aliens, oak trees and the difficulties of communication

One of the advantages of working at a university is that it allows us the possibility of participating beyond the normal limits of our chosen subjects.  Whereas my chosen subject is mathematics, I have also had the opportunity to do a small amount of teaching beyond the normal mathematics curriculum.

Several years ago, the University of Southampton set up a collection of modules spanning the standard discipline boundaries that govern many modules here and elsewhere.   (If you’re interested, you can find out more at

As the result of a conversation here leading to a conversation there, I have had the opportunity to give a lecture in Intercultural Communication in a Global World in each of the past 3 years.  And it’s not, as you might immediately think, about mathematics as a culture in and of itself, or of the perceived difficulties that non-mathematicians might have in communicating with mathematicians.  Rather, my topic comes from a favorite topic of speculation from another part of my life, as struggling science fiction author.

Suppose we were to start ranking how difficult it might be for humans to communicate with non-humans.  This is an extreme form of intercultural communication, but reasonable communication with extra-terrestrials is a common theme of science fiction and has become mainstream.  But why start with extra-terrestrials when there are so many interesting speculative possibilities closer to home.

EASIEST: Regardless of what else we might think, humans communicating with humans must be at the easy end of the scale.  When we bother to, we can learn each other’s languages and we can come to understand the subtleties buried within these languages.  After all, it’s been some time since I’ve run into the English-English translation problem that frequently plagued me when I first moved to England.

Beyond this, it gets rather speculative.  I have not undertaken an exhaustive examination of all possible pieces of evidence, and in fact, if there is any properly scientific (non-anecdotal) evidence for or against any of the below, please let me know.  I’m curious.

SLIGHTLY HARDER: Something which has been explored in fiction but for which we have no strong, hard evidence is the extent to which we communicated clearly with our hominoid cousins, such as Neanderthals.  We do know that our ancestors overlapped in Europe and elsewhere in the world, and we must have interacted with Neanderthals, if for no other reason than current estimates are that modern Europeans possess roughly 4% Neanderthal DNA.   I’ll take the optimistic position that interbreeding implies meaningful conversation.

HARDER STILL: It is not my intention to insult any dog owners who might be reading, but I don’t yet believe that talking to dogs or other animals such as dolphins is as straightforward as talking to one another or to our hominoid cousins.   Significant communication clearly takes place, between dogs and people, between African grey parrots and humans, but no one has ever to my knowledge had an unambiguous conversation with a dog or a dolphin or an elephant about the weather.  We are fairly certain that elephants communicate over long distances but what are they saying?  Some people find whale song soothing, but what are they actually talking about?  As was raised in a story I read a long time ago but have forgotten almost entirely, do dolphins and whales have an oral history going back generations and might we find in their stories the distance echo of when an alien spacecraft crashed into the oceans?

MUCH HARDER STILL: In my readings, I tend not to take notes, and perhaps I should become a better note taker.  But I have the memory of reading that trees communicate.  When trees at one side of a grove are attacked by pests, trees at the other end start producing the appropriate defensive chemicals before the pests have made it across.  But could we ever have a conversation with an oak tree?  Even if we were able to decode the meanings of their communications and even if we were to decide, as we have with dolphins and elephants, that those communications carry meaning of the sort we might be able to participate in, there is the issue of time scales.  To what extent does a vast difference in life spans affect communication between species?  And what would we talk about?

There are many other things we could stick on this list.  Rocks, perhaps, if we want to take the view that rocks might be intelligent communicative beings but just working on a time scale where we see them as essentially static and they don’t notice us at all.

But after all the terrestrial possibilities have been exhausted, we finally come to extra-terrestrials.  As a wannabe writer of science fiction with but a single story to my credit (to date) (so far) I want communication with extra-terrestrials to be possible.  As a mathematician, I want to see whether mathematics really is the language through which all intelligent beings from across the universe can converse.

But I think that having a reasonable conversation with an extra-terrestrial is going to be harder than having a conversation with an oak tree, and much harder than with a dolphin.  Perhaps I’m wrong.  I suppose the best we can say at this point is, let’s hope we get the chance to find out.

~ by Jim Anderson on 3 May 2015.

2 Responses to “aliens, oak trees and the difficulties of communication”

  1. Communication is hard. Also easy. Some of the difference depends on what you want to communicate. (As another interesting example of terrestrial communication, there are well-known bird calls that mean things like “incoming aerial predator!” and “sneaking ground predator detected!” which are a) used across many species, and b) understood by even more species, mammals even, I think, who can’t make the calls. Also some interesting discussions around about how to communicate with humans who might be alive say 50 000 years forward from now (about topics like the dangers of radioactive “waste”).

  2. […] I have to admit more than the exploration of the ideas themselves.  And it also explains the occasional lecture I give on a topic unrelated to […]

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