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Alien Scientist: Alien Body Language

Author: Stephen Marshall, Issue: April 2007, Topic: Alien Scientist, Science

They say that a large proportion of what we say is said through body language. Obviously, this depends on context. An expressionless newsreader sitting behind a desk would not convey much news without a script. A lecturer addressing some abstruse academic subject might find it hard to use body language to express concepts that were only invented in the last tiny fraction of the evolutionary timescale over which body language had a chance to evolve. How could one talk about strange invisible things like electromagnetism, esoteric concepts like existentialism, or abstract words about words like euphemism, using only a body language developed to say things like ‘I am here’ or ‘Go away’?

Then again, while it may be hard to express some abstract or complex ideas through body language alone, think how versatile our body language is for expressing a range of subtle things that would be difficult to say with words alone. If someone wishes to convey an air of insouciance, a nuance of nonchalance, or downright dumbfoundedness, how better to do it than by body language? And think how poor our expressive vocabulary would be if we could not grunt, groan, moan, purr, scream or sigh?

As it happens, language is one of those things that humans sometimes use to set themselves apart from other species. And the possession or lack of language may be one of the crucial ways we might distinguish between different kinds of alien species. In the popular imagination of science-fiction, at least, aliens tend to come on two basic kinds.

The first is some kind of monster – a gnashing, gesticulating, masticating, growling, roaring brute, possessing somewhere about its horrible head a bloodthirsty mouth that seems designed for devouring Earthlings. (For this kind of alien, we usually fire our guns or bombs, and ask questions later.) The second kind of alien is some kind of humanoid – usually with two legs and upright posture, with a roughly ovoid head, and somewhere in front, a mouth that is used for speaking with. (This is the kind of alien we usually try to address questions to, or do business with, even if we end up shooting or bombing them later.)

Yet, life on Earth should alert us to the potential diversity of ways of communicating, in advance of any contact with aliens. This would include not just the possibility of spoken language, but body language, or some combination of the two.

Take the cuttlefish, for example. This sea-faring social cephalopod has the ingredients to make for a good ‘extraterrestrial’ – the slimy body, the beak, the ink, and of course, the tentacles. If ever an alien equivalent of a cuttlefish visited Earth, emerging from its splashed-down space-capsule, it might be in danger of being mistaken for a gnashing, gesticulating, masticating monster, when it might simply be trying to ask where the nearest 7-11 is.

In fact, the cuttlefish uses a particularly sophisticated kind of body language for communicating. The cuttlefish has pigment-bearing cells that cause colour changes on its body. So a cuttlefish is like a living LCD – a multi-coloured pixelled liquid crystal display. It can change colour almost instantaneously –under its advanced nervous control system – producing a large number of stripes, bands and spots, speckles, whorls, or mottled tones to blend in with the background.

What do cuttlefish have to say for themselves? Well, firstly, in the ability to camouflage or reveal itself, a cuttlefish can send or withhold the most basic message of ‘I am here’. This is handy when avoiding being seen by predators, or prey. Then, beyond that, it can make sexual advances and responses. So, it has the eon-old option of advertising itself in pursuit of sex, at the risk of ending up as someone else’s lunch.

Some scientists have speculated that the cuttlefish’s overall body patterns could act as nouns and verbs, while smaller patterns and spots could be adjectives and adverbs. One could imagine a cuttlefish somewhere evolving a full visual display with icons, characters and punctuation marks – or perhaps a virtual image of a newsreader, while the latest share prices and sports results stream past underneath.

Ultimately, we might be able to learn to read rather directly the cuttlefish’s thoughts. An English-Cuttlefish dictionary might be as curious as an English-Body Language dictionary. But, for the most of the time, only the most basic expressions used in Human-Human phrase-books might be required: the cuttlefish equivalents of ‘I’m here’, ‘Go Away’ or ‘Male seeks Female.’

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