Life and Language beyond Earth

Raymond Hickey   (671 pages, Cambridge University Press, 2023)

Cambridge University Press website

(CUP book blurb) Have you ever wondered whether we are alone in the universe, or if lifeforms on other planets might exist? If they do exist, how might their languages have evolved? Could we ever understand them, and indeed learn to communicate with them? This highly original, thought-provoking book takes us on an electrifying journey over billions of years, from the formation of galaxies and solar systems, to the appearance of planets in the habitable zones of their parent stars, and then to how biology and, ultimately, human life arose on our own planet. It delves into how our brains and our language developed, in order to explore the likelihood of communication beyond Earth and whether it would evolve along similar lines. In the process, fascinating insights from the fields of astronomy, evolutionary biology, anthropology, neuroscience and linguistics are uncovered, shedding new light on life as we know it on Earth, and beyond.

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Table of Contents

PART I Introduction

1 Approaching the topic
   1.1 Four basic questions
   1.2 Working backwards for a moment
   1.3 Questions, questions, questions
   1.4 An unlikely story
   1.5 Back to reality

2 Looking beyond Earth
   2.1 Are we alone in the universe?
   2.2 What we know about exoplanets
   2.3 Exobeings and their planetary environment
   2.4 Exobeings and humans on Earth
   2.5 From knowns to unknowns
   2.6 Sources of energy and biological evolution
   2.7 The brains of exobeings
   2.8 Emergence and consciousness

3 Striving to understand
   3.1 What is scientific speculation?
   3.2 What counts as proof?
   3.3 What do scientists know and not know?
   3.4 How accurate are facts?
   3.5 What we still cannot explain
   3.6 Problems and mysteries
   3.7 The nature of exceptions
   3.8 And what about 'weird life'?
   3.9 How different could they be from us?
   3.10 Two other questions

PART II The Universe we Live In

4 Trying to grasp size
   4.1 Astronomy and history
   4.2 How has the universe developed?
   4.3 Estimating the size of the universe
   4.4 The observable universe

5 Star formation and planets
   5.1 Red dwarfs
   5.2 Brown dwarfs
   5.3 The life of a star
   5.4 Where do the elements come from?
   5.5 Peering into the future

6 The likelihood of life
   6.1 Basic preconditions
   6.2 Favouring factors
   6.3 Key developments and events
   6.4 Mass extinctions in Earth's history
   6.5 Strikes from beyond

7 Possible conditions on an exoplanet?
   7.1 The fine-tuning problem
   7.2 Small-scale and large-scale structures
   7.3 The underlying basis of structure
   7.4 Emergent properties
   7.5 Unintended side effects
   7.6 Things which only happened once
   7.7 What are the alternatives?

8 How and where to look for exolife
   8.1 Recent finds in our cosmic neighbourhood
   8.2 Improved technology
   8.3 Methods for finding exoplanets
   8.4 A planet in the habitable zone
   8.5 What about rogue planets?
   8.6 Rare Earth Hypothesis
   8.7 The Copernican Principle
   8.8 Earth Similarity Index and Planetary Habitability Index
   8.9 Classifying exoplanets
   8.10 When is an exoplanet 'Earth-like'
   8.11 Potential for life on moons
   8.12 A lunar trio: Europa, Enceladus, Titan
   8.13 Microbial life on a moon: what could it tell us?
   8.14 Where are we at present?

9 The limits of exploration
   9.1 Getting around the universe
   9.2 Sending out probes
   9.3 Getting here after we are gone
   9.4 A feeling for distance

10 Assessing probabilities
   10.1 Considering the Fermi Paradox
   10.2 Looking at the Drake Equation

PART III Our Story on Earth

11 The slow path of evolution
   11.1 Just what is life?
   11.2 Energy regime of the body
   11.3 Finding out how life works
   11.4 Our restless world
   11.5 Energy gradients
   11.6 Life getting under way
   11.7 Functional principle and realisation
   11.8 The rise of predators
   11.9 Different kinds of evolution
   11.10 Genes and phenotypes
   11.11 Control from above or below?
   11.12 'Design' from below

12 How does the whole work?
   12.1 Devices and organisms
   12.2 Evolution and design
   12.3 Do the parts know the whole?
   12.4 A question of scale
   12.5 When do cells become an organism?
   12.6 Sexual reproduction
   12.7 Variety is the spice of life
   12.8 A quirk in meiosis
   12.9 Genetic mutation
   12.10 Divergent evolution
   12.11 Convergent evolution
   12.12 Analogous and homologous structures
   12.13 Epilogue: Profusion in nature

13 The road to Homo sapiens
   13.1 The pitfall of compressing the past
   13.2 Palaeoanthropology: reaching back in time
   13.3 Rummaging around in caves
   13.4 The Out of Africa hypothesis
   13.5 ‘The march of progress’
   13.6 The context of the genus Homo
   13.7 Divisions within the genus Homo
   13.8 The progression of consciousness
   13.9 Defining Homo sapiens anatomically
   13.10 Energy intake
   13.11 Narrow range of values
   13.12 Brain size
   13.13 Evolution of our anatomy and physiology
   13.14 Defining Homo sapiens culturally
   13.15 Tool making, cognition and communication
   13.16 Making flint tools
   13.17 The management of fire
   13.18 The advent of cooking
   13.19 Wearing clothes
   13.20 Setbacks in our evolution
   13.21 Hominins: the big picture once more
   13.22 A unique species and the great cognitive gap

