A whisper in the ear, a note on the counter, a hand on the shoulder. We use more than one sense to communicate, perhaps all five. Then again, the “five senses” we learned in grade school may oversimplify. What about our ability to sense balance, temperature, motion, or pain? What senses might other creatures have?
Communication goes beyond humans, of course. Animals exchange information within and across species, from the roar of a lion or the warning flick of a whitetail to the dance of bees or the pheromones of ants. More surprising, to me at least, is communication among non-animal organisms, involving senses so alien we turn to metaphors like “language,” “eavesdropping,” or “information highway.”
Through underground threads of fungus, plant roots not only poison competitors and share nutrients but also pass information. Aphid-infested broad beans signal aphid-free seedings, through fungal networks, to activate chemical defenses against aphids. Bacteria communicate through chemical signals to act as a group. A grad student at Princeton just published research showing a virus can “listen in” on bacterial “conversations,” using the information to guide its spread from one host bacterium to another.
As a specialist in the written word, I find it humbling to learn of communication among life forms of all sorts, probably since before we humans were a twinkle in nature’s eye.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.