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more about interspecies communication and art

the nature of inter- and intraspecies communication

Interspecies communication is the interchange or transmission of thoughts, opinions, or information by speech, writing, or signs from members of one species to members of another species. Intraspecies communication is the interchange or transmission of thoughts, opinions, or information by speech, writing, or signs from one member of a species to another member of the same species.

These definitions of inter- and intraspecies communication raise questions such as:

  • What is the meaning of communication among and between species?
  • What is the nature of communication between life forms?
  • What forms of inter- or intraspecies artistic communication take place between species and how do they take place?
  • Which non-human animals or plants of a given species communicate with their own species? How, what, and why do they communicate?
  • Which non-human animals or plants, if any, communicate with other species? How, what, and why do they communicate?

the varied nature of interspecies and intraspecies communication

Communications between and among animal or plant species can take many forms, ranging from communication by means of spoken or written symbolic language (consisting of words or symbols) to information communicated by bodily movements, odors, chemicals, contact, or other means.

In this context, information is defined as knowledge sent or received concerning a particular fact, circumstance, or situation. Knowledge is an acquaintance with facts, truths, or principles, gained from study or investigation; or it may be general erudition, conversance, acquaintance, or familiarity gained by sight, experience, report, or perception. At its most basic, knowledge may be simple conscious or unconscious awareness of sensory stimuli gained by an organism from a transmitter that is near or far away.

Understood in this way, communication spans an enormous range of physical media, communications apparatus, complexity, environment, organisms, species, and degrees of consciousness, from bacteria or plants talking to bacteria or plants of the same or different species to elephants talking to elephants or lions.

For the most part, people are accustomed to thinking of interspecies communication as taking place between people and higher animals of another species, such as dogs and cats; they think of intraspecies communication as taking place between people or between one higher animal and another of the same species.

What are the means by which higher animals communicate? Humans write, speak, and listen to one another. they gesture, use body language or facial expressions, even sing, grunt, roll their eyes, or emit odors. People relate to more intelligent animals like dogs or cats mainly by means of spoken words, sounds, tones, and gestures. Dogs and cats seem to understand human speech, sounds, movement, intentions, and facial expressions, even though they aren't able to speak themselves. More scientific research may well establish that certain mammals of the sea, such as dolphins and whales, are capable of articulate communication with humans by means of speech, symbolic gesture, or body language.

But interspecies communication and intraspecies communication are more widespread, complex, and subtle phenomena than most of us realize when we only judge communication from our contacts with higher animals. For example:

  • Did you know that inter- and intraspecies communication take place between the bacteria in our bodies?
  • Dinoflagellates are a family of microscopic sea creatures that can produce potent neurotoxins that accumulate in fish or in shellfish tissues, making them poisonous when eaten by humans and vertebrates. So-called red tides are just one case. Red tide outbreaks only take place after very large numbers of flagellates have coordinated with each other and mutually decided that the time is ripe for an attack.
  • Quorum-sensing jelly fish signal each other when its time to rise to the surface to feed and procreate under a full moon.

Inter- and  intraspecies communication between intermediate and lower animals takes place by widely varied means. Here are just a few of them:

  • Scout bees dance to communicate the location of pollen-bearing flowers to other worker bees.
  • Many different kinds of animals emit pheromones, a chemical family that affects the physiology or behavior of other members of their own species. For example, ants will lay trails that lead to food or to adversaries which soldier ants will follow to their prey.
  • Quorum-sensing bacteria of the same or different species signal each other by releasing specific molecules when the time has arrived to infect a host en masse with a debilitating disease.

Communication between intermediate and lower forms of life like these is now understood to be a widespread and important phenomenon; the subject is receiving serious study and is developing into a career field for scientists.

It's unlikely that bacteria have anything to say about art. Obviously, some forms of interspecies and intraspecies communication are relevant to the arts and some are not. In this feature, The Muse explores only higher forms of communication, those involving intelligent communication by conscious, self-aware, sentient, sapient creatures who might have art on and in their minds.

the nature of inter- and intraspecies artistic communication

When it comes to matters of art, inter- and intraspecies communication is the transmission of artistic thoughts, opinions, or information between or among species by speech, writing, or signs that convey artistic objects, sensations, or behaviors.

