How Forests Think Reveals The Need For Nonhuman Personhood

March 9, 2016 Sharon Ryals Tamm

Sharon Ryals Tamm gives us a compelling review of the ideas within the book How Forests Think, by Eduardo Kohn. This is the first of a two-part series. 

The Shock of Self-Recognition

“Sleep face up!” insists the skilled Runa hunter.  The reason for this urgency, Eduardo Kohn explains in his book, How Forests Think, is that “If…a jaguar sees you as being capable of looking back—a self like himself, a you—he’ll leave you alone. But if he should come to see you as prey—an it—you may become dead meat.“ In facing, self to self, another top predator in the Amazon forest, a self whose recognition of Kohn as a self can determine his survival, the anthropologist has his first stunning experience that he isn’t the only self in the forest and that “how other kinds of beings see us matters.”  When we recognize that those other beings are capable of deciding whether we are persons or things, everything changes.  

Humans immersed in only-humans-matter cultures may need to be stunned to begin to perceive the selves of other than human beings. When the songs of humpback whales were released to the public domain in 1970 it was another kind of stunning encounter—not one that was terrifying (though it may also have been so) but rather, inspiring. That they sang—something humans hold dear, one of our deepest, broadest, most complex, yet most common arts of self-expression—forced us to confront consciousness beyond the human. That humpbacks sing changed everything.

At first glance, Kohn’s book may not seem to directly connect to cetaceans. In what way can understanding how forests think relate to recognizing the individual personhood of dolphins and whales—a recognition necessary to recognize cetacean’s individual legal rights, rather than their being considered numerical resources under the law? Kohn says, “Creating an analytical framework that can include humans as well as non-humans has been a central concern of science.” A robust analytic that takes us beyond dualism is “one of the most important challenges facing critical thought today.”

Many relevant studies tend to test for whether one member of a species can demonstrate specific characteristics habitually defined as uniquely human. If such characteristics can be proven repeatedly then, perhaps, that one animal or even her species might be acknowledged in a limited way to be like us and thus a step closer to becoming a member of our exclusive club.  That humpbacks sing and jaguars decide whether humans are meat is a similar sort of test. Kohn asks, “How does it change our understanding of…the human (when), in the world beyond the human…we find characteristics we feel more comfortable attributing only to ourselves?” In order to answer this question, Kohn seems to shift inquiry from how they are like us to how we are like them. This shift may be both as revolutionary and evident as recognizing the sun as the center around which our earth orbits.


Anthropology Beyond the Human

In his ethnographic study focusing attention on “Amazonian other-than-human encounters”, Kohn immerses himself in the forest culture of the Quichua speaking Runa people of Avila, a culture deeply entangled in the complex lives of a forest world with whom they are related and upon whom they depend. The Runa culture includes all the beings of the forest in such a way that allows those of us in more exclusionary cultures to begin to see the world as an “ecology of selves”, and creates the basis for Kohn to argue for an “anthropology beyond the human.”

Kohn roots his argument in the 19th century philosopher Charles Pierce’s work in semiotics (the study of how signs represent things in the world), in particular “those parts that reach beyond the human.” Discussions of representation (something that stands for something else) and the creation and interpretation of signs is usually confined to linguistics and only considers how representation works in terms of how human language works. This makes it hard to recognize that “non-human life forms also represent the world.”  Kohn suggests to not start with human symbolic language, a type of sign several steps removed from the physical world, to understand non-human representation. Instead he starts within sign modalities “we humans share…with the rest of nonhuman biological life.” Pierce broadly defines these as: 1) “Iconic”—signs that share a likeness of what they represent (such as sensory, visual, auditory, gestural or pattern mimicry—i.e. the stick bug looks like a stick); and 2) “Indexical”—signs that represent things by their physical connection to those things (i.e. smoke indicates fire, even a specific type of fuel burning in a specific location).

The highly experienced Runa hunter, considering the way the jaguar represents humans, turns his face to the jaguar to sign that here is one who can look back at you, one who is not meat.

