Here’s How We Can Acquire Wisdom From the Natural World

Researching the language of whales might be the key to identifying life on other planets.

“Are we alone in the Universe,”  surely must be one of the most important existential questions humans will ever ask. And if we are not alone — and one day an alien signal is received — will Planet Earth even be able to recognize that it is a signal, let alone understand it?
Researchers, funded by the Templeton World Charity Foundation as part of the Diverse Intelligences Initiative (, are now tackling exactly that question by studying a complex form of non-human communication — that of humpback whales. Whales, it turns out, have a diverse communications system which has developed over 60 millions years adapting to life in our planet’s vast oceans. Humpback whales, in particular, possess a very large auditory cortex and are socially complex creatures. They produce a range of vocalizations — songs that are lengthy, rhyming and constantly evolving. They work cooperatively together, for example, to hunt for food by deploying “bubble nets” in conjunction with broadcasting loud sounds to herd and corral the fish. Their vocal repertoire includes at least 40 unique social calls, some of which are incorporated into their mating songs. Humpback whales and other baleen whales can vocalize a “message”  to other whales that can travel hundreds or thousands of miles away, thus forming an “ocean internet”. Similar to outer space, signals move fast, but swimming toward the source of a signal for whales is relatively slow, and thus whales may also need to contend with outdated information.
Using sophisticated mathematical algorithms, Laurance Doyle, Fred Sharpe, Brenda McCowan and Michelle Fournet are focusing their efforts on capturing the auditory signals — not the meaning — from humpback whales as a way to perhaps understand a future signal from an alien intelligence that itself will have traveled throughout the galaxy. This whale study will involve using a sophisticated array of underwater acoustic devices — hydrophones — to monitor the evolution of signaling among whales. Scientists from the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute, the Alaska Whale Foundation and the University of California have teamed up in a unique adventure that one day may help us answer the question: “Are we alone in the Universe?”

By Richard Sergay

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