This chapter introduces a biosemiotic view of imagination and its evolutionary understanding of nature and culture as consisting of semiotic relations through and through. It discusses the relation between self and environment (signifying umwelt) and the primary act of imagination as the building of a meaningful semiotic model of the environment in both humans and all other organisms. It identifies the self plus the umwelt as the basic evolutionary unit of survival and argues that this, not technologized, inflexible deterministic models must be the context in which imagination and evolution, which are structurally similar and constitute mind, can operate. Finally, it warns against imagination that takes its hand from the Earth into endless abstraction as a kind of hellish danger and looks at the dangers of attacks on meaning-making as forms of destructive semiocide.
This essay argues that recent developments in evolutionary biology require us to reformulate the Darwinian Synthesis which has dominated evolutionary understandings from the 1930s to Neo-Darwinism and Evolutionary Psychology in the present. Introducing the new interdiscipline of biosemiotics, which understands all living things – from cells to organisms to ecosystems – as communicative makers of meanings, the essay argues that we can understand cultural and aesthetic life both as emergent from natural biosemiotic life and also as rearticulating nature’s patterns at a new symbolic level in humans. Drawing on the semiotic philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce and on Michael Polanyi’s understanding of tacit embodied knowledge, the essay suggests that the power of literature lies in its capacity to remind us of the generative power and creative evolution of semiosis, both in nature and in culture.