Good communication is the essence of being human or being animal or even a plant or even being an amoeba or perhaps even a bacterium. All of a sudden this post has gotten off to a strange start when I realized that all life, even the most basic life forms, are based on functioning communication.
How can the communication of bacteria be important to me as a human being? I know that bacteria have genetic forms of communication and that they can transfer DNA from one bacterium to another bacterium; it’s called horizontal gene transfer. Bacteria clearly do have the ability to transfer DNA to other bacteria, and it allows a species of bacteria to develop the ability to cope with their environment better.
Various forms of learning have enabled bacteria to counter the deadly effects of antibiotics like penicillin. In 1945 when Alexander Fleming received a Nobel Prize for the discovery of penicillin he warned that bacteria will develop the ability to resist a given dose of penicillin and it would take more and more penicillin to kill bacteria. The survivors of a given dose of penicillin would be the ones that reproduced, and their offspring would be able to withstand a given level of dosage. Part of the resistance would be because of horizontal gene transfer, but once incorporated in a living being that new DNA would be delivered to the next generation by vertical gene transfer. Billions of years ago those bacteria that were able to transfer information to other bacteria were the ones that survived, and so their offspring and multitudes of variations are still with us today. That information created long ago and its descendants are still with us today.
Single-celled organisms about half a billion years ago figured out how to become multicellular organisms and these more complex organisms would have had to carry on the same ability of transferring DNA as a form of information both horizontally and vertically, but it isn’t until much later with human beings that we transfer information with words or gestures or other behaviors. But from geological records we know that the various life forms existed in competition and must have been able to compete; otherwise they simply wouldn’t exist in the historical geological record, or be with us here today.
Well, the same thing has to be true about plants; they were competing with other multicellular organisms and they survived too; therefore they must have had even better communication than their predecessors. It becomes likely the plants would maintain this ability to transfer all of the previous methods of transferring DNA and thus be able to cope better with the life forms that preceded them and preyed upon them.
Along come animals, and they must have had even better methods of communication. With plants and with animals there is a two-sex system which gives the ability to communicate information from a successful set of parents within the species to their children and any improvements to their children’s children. At every point of existence animals and plants required the ability to communicate information to their species and their cooperating species members.
It is not the ability to speak, but the ability to communicate useful information in present time that will be helpful to their co-species members. The ability to accomplish this communication appears to be and has been proven to be possessed by plants too, with chemical signals.
With animals there are warning signals, such as yells. For birds the warning signal is a loud cheep, and with many mammals it’s a loud scream that is identifiable to members of their own species. “Be careful I am being attacked.”
When we come to humans who have developed speech we are able to communicate much more subtle warnings and encouragements. Of course we humans have now developed many more methods of communication with other humans. Some of the communication signals are warnings to stay away; alternately there are signals for us to approach or to do some other activity that is to our mutual benefit.
This seems to come back to the bacteria at the very beginning of this communication process. What we humans now have is a variation, a development, on the process that bacteria began billions of years ago.
So, are we humans are communicating following in the traditions of bacteria? Did we evolve communication techniques from animals and plants, and even before from single-celled organisms, even bacteria and perhaps from something even more basic than bacteria? Did our communication techniques began even before life began?
There’s a form of communication taking place within the self-organization of processes of crystals or with just random stuff washed ashore, in a self-organized assemblage. I’ve noticed when walking on a beach in the San Francisco Bay that things of certain categories seem to collect together, such as toy dolls in one place, furniture parts in another place. The assemblage isn’t communication, but it is formed by some kind of interaction that appears to create discernible categories. It is some form of basic communication or a sub-form of communication. It makes it seem as if communication predates life itself. That’s a weird idea.
If information is an arranged set of data, isn’t any unusual collection a form of information?