If Aliens Landed Tomorrow, Could We Communicate With Them?

An interview with Dr. Arik Kershenbaum, author of "The Zoologist's Guide to the Galaxy: What Animals on Earth Reveal About Aliens—and Ourselves."

It’s difficult for some of us not to allow our minds to wander toward scenarios where we’ve finally answered the ultimate question. Are we alone in the universe? Will we ever make first contact with a non-human, off-world intelligence? Even more intriguing is the question of whether or not we would even be able to communicate with aliens should the ever arrive.

Barring some incredible technological advancement such as Star Trek’s universal translator or finding a convenient fish you can stick in your ear like Arthur Dent, if we want our relationship with a potential extraterrestrial intelligence to be productive, we’ll have to figure out a way to talk to each other. Without having any aliens hanging about to use as test subjects, the only other examples of non-human intelligence available to chat with are other terrestrial animals, such as chimps, dogs, birds, or, one of the most popular candidates, dolphins. The results thus far have been, I am sorry to report, less than promising.

That’s why I was thrilled to be able to interview author and University of Cambridge zoology researcher Dr. Arik Kershenbaum. Dr. Kershenbaum is an expert in animal vocal communication and the evolution of language. Throughout his career, he has studied the vocalizations of wolves along with dolphins and other cetaceans. But he has also delved into the question of human communication with aliens, mainly in a hypothetical fashion. He’s the author of a new book, “The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy: What Animals on Earth Reveal About Aliens—and Ourselves,” making him the ideal person to tackle these questions. The Debrief invited Dr. Kershenbaum to discuss the possibility of intelligent alien life, why it’s so hard to talk to the animals, the nature of language, and even subjects as far afield as telepathy. Here is what Dr. Kershenbaum has to say.

Can we Communicate with Aliens?

The Debrief: When you wrote your book, “The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy: What Animals on Earth Reveal About Aliens—and Ourselves,” you seemed to be focused on the fundamental elements of and definition of language. There is currently a growing public interest in the possibility of contact with a non-human intelligence at some point. But what was your focus? Was it more about the possible challenges of establishing communication with a hypothetical non-human intelligence, or more of an effort to define how we think of language and communications in general?

Dr. Arik Kershenbaum: The two are inextricably linked. When we think of establishing communication with another human culture – i.e. learning another language – we don’t need to make any conceptual leaps. All human languages are just minor variations on a theme. But if you want to communicate with a non-human intelligence, you can no longer rely on what you instinctively understand about “language.” That will necessarily be constrained to our understanding of human language, and may not in any way resemble the communication system of a dolphin, or a bird, or even of an alien. So we can’t even understand the challenges of inter-species communication, without getting to the bottom of what is the fundamental nature of language, and of communication in general. Actually, we’re very familiar with this idea. When you communicate with your pet dog, you don’t (usually) expect him or her to understand full sentences. But you know how to convey everything from commands to emotions, and even simple questions. Next time you do that, examine what you’re doing. You’ll see it’s nothing like any human language that we know. But it’s still meaningful communication.



TD: And do you find the idea of a non-terrestrial intelligence that may have visited the Earth plausible?

AK: This just seems incredibly unlikely to me. The energy and technology required to travel between the stars is so vast that any civilization capable of visiting us must be hugely more advanced than we are. In that case, if they wanted to remain unknown, we would certainly never know about them at all. If, on the other hand, they wanted to be known, they certainly wouldn’t have anything to fear from us. So they would just walk up to the White House (or, in the much more plausible scenario of Robert Sawyer’s book, “Calculating God,” up to the steps of a really good natural history museum). Given that, I don’t see why alien spaceships should be appearing occasionally and randomly in the skies, as has been suggested. It worries me that, in an age when we are genuinely redoubling our efforts to detect and understand extraterrestrial life, we should be distracted by a set of phenomena that may indeed be unexplained, but are actually far less interesting!

 TD: Anyone who has read your recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal could come away with the impression that you are skeptical of the idea that non-human animals on Earth have “languages” in the sense that humans do, or at least that their languages are very limited. People like Dr. Denise Herzing have been studying the language of dolphins for virtually their entire careers. To explain this for the layman, if dolphins, with their very large brains and apparently complex series of clicks, whistles, pulses, and buzzing sounds have a simplistic “language,” how is it that we’ve apparently never managed to exchange a single, meaningful question and answer with one of them? Is the challenge too great, or are dolphins simply not smart enough?

 AK: The definition of what exactly is and isn’t a language is probably less important than the concept: we humans seem to have something in our communication that no other species has. My own definition is that to be called a “language,” a communication system should have the ability to convey an unlimited number of different concepts. We don’t believe that other animals can do that. But I don’t have a problem if people prefer to call the complex communication of dolphins and apes “language.” The reason that we haven’t managed to exchange a single meaningful question with a dolphin is probably more to do with the fact that their concepts of meaning (and even the very idea of what a “question” is) don’t necessarily map onto what humans understand by “meaning.” Remember that dolphins evolved to solve very different problems from humans, and their social relationships are of a different nature than those of our primate ancestors. So both their cognitive and their communicative solutions are different in nature. Denise Herzing is a good example of a researcher who has made great progress understanding dolphin communication on their own terms, rather than imposing human-centric ideas of “question and answer.” I believe that we will eventually understand enough about the way that dolphins transfer and perceive information to make meaningful exchanges possible. But it won’t be “translation,” in the sense that we translate French or Mandarin.

