The evolution of communication

| January 2, 2022

Over the last 200,000 years about five or six hominid groups have left Africa, Homo Sapiens being the last at about 120,000 years ago. Of these only Sapiens exist today. Neanderthals, Heidelbergensians and possibly Denisovians had greater brain capacity than we do. The Neanderthals also had more physical strength and stamina than us and yet we managed to at first co-exist and then overcome all of them.

In a previous article ( Rulers of the Earth Dec. 14) I have suggested that the reason for this is that we developed communication skills which allowed tribal members to travel weeks, months, years to other places and communities, learn new skills, concepts and philosophies, then return to teach them to the others. None of the other hominids were able to communicate complex ideas to others except by demonstrating them. A community which communicates only by grunts and gestures cannot teach elaborate theories.

The Egyptians taught us maths, the Greeks taught philosophy, the Romans taught civilisation and the rule of law.

The Discovery of Electricity

The idea of electricity, or the fact that amber acquires the power to attract light objects when rubbed, may have been known to the Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus, who lived about 600 B.C. Another Greek philosopher, Theophrastus, stated in a treatise that this power is possessed by other substances.

The first scientific study of electrical and magnetic phenomena, however, did not appear until A.D. 1600, from research done by the English physician William Gilbert. Gilbert was the first to apply the term electric (Greek, elektron, “amber”) to the force that substances exerted after being rubbed. He also distinguished between magnetic and electric action.

Ben Franklin spent much time in electrical research. His famous kite experiment proved that the atmospheric electricity (that causes the phenomena of lightning and thunder) is identical with the electrostatic charge on a Leydan jar. Franklin developed his theory that electricity is a single “fluid” existing in all matter, and that its effects can be explained by excesses and shortages of this fluid.

Electricity would remain little more than an intellectual curiosity for millennia until 1600, when the English scientist William Gilbert wrote De Magnete, in which he made a careful study of electricity and magnetism, distinguishing the lodestone effect from static electricity produced by rubbing amber.

He coined the New Latin word electricus (“of amber” or “like amber”, from ἤλεκτρον, elektron, the Greek word for “amber”) to refer to the property of attracting small objects after being rubbed. This association gave rise to the English words “electric” and “electricity”, which made their first appearance in print in Thomas Browne’s Pseudodoxia Epidemica of 1646.

Further work was conducted in the 17th and early 18th centuries by Otto von Guericke, Robert Boyle, Stephen Gray and C. F. du Fay. Later in the 18th century, Benjamin Franklin conducted extensive research in electricity, selling his possessions to fund his work.

In June 1752 he is reputed to have attached a metal key to the bottom of a dampened kite string and flown the kite in a storm-threatened sky. A succession of sparks jumping from the key to the back of his hand showed that lightning was indeed electrical in nature. He also explained the apparently paradoxical behavior of the Leyden jar as a device for storing large amounts of electrical charge in terms of electricity consisting of both positive and negative charges.

In 1791, Luigi Galvani published his discovery of bioelectromagnetics, demonstrating that electricity was the medium by which neurons passed signals to the muscles. Alessandro Volta’s battery, or voltaic pile, of 1800, made from alternating layers of zinc and copper, provided scientists with a more reliable source of electrical energy than the electrostatic machines previously used.

The recognition of electromagnetism, the unity of electric and magnetic phenomena, is due to Hans Christian Ørsted and André-Marie Ampère in 1819–1820. Michael Faraday invented the electric motor in 1821, and Georg Ohm mathematically analysed the electrical circuit in 1827.Electricity and magnetism (and light) were definitively linked by James Clerk Maxwell, in particular in his “On Physical Lines of Force” in 1861 and 1862.

Electrical Engineering

While the early 19th century had seen rapid progress in electrical science, the late 19th century would see the greatest progress in electrical engineering.

For a while, morse was sent via cable around the world. This developed into radio transmission. Today we communicate over long distances in speech by radio. Electricity is the only clean energy and this gives us the ability to achieve most of what we desire. In our arrogance we believe that all advanced societies will have to use radio signals to communicate. In fact we have spent millions of dollars on SETI – the search for extraterrestrial intelligence assuming that they will be broadcasting in a way we can intercept.

