Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Life and Language beyond Earth

Raymond Hickey

This book addresses the question ‘Do beings exist on planets beyond our Solar System with whom we could engage in meaningful exchange?’ To approach this issue we can break it down as follows:

Four basic questions about life and language beyond Earth

1)       Is there any life beyond Earth?

2)       Is there intelligent life beyond Earth?

3)       Does such life have a communication system which we would recognise as language?

4)       Is this life technologically advanced enough to communicate with us?

Bear in mind that there may well be life-forms elsewhere which are intelligent, by any understanding of this term, and yet not be scientifically advanced and not capable of interstellar communication.

A common question asked these days is ‘Are we alone in the universe?’. It looks like a simple question with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. But far from it, the question involves a whole raft of issues which need to identified and discussed. Let’s begin by deconstructing the question.

First ‘universe’, that’s relatively easy. For all practical purposes, now and for the foreseeable future, by ‘universe’ we can only mean a radius of some tens of light years around us, maybe a hundred light years at most. That is only a tiny fraction of our galaxy, the Milk Way. Our galaxy is, however, only one of several hundred billions in the observable universe and possibly only one of trillions and trillions of galaxies in the actual universe. So the patch of space which ‘universe’ in the initial question can refer to is an infinitesimally small area in a universe of inconceivable vastness. Nonetheless, since the advent of modern exoplanetology we know that nearly all stars have planetary systems and that some planets would have conditions similar to those on Earth. There are probably something in the order of 50-100 billion Earth-like planets orbiting stars just in our galaxy alone.

Next comes the plural personal pronoun ‘we’. I think it is fair to say that when the question is asked, people mean by ‘we’ forms of life which are in principle comparable to us: at least equal in level of intelligence and recognizable in appearance and behaviour and at least as technologically advanced as we humans, though there is much speculation about how far beyond us they might be. And then there is the issue of communication: could we have sensible exchanges with them? To do this, they would have to have a system which is comparable to human language and one which we could decipher and then use for communication. In my book, forms of life for which all that would hold are called ‘exobeings’, i.e. human being analogues on exoplanets.

Recall that complex life forms, on any planet, can only arise from much simpler life forms through Darwinian evolution by natural selection with random mutations, genetic drift and flow in the mix as well. I stress that is the only way exobeings could arise on exoplanets: ultimately from simple cells over at least hundreds of millions of years. To get a handle on how that might happen elsewhere it is necessary to take a closer look at how it happened on Earth and consider key events and developments which led from the simplest of cells to ourselves, Homo sapiens.

The key questions in this connection are (i) how did life arise on Earth, (ii) how did the Homo species come to be, (iii) how did Homo sapiens develop such large brains and, finally, (iv) how did we come to speak, i.e. to have language. The fields of science centrally concerned with these four questions are:

1)   evolutionary biology   2)    palaeoanthropology

3)   neuroscience            4)    linguistics

So this book is about assessing the likelihood that the stages which life on Earth went through, in the 4.55bn years of its existence, could be replicated elsewhere leading to advanced forms of life. This assessment involves a close examination of key events in the evolution of terrestrial life and an attempt to determine how probable such events are in terms of Earth-like planets in general. Consider the following points.

1) There was a key development from simple cells to those with complex internal structures which arose by the co-option of other cells to produce energy for the host cell. Life was already over one billion years on Earth before this development which was essential to the rise of all complex forms of life.

2) About 540m years ago predation arose as a means for organisms to find sources of food. This led to an increase in cognition due to the requirements of hunting prey which would provide high-energy nutrients.

3) Due to climate developments in East Africa tropical forests receded with savannah plains developing. There was a split in the tribe of hominini with chimpanzees and bonobos forming one branch and another branch leading eventually to Homo sapiens, our species. Habitats were frequently inhospitable with major environmental fluctuations. This stress favoured the survival of more intelligent beings.

4) The genus Homo had two important characteristics: (i) hands with nails and a precision grip between thumb and index finger, which enabled its members to build tools, (ii) an ever increasing brain size.

Why brains developed far beyond what was necessary to survive in the environment of the time is unknown.

Salient features of anatomically modern humans

1)       Large pre-frontal cortex with a brain size of about 1200-1400 cc.

2)       A round head without a bulge at the back.

3)       Small mouth, teeth and jaw muscles, suggesting the consumption of cooked food.

4)       Long legs, somewhat shorter arms, with wide-range joints on the torso; longer neck.

5)       Manual dexterity with a power grip, via the fist, and a precision grip, via the opposable thumb and index finger.

6)        Flexible tongue muscle capable of realising different configurations of the oral cavity. Lowered larynx with hyoid bone positioned for precise muscular movements to produce sounds. Agile vocal folds for generating voice, essential for vowels and many consonants.

When searching for exoplanets with life the time factor must be borne in mind. Consider the following possibilities:

1)       There may have been exocivilisations with advanced technology which are long since gone.

2)       There may be planets with forms of life which, in their future, may evolve into intelligent beings with science and technology capable of interstellar communication.

3)       There may be planets with civilisations which are already well into their digital age, even by millions of years.

And what about language?

Human language probably developed slowly over a period of some hundreds of thousands of years from an original simple means of basic communication consisting of just some words which gradually evolved into a grammatical system allowing for complex sentences providing nuance and flexibility to both the internal management of thought and external communication with other members in social groups. The evidence that our nearest Homo relatives, the Neanderthals (and by extension the Denisovans), had a communication system comparable in principle to our language is compelling.

           The following are the broadest generalisations which one can make about language on Earth:

1)       Language is a system of communication and thought organisation

2)       It involves sounds with arbitrary symbolic value (with signing as a further modality)

3)       It is used solely by humans

4)       It is a rule-governed system which is open-ended

Five steps to view and analyse language

1)       How language is structured and how it can be analysed by linguists

2)       How language is related to our brains and cognitive abilities

3)       How we produce language given our anatomy

4)       How we acquire language in our childhood

5)       How language probably evolved on Earth

The open-ended flexible nature of human language would apply to any exolanguage, otherwise it would not be adequate for the development of complex societies with advanced technologies.

To learn more about the intriguing question of how language arose and how it might exist on exoplanets you should read the book for lots of fascinating details and insights.

Link to relevant section of my homepage: http://raymondhickey.com/RH_LLBE-Overview.htm

Life and Language beyond Earth by Raymond Hickey

About The Author

Raymond Hickey

Raymond Hickey is Adjunct Professor at the University of Limerick, Ireland and former Professor at the University of Duisburg and Essen, Germany. His main research interests are va...

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