Alien intelligences

The elephant as a person

…  the search space for nonhuman language use should rely on two general criteria. First, we need behavioural evidence for flexible, intelligent hypersociality that could make language development a viable investment for natural selection. Second, we need evidence of information exchange, using signals that have enough acoustic variation to make it physically possible that they could encode syntax. Dogs meet the first criterion but not the second; many songbirds meet the second criterion but not the first. There is a loose consensus among comparative psychologists that the zone of possibility for both criteria currently boils down to the following animals: parrots, corvids (crows, ravens, jays), toothed whales (dolphins, porpoises, sperm whales, orcas) – and elephants.

Elephants use multiple channels for signalling to and with one another. One channel, generating vibrations in the ground, is used for long-distance transmission. Soft, low-frequency vibrations in the air, emanating from both the trunk and the gut, seem to be the main medium at close quarters. (The familiar trumpeting might not involve enough acoustic variation to be useful for anything other than broadcasting urgent emotions such as fear and anger – but it’s clearly used to communicate warnings.) In addition, elephants have a range of standard trunk and head gestures that carry mutually understood signals. Finally, they clearly communicate information by touching one another in specific ways and places. They have receptors for processing information from this tactile probing – which, given their precision control and highly labile trunk lips, supports fine discriminations.

A database of elephant recordings is now starting to accumulate in the research community. It attempts to capture acoustic, visual and tactile signals, matched to behavioural observations. But the problem of interpreting these data is vastly more formidable than decoding encrypted human text or vocal messages. If elephant communication has syntax, and if this syntax relies on cross-channel modulation, we shouldn’t expect the rules of elephant grammar to map on to the syntactic categories of any human language. Elephants inhabit deeply different lifeworlds from humans, have different hierarchies of motivation, and make different perceptual discriminations. And, except in the crudest terms, we don’t know much about what elephants might want to say to one another.

Much, much more at the very long article linked at the top of this post.

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1 thought on “Alien intelligences”

  1. That’s actually a pretty good suggestion. How likely is it that space aliens would communicate in ways obvious to us? At least try with our local ‘alien’ critters, and broaden our possibilities to consider.

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