However, when we think about it, radio might not be the ideal method of communication over long distances. A signal takes 2.4 to 2.7 seconds to get to the Moon. This means a five second delay in two-way communication, and this is our nearest large object. The delay to Mars is between 5 and 20 minutes depending on the relative positions. It is therefore obvious that radio signals are not appropriate for extended space travel.

For this reason I believe that the money spent on SETI has been wasted. We should be looking at other means of communication. Einstein stated that nothing could travel faster than light. However experiments with entanglement he came up with a thought experiment.

Quantum entanglement

The Einstein–Podolsky–Rosen paradox (EPR paradox) proposed by physicists Albert Einstein, Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen (EPR), with which they argued that the description of physical reality provided by quantum mechanics was incomplete. In a 1935 paper titled “Can Quantum-Mechanical Description of Physical Reality be Considered Complete?”, they argued for the existence of “elements of reality” that were not part of quantum theory, and speculated that it should be possible to construct a theory containing them. Resolutions of the paradox have important implications for the interpretation of quantum mechanics.

The thought experiment involves a pair of particles prepared in what later authors would refer to as an entangled state. Einstein, Podolsky, and Rosen pointed out that, in this state, if the position of the first particle were measured, the result of measuring the position of the second particle could be predicted. If instead the momentum of the first particle were measured, then the result of measuring the momentum of the second particle could be predicted.

They argued that no action taken on the first particle could instantaneously affect the other, since this would involve information being transmitted faster than light, which is forbidden by the theory of relativity. They invoked a principle, later known as the “EPR criterion of reality”, positing that, “If, without in any way disturbing a system, we can predict with certainty (i.e., with probability equal to unity) the value of a physical quantity, then there exists an element of reality corresponding to that quantity”.

From this, they inferred that the second particle must have a definite value of position and of momentum prior to either being measured. This contradicted the view associated with Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, according to which a quantum particle does not have a definite value of a property like momentum until the measurement takes place.

However, new experiments appear to show that the effect is instantaneous no matter what the distance is. It seems logical to assume that this method could be appropriated to become a method of communication.


Another concept could be direct communication brain to brain – telepathy.

We humans have evolved a rich repertoire of communication, from gesture to sophisticated languages. All of these forms of communication link otherwise separate individuals in such a way that they can share and express their singular experiences and work together collaboratively.

In a new study, technology replaces language as a means of communicating by directly linking the activity of human brains. Electrical activity from the brains of a pair of human subjects was transmitted to the brain of a third individual in the form of magnetic signals, which conveyed an instruction to perform a task in a particular manner.

This study opens the door to extraordinary new means of human collaboration while, at the same time, blurring fundamental notions about individual identity and autonomy in disconcerting ways.

Direct brain-to-brain communication has been a subject of intense interest for many years, driven by motives as diverse as futurist enthusiasm and military exigency.

In his book Beyond Boundaries one of the leaders in the field, Miguel Nicolelis, described the merging of human brain activity as the future of humanity, the next stage in our species’ evolution. (Nicolelis serves on Scientific American’s board of advisers.) He has already conducted a study in which he linked together the brains of several rats using complex implanted electrodes known as brain-to-brain interfaces.

Nicolelis and his co-authors described this achievement as the first “organic computer” with living brains tethered together as if they were so many microprocessors. The animals in this network learned to synchronize the electrical activity of their nerve cells to the same extent as those in a single brain. The networked brains were tested for things such as their ability to discriminate between two different patterns of electrical stimuli, and they routinely outperformed individual animals.

Not enough is known about brain-to-brain communication but is is being studied intensively by many countries, unfortunately for military purposes, but the possibility is there.


The final question about SETI is what could we expect if we did come across an alien species. In order for it to be advanced enough to travel through space it must have a large brain and the power to manipulate its environment.

A large brain requires a lot of protein and the best way any civilisation can get that is by consuming meat, at least in the initial stages before developing the techniques to produce enough in factories. The consumption of meat requires the killing of animals and this is only a short step from killing creatures which for whatever reason are considered a danger, either present or immanent. Once again, this is only a short step to killing one’s perceived enemies. This is the road we have taken as a species.

Do we really want close contact with another species which has almost certainly come down the same path as we have? When we look at what has happened historically when nations have overcome their neighbours, even with sometimes benevolent intent we find the victims are usually treated at best as poor relations and at worst as slaves.

We search for alien life because it is of interest to do so. The long term prospects are vague.