knots-aliens-design-texture_default‘Merging’ the Origins of Language and the Search for Intelligent Life

Seemingly, the worlds of linguistics and astrobiology are on opposite sides of the universe. However, recent work on the origin of language may inform Drake’s famous equation regarding the possibility of intelligent life on other planets, drawing a ‘cosmilinguistic’ connection.

55 years ago, at a small conference in Green Bank, West Virginia, astrophysicist Frank Drake proposed a probabilistic argument for deriving the likelihood of extraterrestrial intelligent life. One of his primary goals in this endeavor was simply to stimulate discussion on how to scientifically approach this subject, taking it from the realm of the fringe, to a respected scientific endeavor. After all, this was the first SETI meeting. The equation is formulated as:

N = R* x fp  x  n x  f x  f x  f x  L

Frank Drake describes the variables basically in order from most to least probable:

N = The number of civilizations in The Milky Way Galaxy whose
electromagnetic emissions are detectable.

R* = The rate of formation of stars suitable for the development of intelligent life.
fp = The fraction of those stars with planetary systems.
ne = The number of planets, per solar system, with an environment suitable for life.
fl = The fraction of suitable planets on which life actually appears.
fi = The fraction of life bearing planets on which intelligent life emerges.
fc = The fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space.
L = The length of time such civilizations release detectable signals into

Since the equation’s inception, SETI has become the world’s leading organization on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and it’s growth is evinced by it’s latest branch, the 100 million dollar Breakthrough Initiatives program, commandeered by Stephen Hawking, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner and to perhaps some chagrin, Mark Zuckerberg.

Important milestones on improving the accuracy of the Drake equation include the discovery of exoplanets – planets that orbit stars other than the sun –, which are currently known to number over 3000. Going beyond this however, it is now estimated that 20 to 25 percent of exoplanets are in habitable zones – zones where life could occur – according to physicist, astronomer and writer, Adam Frank in his latest NY Times piece.

These figures are especially great news for astrobiologists, who are mostly focused on discovering cellular life and not ‘intelligent life.’ Indeed, the life housed by the Earth has been no more than single cell organisms for about 75% of its existence. If the SETI program is to succeed, it’s going to be the result of contact with an advanced form of life.

A common hypothesis is that advanced life on another planet may be the result of an evolutionary process, just as on Earth. Proponents of this idea include Richard Dawkins, who has pointed out that life as we know it, has followed predictable paths of evolution and that the same predictable paths might be expected on other planets (although intelligent alien life might not be carbon-based and may not resemble anything like us). Indeed, there are examples on earth, of animals that have largely separate evolutionary paths but which share common traits. For example, wings are an adaptation for both birds and bats.

The Fi variable and the capacity for language

The probability of a rise to intelligence (defined as in at least human-level cognitive ability) is thought to be one of the least accurately estimated variables in the Drake equation. Although in 1961, the estimate was an optimistic 1, key evolutionary theorists such as Ernst Mayer have pointed out that on earth alone, there have been trillions of chances for species to evolve to human intelligence. And how many times has it happened? And so, the current consensus for the Fi variable is still anywhere between basically 0, and 1.

Perhaps it’s possible to consider the concept of intelligence more carefully. For example, when did we become intelligent? What defines our intelligence 4as being greater than other animals? One commonly held belief is that the capacity for language is a unique core component of human intelligence. In his lecture on Life in the Universe, Stephen Hawking states:

“…with the human race, evolution reached a critical stage, comparable in importance with the development of DNA. This was the development of language, and particularly written language. It meant that information can be passed on, from generation to generation, other than genetically, through DNA. There has been no detectable change in human DNA, brought about by biological evolution, in the ten thousand years of recorded history. But the amount of knowledge handed on from generation to generation has grown enormously.”

Theories of the origin of language are as interesting as they are diverse. The main reason for this is that evidence is basically impossible to find; language consists of a cognitive capacity and its history has not left behind physical evidence before its written forms. You can’t ‘dust for language.’

The capacity to Merge

A recently developed approach to considering the origin of language involves the Strong Minimalist Thesis (SMT). Its main proponent is Noam Chomsky. Chomsky deems that language is uniquely human capacity. Although animals share some aspects of language in their communication, it’s widely accepted that they do not possess its critical feature; a generative capacity defined by the ability to structure a finite number of linguistic elements into an infinite number of sentences. This ability is innate in humans and requires a hierarchical syntactic structure; the combining of linguistic elements according to a rule-based system. The cornerstone of SMT is a process called “Merge.” Put simply Merge is the capacity to ‘merge’ multiple individual “concepts” in a manner that is computationally minimal, and maximally efficient. Simply put, Merge allows us to combine, for example, {apples} and {the} into {the, apples} and then add that to {ate}, deriving {ate, {the, apples}}.

Central to Merge, is the idea of unordered combinations of linguistic expressions. Having no rules for ordering these components is crucial because adding an order rule would greatly stifle efficiency and computational minimalism. How can there be language with no linear order to its structure? Here, Chomsky refers to I-language, where “I” refers to “internal, intensional and individual.” This is a different mode than the external mode which we speak. Fascinatingly, this structuring of expressions is a way of managing thoughts even before they are internally articulated.

Indeed, Chomsky believes the “Basic Principle” of language is the structuring of thought and not external communication. In a paper from earlier this year, Chomsky states

“Note that these conclusions about language architecture undermine a conventional contemporary doctrine that language is primarily a system of communication, and presumably evolved from simpler communication systems. If, as the evidence strongly indicates, even externalization is an ancillary property of language, then specific uses of externalized language, as in communication, are an even more peripheral phenomenon – a conclusion also supported by other evidence, I think. Language appears to be primarily an instrument of thought, much in accord with the spirit of the tradition. There is no reason to suppose that it evolved as a system of communication.”

It becomes even more intriguing when one considers the origin of Merge. According to SMT, it arose as the result of a genetic change sourced a single individual. Yes, the idea is that a single person became endowed with the key cognitive architecture to propel humankind towards modern intelligence. It may sound outlandish but it corresponds well with events in history that show a wellspring of human development beginning around 100, 000 years ago, evidenced by the first objects that demonstrate the existence symbolic thought. What’s more is that Merge, in accordance with the minimalistic motif of SMT, required only minor genetic changes that would have been possible in a relatively short period of human revolution.

What would this individual have been like? S/he was uniquely capable of thought, planning, inference, reflection and so on, according to Chomsky. [I contacted Dr. Chomsky to see if he could expand on this. He replied (within 15 mins), briefly saying that this individual had some resemblance of thoughts that we can articulate, whereas others did not]. Critically, Merge could have given the individual, adaptive advantages that were passed on.

The ‘Cosmilinguistic’ Connection

The SMT has stirred debate amongst prominent linguists and currently there exists no clear neurobiological evidence for Merge (although much progress has been made). However, knowledge of mutation rates is becoming increasingly understood. For example, in 2009, a landmark study involving two distant relatives in China revealed the first direct estimate of the human mutation rate. A more recent development came last year from a collaboration between Harvard and MIT groups, involving a new, potentially more accurate method of estimation. Although we are surely a long way from possibly determining any candidate set of genes associated with SMT, determining the likelihood of a mutation resulting in such a set is within the realm of science – it is something measurable that can be accomplished by using methods that we currently have some grasp of. Importantly, this quantity could inform a much needed narrowing of the Fi variable in the Drake equation.

Does this suggest that aliens are speaking English? Certainly not, but even a vague estimate on the capacity for language helps to reveal the chances that they are able to articulate, store, record and possibly transmit information in an advanced manner. Transmitted information that either us or them can receive and interpret.



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