Artistic objects, sensations, or behaviors are those that conform to the standards of art; and art is the quality, production, expression, or realm of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance according to human aesthetic principles.

When communication is defined in a narrow sense, as it is above, there is no dispute among scientists as to whether communication takes place between nonhuman animals or plants of the same or different species. Scientists know with a certainty that animals and plants communicate biological information in many different subtle, important, and fascinating ways.

However, the existence of inter- or intraspecies communication of objects, sensations, or behaviors that conform to the standards of art is in doubt except for communication of artistic information between members of the human species.

Despite these doubts, questions about the narrow biological nature of inter- and intraspecies communication inevitably raise questions that are related to the arts:

  • What do humans mean by art?
  • Do other animals have a concept of art? What is it?
  • Is the human concept of art similar in any way to a concept of art held by other species?
  • Which animals other than humans practice art, if any? Which plants, if any?
  • Are species other than humans able to to communicate art with each other or with species not their own? If yes, which species? Which arts? How do they communicate?

A non-human species that is a party to an exchange of art with humans may have no concept of what humans call art; or its concept of art may differ radically from the human concept of art. It doesn't matter. Whatever the source of its ability to recognize or produce art, it's clear that if the reality of artistic exchanges between humans and non-human species is to be more than speculative, the existence of several capabilities in the non-human species must be demonstrated:

  • To communicate ideas or thoughts that humans perceive to be artistic, a non-human species must be able to experience artistic pleasure and beauty that is similar to that experienced by humans. Individual members of the species must be able to communicate this pleasure and beauty to other members of their species.
  • Further, the non-human species must be able to create and communicate objects, behaviors, or sounds that symbolize and express to humans the qualities that humans define as artistic pleasure and beauty; and the artistic objects, behaviors, or sounds it creates must cause humans to experience artistic pleasures and beauties that resemble those experienced by the non-human species.
  • And finally, the reverse is also true. Art is a two-way street: the non-human species must be capable of experiencing artistic pleasures and beauties that are similar to those experienced by humans from the kinds of artistic objects, behaviors, or sounds that humans perceive to be artistic.

That's a lot to expect from a non-human species, but the degree of our current insight into non-human intelligence and interspecies communication is superficial; we can't say for sure that it's impossible for non-human animals to do these things.

Interspecies communication of art—an open question

At first, questions like these may seem a bit bizarre because we take for granted that intraspecies communication among humans is possible but that other species are incapable of it.

Humans take intraspecies communication between their own members for granted because they believe that it works for them. Since they all belong to the same species, the fact that all humans are fundamentally the same encourages them to believe that what they can do others can do.

Most humans believe from personal experience that they can communicate with other humans; from practice they learn to believe that language works and that many other forms of communication exist and are efficacious. But to most humans it seems odd to think that other species may be able to communicate among themselves or with humans because they see no clear, unambiguous examples of other species doing so, and because the fact that humans can talk to other humans does not demonstrate that other life forms can talk among themselves or to other species.

Ironically, when communication is defined in a narrow, biological sense, as an activity by one organism that changes or has the potential to change the behavior of other organisms, there is little doubt that non-human species can communicate with each other. But humans conceive of art objects and information about the arts as holistic; that is, art works and ideas have an existence that is something other than the mere sum of their parts; they are conceptual; they are more than the physical objects, brush stokes, sculpted forms, or sounds that make them up.

But when communication is defined holistically, the way most humans define it, it's difficult to prove that humans are correct in assuming that they can communicate with each other and that other species cannot.

The fact that humans can communicate with each other holistically has been called into question by the work of the great Austrian philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, which casts doubt on whether it's possible to expect excessive precision from any human expressions. Art is one of these kinds of intraspecies holistic human expressions that Wittgenstein calls into question, not a cellular one resembling the biological notion.

According to Wittgenstein's line of thinking, humans are no more justified in believing that they are capable of of intraspecies communication with other humans than they are justified in thinking that other species are not capable of inter- or intraspecies communication. And if humans cannot communicate with each other holistically, they certainly cannot communicate art among themselves or with other species the way they believe they can.

If it can be proven that humans are capable of communicating art among themselves and Wittgenstein is wrong, perhaps it can be shown that certain other species are capable of communicating art among themselves. If human or nonhuman species can be shown to communicate art among themselves, perhaps it can be shown they can communicate art with other species.

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