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Surprising Science

How Dolphins Could Help Us Communicate with Aliens

If we could talk to the animals, we might gain insight into what it means to communicate with an extraterrestrial species. 
According to an estimate by the Hubble Space Telescope, there are approximately 125 billion galaxies in the universe. The Drake Equation, SETI’s operational manifesto, calculates the probability that there is intelligent life beyond Earth at around 100%, and some physicists believe we’ll make contact with aliens during this century. But what then?

Without a common language, a close encounter could be as aimless as an email chain in which everyone hits reply all but no one actually reads anyone else’s response. (We sent “Across the Universe” across the universe. Get it? Anyone?) And whether or not you buy Stephen Hawking’s evil-alien-colonizer theory, the consequences of an intergalactic miscommunication would undoubtedly be worse than annoying a few colleagues.

What’s the Big Idea?

“There are many sentient species on our own planet, and that would probably be a good model to start looking at how we might communicate with extra-terrestrial species,” says Denise Herzing, founder and Director of the Wild Dolphin Project. Herzing has worked for three decades documenting the daily exchanges of a community of free-ranging Spotted dolphins off the coast of the Bahamas in hopes of finding a dolphin version of the Rosetta Stone.

Herzing and her team spend their days at sea, observing, filming, and occasionally interacting with dolphins. Then, they digitize and index the raw data, searching for patterns that would give insight into the animals' "complicated and understudied" cognitive processes. (They've even created an underwater keyboard to facilitate two-way communication.)

Like humans, dolphins have societal rules, responsibilities, and alliances, says Herzing. They teach their young new skills and forming bonds with parents and siblings. And yet, "there is probably not a more alien social species."

Deciphering the language of their sounds and behavior could therefore give us insight into the evolution and expressions of a mind that is entirely unlike a human being's, shedding light on our own cognitive biases as well as, "potentially, how to overcome them." This, she believes, is the key to building a shared exchange across species. 

What's the Significance?

In a paper titled "Dolphins as a model for real time interaction and communication with a sentient species,” Herzing asks, "Are there universals to communication that we might find looking at a species outside ourselves?"

Learning the culturally appropriate etiquette has been important in the relationship with this alien society. To engage humans in interaction, the dolphins often initiate spontaneous displays, mimicry, imitation, and synchrony. These elements may be emergent/universal features of one intelligent species contacting another for the intention of initiating interaction. This should be a consideration for real-time contact and interaction for future SETI work.

But even more important than looking outward towards the stars is getting our collective act together here on Earth. "Humans need to put themselves back into nature and look at ourselves in the context of a larger world, which includes other sentient species and complex ecosystems," she says. "I think it will determine our own survival on planet Earth, not to mention millions of other species." It will also be the most critical test of our own intelligence.

What do you think? Will we ever meet intelligent beings in outer-space? What would an encounter with extraterrestrials be like? 


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