 TD: Your editorial seems to suggest that any hypothetical non-human intelligence would have developed the amount of language they need to overcome the challenges of their environment, but no more. If life evolved elsewhere under very different conditions than humans have experienced on Earth, is it a given that we would recognize it and be able to decode it, particularly if they are thousands, if not millions of years in advance of our own development?

 AK: This idea of language being balanced between complexity and simplicity is not about how smart we (or aliens) are or how advanced their civilization is. It’s about how the complexity of the language grows with the complexity of the communication. Imagine that you are an alien hunter-gatherer before such a species evolved into a sophisticated technological civilization. As your world becomes more complex, you need a more complex language. Let’s say that after a few tens of thousands of years, your language is now ten times more complex. Does that mean your brain also needs to be ten times more complex? I hope not. Because if you’re suggesting an alien civilization is a million times more sophisticated than us, then their brains might be a million times larger than those of their ancestors! The great thing about language is that it can be complex in its content without being complex in its structure – and this is a property that should be true for complex communication everywhere and anywhere.

Would we be able to recognize it? Possibly, if that structure – complexity with simplicity – is something that we can measure mathematically, and scientists are working to develop such tests and algorithms. Would we be able to decode it? That’s much more contentious. The two main obstacles are, what if an alien’s very concept of meaning is as different to ours as a dolphin’s? The other problem is how do we understand the very nouns of an alien language? You can point to a dog, and a French person will say “chien.” That’s much harder to do when messages take decades or possibly centuries to travel from one planet to another. There’s even one theory that language can only exist as an interactive communication, and a one-way message could never be adequately translated.



 TD: Finally, and I realize this is very much “out there,” people who report experiences with non-human entities frequently claim to have communicated without spoken language, via telepathy. In your own research, do you find telepathy to be a possibility? Or must all language by definition be verbal?

 AK: Telepathy is an awkward thing to define. I can tell when my dog is upset without him saying a word. Is that telepathy? I don’t think that’s what you mean, but it’s worth considering that very complex concepts certainly can be conveyed silently. Languages certainly don’t have to be verbal. However, the reason I don’t think sci-fi telepathy is realistic is that all-natural languages do need to be sensory. All communication evolves from the senses. We speak because we have ears, not the other way round. Organisms detected vibrations around them (which could indicate the presence of prey or predators) and only later evolved to use vibration (sound) for communication. Think about it – what’s the point of evolving an organ to detect transmitted brain waves if no one is transmitting any? And what’s the point of transmitting your brain waves if no one has an organ to detect them? That’s why we don’t see sci-fi telepathy in any of the animals on Earth. Of course, a sufficiently advanced civilization could develop a mechanism to transmit thoughts technologically – we may not be that far away from such an idea ourselves, as Elon Musk has suggested if smartphones could be wired directly into our brains. But telepathy, as you suggest – aliens transmitting their thoughts directly to us – just doesn’t have any basis in evolutionary theory.


We want to thank Dr. Kershenbaum for taking the time to discuss this issue with us. I will confess to being a bit personally disappointed with some of the information he provided. As a lifelong fan of science-fiction and a person who chases every UFO and alien story that comes down the pike, I’m rather disheartened to learn that I won’t be having any telepathic conversations any time soon. But the man’s explanation about the evolution of sensory organs is hard to argue with. Perhaps we all occasionally need an expert to stop by and gently disabuse us of some of our sillier ideas.

The points Dr. Kershenbaum raises about the nature of the barriers standing between humans and dolphins casually discussing what a bunch of jerks the squid are was enlightening. I’d long assumed that we would have to have more in common, having at least evolved on the same planet from some long distant common ancestor. But if the thought model (for lack of a better term) of the dolphins took an entirely different turn as their brains expanded, perhaps their reasoning and communicative structures are nearly as “alien” to ours as any resident of the Zeta Reticuli star system.

In closing, I will, however, risk questioning one of Dr. Kershenbaum’s points, strictly from the perspective of a layman. While we may not be able to devise a way to speak coherently to an alien intelligence, the reverse may not be so unlikely. If a species so far in advance of our own has mastered interstellar travel, they might have already encountered plenty of other intelligent civilizations. Given enough time and effort, might they not have developed some combination of methods and technologies as yet undreamed of by humanity that would allow them to speak our languages fluently and quickly establish a dialogue with the clever monkey-people they found on our third rock from the sun? I shall stubbornly cling to my hope (if not “belief”) that this could be the case.

Follow and connect with author Jazz Shaw on Twitter: @JazzShaw

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