative for US health insurers to take patients with preexisting conditions, who shortly thereafter was diagnosed with prostate cancer. The poetic justice was obvious, and I was ready to incorporate the story into mine, to demonstrate the hypocrisy of the political landscape around medical issues, and the demonizing of illness, making it into some Biblical or New Age Law of Attraction bullshit.

And then I noticed that as I went to retrieve this information, that the first hit that came up was from a notoriously provocative website, “The Daily KOS.” I read the article, but it seemed more lukewarm than I remembered in terms of evidence, so I went back and watched the original CNN interview with the supposed damning evidence of hypocrisy of the US Representative from Alabama, Republican Mo Brooks scorning those with preexisting conditions.

In fact, the Daily KOS had cherry-picked Brooks’ words out of context, completely mangling his meaning, which amounted to: those who have lived risk-prone lives should have to pay more than people who have done their best to take care of themselves, and many people are sick “through no fault of their own,” and “we must take care of them.” We can quibble with if we agree with that, but Brooks’ statement looked nothing like the fire and brimstone irony Daily KOS was insinuating.

Shoddy reporting helps no one, and making people whose political ideas you may not agree with into hyperbolic monsters reduces credibility, creates mutual antagonism, and is part of why America is divided. It’s time for journalistic ethics to make a comeback.

Islands of unsustainability

John Rawls’s (1971) notion of national self-sufficiency in terms of resources is about as far from our current globalized world as we can get, in terms of theory aimed at non-ideal applications. Globalization is a fact of life. And yet, with each displacement in our life, we have expended more and more energy to have a never-ending commodity change for each product stretched across the globe, on call and ready at hand for our whim to flick a switch and watch, do, or order something.

Just this week, a new study is out showing that our music streaming, from services such as Spotify and Apple Music, are in fact, creating billowing clouds of greenhouse gasses, leading to more destruction even as we have “virtualized” the materiality of music listening. The cloud–which after all just means storing your data on somebody else’s computers/servers and accessing it via satellite or cable/fiber-optics–is an expensive process to maintain, after all. It turns out that “owning” your own stuff in a place-based location (on your device) makes much more sense ecologically, than having it distributed all over the world and calling it in on a regular basis.

Rawls’ (1999: 39 and 106–7) aim for polity self-sufficiency suggests that a polity may not inflict negative environmental externalities on other polities, and yet, that is what the top 20% economically are doing to the bottom 80%. We (the royal, cosmopolitan, globalized western “we”) are happy to live a fabulous lifestyle as long as the carnage from our consumption are pushed out of sight and out of mind. This is precisely what Ulrich Beck refers to as the “distanciation” of the effects of our actions.

But what allows us to maintain this unsustainability is not that the top 20% don’t care about the consequences, but that we have bought into a sort of exceptionalism that suggests that we and our loved ones will be spared from the worst of the environmental fall-out. We’ve bought into American Exceptionalism Gone Wild–the rampant idea that somehow – through wealth, technology, national identity, gender, race, etc. – that we will be spared. That we are God’s Chosen One’s and can stick out our tongue and thumb our nose at the rest of the world. (Of course, such performances of behavior, implicit or explicit, prove that such people absolutely have no concept of god or powers beyond themselves.) In other words, there is a certain strata of the population, that truly believes that they will get off scot-free by cheating: barraging the world with their waste without having to clean it up or other pay for it. It is the ultimate planetary intergenerational ponzi scheme.

It is also the ultimate abdication of responibility. As we hash out details (what Freud referred to as the “narcissism of minor differences”), the world burns. And elites are quite happy about it too. Because then no nation or their people or leader has to be responsible, and can carry on with the charade. As Elinor Ostrom writes:

“Reducing emissions now is more urgent than reaching an international agreement to reduce emissions by a given percentage, which might not be achieved for some time into the future. We do not face a situation where little harm is caused by overuse until we pass a given threshold, as may be the case with some renewable resources” (2010, 28; italics in original, bold added). No, what is at stake is the world, and nothing less. Fly, eat meat, and burn fossil fuels at your own expense, with each joule and calorie added to you account. There is no pawning off our responsibility any longer.

(Also See Bruno Latour’s Down To Earth and Michele Serre’ The Parasite)