14 The rise of human societies
   14.1 In the beginning was the group
   14.2 Humans, the great extenders
   14.3 The origins of the leader
   14.4 Societies on exoplanets
   14.5 The question of violence
   14.6 Evidence for social organisation
   14.7 The advent of farming
   14.8 Culture and human evolution
   14.9 Cultural buffering
   14.10 Would exosocieties have money?
   14.11 And would they have art?
   14.12 The view from science fiction

PART IV The Runaway Brain

15 The brain-to-body relationahip
   15.1 Wallace's Puzzle
   15.2 Are brains necessary for life?
   15.3 Structure of the human brain
   15.4 Some facts about the human brain
   15.5 Windows on the world: the human senses
   15.6 The cost of our brain

16 How brains develop
   16.1 Embryogenesis and the brain
   16.2 The proliferation of neurons
   16.3 Childhood and puberty
   16.4 Lifespan and aging

17 Our cognition
   17.1 The limits of cognition
   17.2 Theory of mind and the notion of self
   17.3 Internalisation of the world we perceive
   17.4 The tiger in the bush: our love of patterns

18 Consciousness    18.1 The role of emotions
   18.2 The origin of emotions
   18.3 The hard problem
   18.4 The sense of self again
   18.5 Size of the brain and consciousness
   18.6 Where is consciousness?
   18.7 Consciousness and attention
   18.8 The conscious and unconscious brain: a division of labour
   18.9 The quantum brain?
   18.10 Memory
   18.11 Neuroplasticity
   18.12 Consciousness: an attempted summary
   18.13 A final remark

19 Artificial intelligence
   19.1 The singularity: a modern Frankenstein?
   19.2 A conscious computer?
   19.3 Sentio ergo sum again
   19.4 The mental lives of exobeings

PART V Language, our Greatest Gift

20 Looking at language
   20.1 What is language?
   20.2 The purpose of language
   20.3 Definitions of language
   20.4 Design features of language
   20.5 Structural notions in linguistics

21 Talking about language
   21.1 How words represent meaning
   21.2 Linguistic relativity
   21.3 Language as a reflection of speakers’ world
   21.4 Names and language
   21.5 Language, environment and culture
   21.6 What do speakers know about language?
   21.7 What are speaker intuitions?

22 The view from linguistics
   22.1 The complexity envelope of language
   22.2 Levels of language: modular organisation
   22.3 Language typology
   22.4 Language production
   22.5 The human tongue and throat
   22.6 What we hear
   22.7 Vowels and consonants
   22.8 Convergent evolution and language production

23 The language faculty and languages
   23.1 The nature of language acquisition
   23.2 The question of modality: sound or gestures?
   23.3 Sign language
   23.4 Communication by touch?
   23.5 Receptive modality
   23.6 Language and writing
   23.7 Linguistic diversity on Earth and beyond
   23.8 Was there one original language?
   23.9 Language change

24 Language and the brain
   24.1 Language areas in the brain
   24.2 The binding problem in language
   24.3 Evidence from language impairments
   24.4 Types of aphasia

25 Acquiring language
   25.1 Are we predestined for speech?
   25.2 The absence of exposure to language
   25.3 Characteristics of language acquisition
   25.4 Stages of language acquisition
   25.5 Abduction and ambiguity in language
   25.6 Localisation of language and early childhood
   25.7 Language transmission
   25.8 The logical problem of acquisition
   25.9 The evidence of pidgins and creoles
   25.10 Is there a gene for language?
   25.11 Constructed languages

26 Humans and animals
   26.1 How intelligent are animals?

PART VI Life and Language, Here and Beyond

27 Preconditions for life
   27.1 What can the range of a search be?
   27.2 Abiogenesis and the panspermia hypothesis
   27.3 What can be assumed about exolife forms?
   27.4 Habitat-independence and flexibility
   27.5 To recap: the likelihood of life
   27.6 The role of serendipity
   27.7 Being out of sync
   27.8 Post-human - post-biological?

28 What might exolife be like?
   28.1 Lifespan for exobeings
   28.2 What would their average size be?
   28.3 Alternative ecologies and behaviours
   28.4 Feeling like an exobeing
   28.5 What about free will and morality?
   28.6 What are exobeings likely to share with us?
   28.7 How smart might they be?
   28.8 How would they count?
   28.9 Would they have a sense of time?

29 Looking for signs of life
   29.1 Biosignatures and technosignatures
   29.2 The nature of a signal
   29.3 METI: trying to get in touch
   29.4 Would they want to know us?

30 The issue of first contact
   30.1 Some scenarios
   30.2 How to contact them: language-independent messages
   30.3 A messenger from beyond?
   30.4 Communicating without meeting them
   30.5 And if we find one, what then?
   30.6 Predicting reactions

31 Language beyond Earth
   31.1 Research on evolution
   31.2 When did it all start?
   31.3 Where and why did it start?
   31.4 Primary and secondary functions in biology

32 How human language arose
   32.1 Looking for a beginning
   32.2 Some early triggers
   32.3 From proto-language to language
   32.4 The evolving levels of language
   32.5 Syntax: the grammar of sentences
   32.6 A possible parallel: the immune system
   32.7 Language and thought
   32.8 The evolution of the language faculty
   32.9 How complex can a language be?
   32.10 Language, evolution and innateness
   32.11 How did it become an instinct?
   32.12 Language and the physical brain
   32.13 Language and memory

33 The language of exobeings
   33.1 What might their language be like?
   33.2 Could we understand them?
   33.3 Could they understand us?

34 Looking forward: the basic questions again

35 Some final thoughts