Sunday, April 24, 2016

Is Language a Barrier to Civilization’s Development?

The evolutionary transition from non-intelligent creatures to intelligent creatures has to occur with every alien species that forms a civilization. Intelligence is one of the last steps that occur in the evolution of such a species, and there has been some discussion in previous posts about how a secondary use of tree-climbing appendages led to tool-usage, and then to a switch in the way information is transmitted from generation to generation. This is one way intelligence might have originated.

On the other hand, if intelligence has, as an initial starting point, the transmission of tool use learning requires one other thing to be developed almost simultaneously, or earlier. That is language. There has to be language to transmit tool knowledge, and in fact to do quite a bit more.

In creatures without intelligence, there may be quite a set of neural network layers associated with each sensor, which could include vision, chemical detection in various modes, sound, and others specific to an alien planet. A neural network layer maps a number of outputs of lower layers into one or more outputs to higher layers, which can be interpreted as the coding of continuous input into discrete variables. The brain computes better by encoding complex sensory inputs into perhaps many discrete outputs. However, without language there is no means by which this output discretization can be recognized by an organism, much less communicated to another member of the species.

Let’s clarify this with an example. On Earth, some higher level creatures communicate some learning to their offspring by demonstrating how to accomplish some function or perform some activity. Perhaps one of the most impressive examples of Earth’s creatures transferring tool use or perhaps better, engineering knowledge, is the beaver. Beavers demonstrate how to build lodges and dams to their young offspring, during the second year of the offspring’s life, by the parent demonstrating each of the various activities in front of the youngsters, who then attempt to copy it. They cannot correct the youngster’s activities, because there is no means of communication except by example or physical motion.

The actions of an emergent organism, which was finding ways of using naturally available materials to accomplish basic life functions, can also be demonstrated by example, but as the activities grow more complex, this training method becomes less useful. Having language to communicate takes the ability of the organism to transmit all the details of the learning to a higher plane. What is necessary is that the organism be able to make recognizable signals that can be interpreted in terms of physical objects or actions. What is necessary is that the sensory lobe that processes the signals, in the case of man, the audial processing portion of the brain, develops means to make signals and recognize them, similarly to how an organism learns motion and recognition.

A baby learns to move its limbs by watching the responses in its visual field when it gives various muscle commands. This gradually leads to an ability to move a limb where desired. The same learning must happen for the sensory organ and muscle motion that create the signals that are used to communicate.

Two last steps are needed. One is that the sensory lobe working the signal sense must develop a much higher degree of processing. This, in humans, led to the non-symmetrization of the brain in function. It is simply too difficult to run sufficient numbers of long neurons from one side of the brain to another. The obvious way to do this is to put all the signaling neural computation in one place and use short neurons, by a factor of a thousand, to do the computation. The other step is for some long neurons to be used to couple the other sensors higher level neural outputs into the signal lobe. This allows the recognition of entities. For example, it allows plants with certain recognizable attributes to be given a name that is communicated to other organisms. So, an alien can tell another alien learner to use a particular plant for some action, rather than by going to find one and using it in an example.

There has to be a complementary evolutionary growth of the signaling musculature, if muscles are used by aliens, so that signals can grow more complicated and be reproduced. This has to parallel the recognition ability in the sense’s neural network processing center. This would likely or perhaps necessarily be an outgrowth of some other function on the creature. Just as tool use did not spring up as tool use, but as a secondary adjunct of the existence of appendages that could be used for climbing, the production of communication signals would spring up as a secondary adjunct of the existence of some other function in the organism. The obvious example is the development of the vocal track in the respiration system in many Earth organisms.

So, if we are designing an alien organism in our imagination, we need to realize that it must develop communication in order to develop tool use past the very initial stages, and that the adaptation of an already successful function in the organism is the only way that the output side of the communication will occur, and a change in the organization of the brain, likely linked to a change in the density of different types of neurons in several areas, is the only way that the input side of the communication will occur. Of course, we are talking about aliens which have not taken it upon themselves to create a completely different organism from scratch, using asymptotic genetics. In this situation, they could design any type of communication method in the new species that could ontologically develop. Even this is a requirement that might be overcome in advanced species, when the need to grow organisms from single cell starters is bypassed, and some almost ununderstandable to us technology is used to grow new organisms.

So, there are two tasks facing someone interested in understanding alien species before we ever meet one, the first being to understand what limitations there are on creatures who keep their evolved form in the basic framework, and the second is to expand our imaginations to try and understand what might lay beyond biology as we now know it.

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