Kohn uses numerous examples to show that “all life-forms represent the world in some way…and these representations are intrinsic to their beings.”  No matter how small or large, simple or complex, living beings both sign and represent, perceive and interpret signs from the world around them. Even a one-celled animal must perceive the signals in the soup in which it floats and respond to those signals in order to survive.  In the Amazon forest, how living beings recognize and interpret signs can determine life and death. The degree to which the tongue of the anteater looks to ants like something other than a tongue determines how many ants get eaten.  How completely the stick bug represents a stick determines whether its predator sees it as food or not. The highly experienced Runa hunter, considering the way the jaguar represents humans, turns his face to the jaguar to sign that here is one who can look back at you, one who is not meat. Because all of life perceives signs and responds to them, Kohn argues, all of life is semiotic.

Thought requires semiotics. In thinking, one re-presents what is perceived and interprets it. All living things represent the world in which they live. Descartes argued, in the famous maxim, “I think, therefore I am”, that there must be a thinking entity—a self—for there to be thought. Descartes was concerned with the reality of his own being in the face of radical self-doubt and decided the ability to have such doubt was evidence that he was an “I” and therefore real. Here the question of being a real self is applied to non-human life, beings about which western philosophy has had so much doubt, that recognition of thought and its resulting self-hood is habitually withheld. Kohn argues that since all living beings are semiotic they also represent or think, and so the intrinsic self-hood that goes with thought is characteristic of all of life.


Signs of Consciousness

How do we know what non-humans think, especially when we often hardly seem to know what other humans are thinking? In response to the idea that even if animals have “some kind of selfhood—we can never know it,” Kohn asks “what might a theory of relating look like that started, not with…secure knowledge of other beings, but with…provisional guesses…” Kohn looks to Pierce, the father of semiotics, to explain. “All experiences and all thoughts for all selves… are all sign processes. (Therefore) introspection, human-to-human inter-subjectivity and even trans-species sympathy and communication are not categorically different…we can only come to know ourselves and others through the medium of signs. Rather than (making) knowledge of (other) selves impossible, this is the basis for its possibility.” That we share the cognizance of signs with all of life shows that we are similar. This is the basis for thinking into, imagining and having some sense of how “red might be experienced by a blind person, how it is to be a bat, or what dogs might have been thinking just before they were attacked.” Kohn notes other studies which include the non-symbolic parts of Pierce’s semiotics still see them as only meaningful in a human context. He argues, instead, that meaning is not limited to humans. “What we share with nonhuman living creatures is…the fact that we all live with and through signs.” It is through shared sign modalities “that multi-species relations are possible and analytically comprehensible.”

Multispecies relations are mediated through signs on a daily basis in Avila, for example, when a Runa hunter cuts down a tree to flush a young monkey from her hiding place within the canopy. The Lowland Quichua language has hundreds of words that convey meaning by creating a sonic image of how an action unfolds. The hunter says  “ta ta” for chopping the palm tree and “pu oh” for the snap of the tree as it begins its fall and the swish of its leaves as it falls. To the Runa hunter these words are iconic to the actions themselves, imitating a tiny part of the characteristics of the felling of a palm tree and not specifically limited to this particular palm.

In the Runa culture, what non-human selves think matters.

To the young monkey who is hiding from the hunter in the thick foliage of a very tall tree, the palm crashing down is a sign for something else entirely, a thing specific to this place at this time. It points to something else, so is an index for something to which it is somehow connected—“something dangerously different from her present sense of security”. She interprets the crash and her shaking perch as a sign of threat, though the true nature of that threat is unclear. The hunter predicted how the monkey would interpret his ta ta and pu oh and that she’d respond to her interpretation by leaving her hiding place. His thinking into the monkey’s perception and reaction was accurate and she was shot as soon as she came into the open.

The Language of Signs

In the Runa culture, what non-human selves think matters. Much attention is given to understanding and representing how those other thinking selves perceive and represent the world. Sonic image words can also be indexes connected to the meanings of what animals say. “Hua, hua, hua,” is what domestic dogs say when they are on the trail of prey and “Ya ya ya ya,” when they are poised to attack. One day some Avila dogs were out of view and, after announcing prey and their readiness to attack, said “aya—aya i—i aya—i,” indicating they’d been attacked and were in great pain. The women telling this story knew what the dogs said from their knowledge of dogs as well as by agreement between dogs and humans. If a dog says, “hua, hua, hua” when there is no prey, that dog is considered a liar. Such a dog might be fed ayahuasca, a potentially lethal herb, to enhance interspecies awareness. While in that state, the dog is given specific sound sign directions for how to communicate truthfully with humans.

