Communication and the Cosmos: The Power of Language in Advancing Civilizations

Humans evolved from chimpanzees and reached the Moon by developing a language. But why is communication so advantageous for the evolution of a species?

Language allows a community to benefit from the experiences of its members. Each individual probes a different environment with different skills. The combined knowledge educates the community on how to survive collectively, given the constraints of limited resources.

Also, a language allows the community to pursue projects that cannot be accomplished by an individual. Reaching the Moon required the US to invest a 2.5% of its Gross Domestic Product in the mid-60s. The Large Hadron Collider required ten billion dollars and the cooperation of 23 memberstates.  

A collection of individuals resembles an octopus that probes its environment through multiple arms and brains. In the past, NASA explored Mars mostly through one primary probe per mission. In the future, a better strategy might be to send a swarm of small probes that visit numerous locations at the same time and diversify the opportunities for accomplishing the stated mission.

In addition to the retrieval of feedback from many agents, language offers an opportunity to benefit from a diversity of skills. While one individual may possess the mental ability to come up with the concept of what needs to be done, another might have the physical ability to do it. In science, this constitutes the split between theorists and experimentalists. Language enables the cooperation of members with complementary skills, which on their own might not have been able to translate ideas into action.

The recording of past events through a historical narrative allows a community to remember the past and improve its performance in the future. In contrast, the superficial information communicated through social media compromises our ability to learn from past mistakes.

Do the benefits scale as a power-law or an exponential in the number of individuals who share knowledge with each other through language?

Clearly, there is a sweet spot for the best practice in terms of the number of communicating individuals because some inadvertently introduce noise rather than signals into the conversation. If each individual can broadcast to numerous others, as is the case for X – formerly known as Twitter, the inevitable noise could lead to instabilities where nonsense resonates with wishful thinking in the fantasy world of some subscribers but not in our shared reality. Virtual realities, such as those advocated by the Führer of the Nazi party in World War II, could have devastating consequences.  There is an optimal number of listeners that should be allowed to each communicator in real-time, such that the community at large will not be carried off the cliff of existence by false narratives.

Language allows those who have wisdom to share their insights with those who lack them. For teachers to be effective, the listeners must be humble and willing to learn.

The biggest risk to society is tribalism, where people listen only to those who support their views. The resulting polarization into echo chambers and virtue signaling does not allow the critical dialogues that facilitate a middle ground.

In science, conflicting ideas should be vetted by experimental evidence. This is possible as long as one side does not suppress the free exchange of ideas and their experimental verification.  For example, all scientists should acknowledge that it is possible for an expedition to the Pacific Ocean to recover materials of extrasolar composition. The verdict can be settled by exquisite measurements in the laboratories of Professor Stein Jacobsen at Harvard and Dr. Roald Tagle at the Bruker Corporation in Berlin rather than by superficial tweets arguing that the recovered materials are coal ash.

The essential roles of a language in the development of an advanced civilization are likely universal and should apply to exoplanets far from Earth. If alien probes reach our doorstep, then a language must have enabled their senders to reach us. Deciphering this language would require using our most advanced artificial intelligence (AI) systems, as it would constitute a greater challenge than breaking the Enigma code of Nazi Germany by Alan Touring during World War II.

Perhaps we can start by training AI systems on the communication of terrestrial animals, like the goals of Project CETI in studying the communication of whales. The lessons learned would prepare us for our first encounter with extraterrestrials.

Avi Loeb is the head of the Galileo Project, founding director of Harvard University’s – Black Hole Initiative, director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and the former chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University (2011-2020). He chairs the advisory board for the Breakthrough Starshot project, and is a former member of the Presidents Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and a former chair of the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies. He is the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent LifeBeyond Earth” and a co-author of the textbook “Life in the Cosmos”, both published in 2021. His new book, titled “Interstellar”, was published in August 2023.