“Back to Darwin”

ESD May 2nd, 2629

Malinowski Research Station, Trobriand Sector, Ryosh c

Ryosh System

When I was putting together my little summer reading list, which now seems like years ago, I sent a message to Garren Kolt over in Biology to see if he had any recommendations. I’ll admit that my background in non-human communication is pretty basic, since most of my work in grad school focused on pure linguistics without much overlap with the biology department. He told me that I can’t go wrong with the basics, and that the irony of going back to Darwin on the first mission to contact extraterrestrial sentient life would be inescapable. I’m glad I agreed with him, because I was flipping back through Voyage of the Beagle when I noticed this passage about cuttlefish:

“These animals also escape detection by a very extraordinary, chameleon-like power of changing their colour. They appear to vary their tints according to the nature of the ground over which they pass: when in deep water, their general shade was brownish purple, but when placed on the land, or in shallow water, this dark tint changed into one of a yellowish green. The colour, examined more carefully, was a French grey, with numerous minute spots of bright yellow: the former of these varied in intensity; the latter entirely disappeared and appeared again by turns. These changes were effected in such a manner that clouds, varying in tint between a hyacinth red and a chestnut-brown, were continually passing over the body. Any part, being subjected to a slight shock of galvanism, became almost black: a similar effect, but in a less degree, was produced by scratching the skin with a needle. These clouds, or blushes as they may be called, are said to be produced by the alternate expansion and contraction of minute vesicles containing variously coloured fluids [8].”

Even though I don’t know enough about cephalopod physiology to say that the comparison to the Ryosh is more direct than that both communicate with chromatophores, I suspect there to be plenty of similarities. I’ve been working with Len and and Errin to try and work out some comparative physiology with our Ryosh collaborators. Things have gone well enough so far. We’ve already established some contacts with local scientists who seem eager to work with us too, at least so far. Once introductions were finished, we got a chance to sit down and go over some basics of human anatomy in hopes that we could elicit a Ryosh analogue. I never thought I’d play “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours” with an alien, even if we are using holo projections. I promise it wasn’t as sexy as it sounds.

Their anatomical charts are comparatively primitive but the data we’ve gotten so far has been helpful in pinning down some of our hypotheses about how their language is constructed. For one, it appears that their nervous system connects specific chromophoric regions to areas of the brain and vice versa, which will go a long way in helping us break down their language into lexemes and syntactic units. Given that each class of chromatophores can only produce hues within a given spectrum [9]—there’s Darwin’s cuttlefish again—this should help us pin down regions activated by different classes of communication. If this hypothesis pans out, we should expect certain regions and associated hues to index specific classes of communications: emotion, metacommunication, etc. That would pretty much break this whole problem wide open, to be able to draw lines from regions of the brain to regions of skin. The next step would be to figure out a way to mimic that on some sort of computer system and get a dialogue going with our collaborators.

My goal going into this was to engineer a sustainable communicative medium for future human-Ryosh relations. I suppose that if I was lazy, I could say that we’re already getting by on hand gestures and charts and leave the rest for some future researcher, but that’s not what I’m making the big bucks for out here. Everything we’ve seen so far indicates a species with a non-verbal language complex enough to make Hockett and his vocal-auditory channel [10] do cartwheels in their grave.

No. I want to talk to some aliens, dammit.


      8. Charles Darwin, 1860, “Chapter 1. Habits of a Sea-slug and Cuttle-fish”, Journal Of Researches Into The Natural History And Geology Of The Countries Visited During The Voyage Round The World Of H.M.S. ‘Beagle’ Under The Command Of Captain Fitz Roy, R.N, John Murray, London. p. 7.

      9. Chromatophores in terrestrial animals are divided into the following categories depending on hues they produce: xanthophores (yellow), erythrophores (red), iridophores (reflective/iridescent), leucophores (white), melanophores (black/brown), and cyanophores (blue). Research conducted by our team indicates that Ryosh chromatophores are significantly more advanced than those of cephalopods, displaying hues beyond the limits of the visible human spectrum (Lomate 2631).

      10. Charles Hockett (1916-2000) was an American linguistic anthropologist who devised what are known as Hockett’s Design Features of Language. His original list of thirteen design features, largely meant to describe human vocal communication, has subsequently been amended and altered to account for non-human and non-vocal communicative systems like that of the Ryosh. For more on the development of design features in light of extraterrestrial sentient contact, see Allorante 2670.

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