Language, cats and extra-terrestrials

Blog post written by Ian Roberts, University of Cambridge

Ian Roberts CatI’d like to begin by talking about my cat, Clover. He really is very intelligent: he knows exactly how to wake me up in the morning, exactly which shelf in which cupboard his food is kept on, where his bowl is, how to get let out, and lots of other things. You won’t catch the average ant, starfish or parsnip doing any of that. By the standards of nearly everything in the known universe, he really is smart.

But of course we’re much smarter. There are plenty of things in the world, especially in our mental world, that poor Clover has absolutely no inkling of: notably such things as nouns, quantifiers and syllables, i.e. language. These things are every bit as much beyond Clover as waking me up to get me to feed it would be for a parsnip or a starfish. Obviously the fact that we have language has a lot to do with this cognitive gulf between us and our pets, but that may not be the whole story.

But a natural question to ask is: is there a similar cognitive gulf between us and other forms of intelligence? We seem to be smartest creatures on our planet, but this is where the extra-terrestrials come in. Here I’m not interested in various forms of slime that might be around on Mars or elsewhere, but intelligent extra-terrestrials, the sort that might build spaceships. Could there be extra-terrestrials so much smarter than us that they would keep us as pets? Or (cue the creepy sci-fi music), are we already pets but we just don’t know it? After all, Clover doesn’t know he’s my pet. Are there, in other words, concepts as impossible for us as the concepts three, verb or phoneme are for Clover?

If the answer is yes, then we’d better keep out of the way of the smarter extra-terrestrials. Nothing good for us can come of contact with such creatures; the best we can hope is to be treated as pets. You don’t want to think about the worst.

But the answer doesn’t have to be yes. It is also quite possible that we have crossed a cognitive threshold. Our capacity to express anything, through the recursive syntax and compositional semantics of natural language might have taken us into a cognitive realm where anything, everything, is possible. Effectively, having language has made us the equal of any extra-terrestrial (who would have to have something like language in order to build their spaceships).

In the movie 2001: A Space Odessey, Stanley Kubrick made one of the most brilliant associative cuts in movie history. The film starts in prehistory, and shows a bunch of ape-men fighting over a water-hole. Then one day one of them comes across a monolith which makes a weird noise. This is an alien artefact which somehow transmits intelligence. Next time he squares up to the enemy ape-men at the water-hole, this one picks up a bone and smashes the enemy’s head in. In jubilation at this discovery of a weapon, he throws it up into the air and as it spins around Kubrick cuts to an image of a spaceship orbiting the earth.

Kubrick’s message is clear: once you’ve figured out how to use tools, it’s a short step to spaceships. That movie was made in the 1960s at a time when many people thought that Man the Tool-Maker was the key to the differences between us and other species, and hence that inventing tools was a crucial step in human evolution. We now know that’s not true, as quite a few other species use tools of various kinds. But Kubrick’s basic idea that there might have been a crucial mutation in human evolution which led, in almost no time from an evolutionary perspective, to space travel might have been right. And it’s a plausible speculation that the mutation in question was whatever it is that makes our brains capable of computing recursive syntax. It’s a short step, not a great leap, from syntax to spaceships.

The Wonders of Language Anyway, something (God, natural selection, a random mutation, an alien monolith) has given us our extraordinary minds with our extraordinary capacity for generating, storing and transmitting knowledge. Language really must be central to these abilities. My new book The Wonders of Language, or How to Make Noises and Influence People, is an introduction to what linguists have discovered about this truly remarkable phenomenon.  Understanding language means understanding a very big part of what it is to be human, what it is to be you.

An Interview with Ian Roberts, the author of The Wonders of Language :

Ian Roberts The Wonders of Language

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