Ayahuasca is also used by the Runa to increase their own awareness and knowledge of the other beings of the forest. Another way they understand the messages of the forest is through dreams. Such awareness is intrinsic to their culture and vital to survival. To the Runa, a shaman pays attention to and mediates between humans and other selves including spirits. In Runa culture this ability is part of being a fully functional human being, not something only a few people have. The ability to pay attention to and comprehend representations by other beings, plants, animals, (even elementals such as rocks, wind, and rivers which Kohn mostly excludes from his thesis), is part of being a fully functional human being in many indigenous cultures. That everything is animate and has “a voice” to which humans both can and should pay attention is assumed, represented and cultivated.

Symbolic language can generate experiences of disconnection and the concepts of and belief in individual and species isolation. Such concepts have unfathomable power to create and destroy the world.

Given how thoroughly indigenous cultures, such as the Runa, are embedded within multispecies communities, one might wonder, what happened to so-called modern humans? How did we become so exceptional and separate that we no longer claim or belong to an animate world? Kohn says human exclusivity is a logical outcome of human symbolic conventional language, specifically unfettered belief in realities created by such signs. Symbolic language is learned, not biologically inherited. Meanings are assigned, are conventional to time, culture and usage and can change.  Though symbolic signs emerge from and are related to icon and index signs, they have meaning only in systemic relation to other signs and are not directly connected to the physical world. (Though he mentions a study of whether primates can understand symbolic language, he doesn’t cite results and thus sidesteps any challenge to the current status of symbolic language as uniquely human).

The power and weakness of symbolic language is that it can create concepts for which there is no evidence in the physical world. In this way symbolic language can generate experiences of disconnection and the concepts of and belief in individual and species isolation. Such concepts have unfathomable power to create and destroy the world. I recall as a child asking why a massive freeway interchange was being built over the slough, a woods and marshland where we’d spent many summers picking berries and playing amoung countless bugs, frogs, fingerlings, pollywogs, birds and other critters. I was told it was the best place to build because there was nothing there. Nothing. When human language designates the living world as nothing that world will become nothing, even less than dead meat. The concept of human isolation created in language then generates it in fact.

Kohn seeks to “open” human symbolic language by reconnecting it to “the real”. He illustrates with a story: He was riding a bus on a narrow road that became blocked both in front and behind by rock slides. When a rock bounced off the bus he thought that the rocks above the bus might also slide, putting all of the passengers in imminent peril. He watched the bus driver and mothers with young children on the bus, none of whom appeared to share his alarm. This discrepancy did not dispel his alarm but created a sense of separation from them. He couldn’t leave the bus or make it move and had to wait until the road was cleared. He felt more and more alienated, numb and unreal. His anxious alienated state continued through the day well after the slide had been cleared and he was no longer in danger.

The feeling was suddenly and completely dispelled when he focused binoculars in on a brightly plumaged lively bird. This focus reconnected him to “the real”, the living world around him and freed him from the trap of his thoughts.  In it’s simplest form, he is saying that when humans have direct experience of other lives it opens up the symbolic realities we create and reconnects us to the semiotic processes and selves of the living world.

Sharon Ryals Tamm, retired and writing. Volunteer for Daily Bread, Youth Suitcase Clinic and International Marine Mammal Project of Earth Island Institute.


  • “Women and the Labor Movement: 1880-1920.” The Evergreen State College 1975.
  • Three chapbooks of poetry. 1976, 1977, 1978.
  • “FireGrrl”, 2013. An historical novel based on the 1974 USDA experimental hiring of 4 women to a 16 man hot-shot crew to determine if women could fight forest fires.
  • Recent accomplishments:
  • 2014 Marine Mammal Naturalist Certificate, American Cetacean Society, San Francisco chapter.
  • 2012 Open Ocean Dive Certificate, Sausalito, CA and Kona, HI