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Is Human Communication the Most Complex Form of Communication?

Communication is "the act of transferring information from one place, person or group to another through a common system of symbols and signs" 1. These symbols and signs come in a variety of forms, including sounds, movements, chemicals and writing, using which animals and humans both constantly communicate. Complexity is "the state or quality of being intricate or complicated" 2 In this essay I am going to look at the different forms of communication and assess whether communication within animals or humans is more complex.

Although animals do not have language in the same way humans do, the sounds they make can still convey a range of meaning, such as warning calls, mating calls and coordinating group behaviour. Unlike humans (without the relatively new use of technology), many animals have the ability to communicate over much larger distances: dolphins can communicate over 20km using a high frequency 'whistle' (50,000H   z3) and elephants can communicate up to 10km with an extremely low frequency sound, known as an "infrasound"4 (less than 20Hz5). This is a far larger range of frequencies than humans are able to hear, let alone communicate with: humans can hear 20-20,000Hz but human speech is centred around 1,000-5,000 Hz.6 This ability to communicate over long distances has huge benefits (just think of how much more humans could do after finding the technology to do so), and therefore is one way in which animal communication can be more complex than human.  As humans, the most used and relied upon form of communication is verbal. This form of communication is one of the most complex due to the large number of evolutionary processes needed for the physiological changes that allow for the range of sounds humans can create. Although humans do not have the ability to produce the same range of pitch as some other animals, adaptations in throat, tongue, teeth, and lips7 have allowed humans to communicate using a unique set of sounds within the limited frequencies available to us. Vital to this are changes in the human brain which have allowed us to think symbolically, a process whereby an inherently meaningless symbol or sound, for example 'dog', is used to denote an object, action or concept.

Both symbolic thinking and the related unique sounds, gives language, as human verbal communication, a deeper complexity than animal forms of verbal communication.


Another form of communication in both humans and animals is kinesics: the study of "certain body movements and gestures".8 Animals use kinesics to communicate a range of signals. One form of kinesic communication is the figure-of-eight 'waggle dance' performed by honey bees to indicate the location of nectar rich flowers from their hive. It is performed at a specific angle in relation to gravity and the position of the sun, which is identical to the direction of the nectar form the hive. On top of that, the time taken for the bee to do this dance indicates the distance the flower is from the hive (each second represents one km9). Additionally, the blue-capped cordon-bleu bird does a courtship dance in which the feet move too quickly for human detection (50 taps per second)10 These are only two examples from many of how animals use complex kinesics to communicate specific signals.


On the other hand, kinesics in humans is often a more subconscious process, including posture, gestures and facial expressions. These subconscious movements are deeply interpreted by the human brain: 30% of neurones in the brain are devoted to processing visual information, compared to only 8% for touch and 3% for auditory. 11 One example of kinesics in humans is the movement of our heads to indicate interest. A sideways head tilt is an "innate submission gesture" 12 which exposes the vulnerable neck, subconsciously making people more trusting of us. Another form of very subtle kinesic communication is pupil size. Although light levels in the environment do determine pupil dilation, so can emotions - highly dilated eyes can indicate a person's desire -which are then received as communication. Overall, although human kinesic communication is used regularly, the signals transferred by animals and the ways of showing them are far more complex.


A more subtle form of communication in nature is using pheromones - chemical signals sent between individuals. An example of this is the acacia tree which releases pheromones called tannins13.

Tannins inhibit digestion by interfering with digestive enzymes. This means that if an animal (for example a giraffe), starts to eat an acacia tree, not only can the tree deter the giraffe from eating it, but also trees within a 50 yard14 radius (after pheromones are picked up by neighbouring trees, they too produce tannins). In a similar defensive form of communication, plants such as fennel and coriander can produce a pheromone to attract parasitic wasps, which attack caterpillars that are trying to eat the plant. Although the messages sent are complex, there are problems with using pheromones: the only way they spread is through the air making them a slow form of communication and a single pheromone could be hard to detect due to many different pheromones in a single area.


Finally, a form of communication with no animal equivalence is the human written language. As earlier mentioned, speech involves symbolic thinking; writing is similar but to an even higher degree. Firstly, there is double articulation, the way we use a "set of meaningless sounds to form meaningful signs"15 (words). For example, the word 'dog' does not have any relation to the object itself (its colour or noise). Additionally, there is syntax, the specific way these signs are arranged in order to convey the complex meaning of the expression. For example, 'the dog ate the biscuit' has a completely different meaning to 'the biscuit ate the dog'. These two concepts barely touch the complexity of human language demonstrating the number of complicated stages required to form this communication.


Overall, humans have refined the forms of communication that they are more reliant on (verbal and written) to a more complex extent. Animals have a more complex range of communication (for example, heightened sense towards pheromones). If a human was deaf, they would lose the majority of refined ways to communicate (only 6% of people in UK know more than two words in sign language16), however, if an animal was deaf, they would have a wider range of communication (chemical or kinesics) still available to them.

Therefore, the answer to 'is human communication the most complex form of communication' is not as simple as one might anticipate, as humans do have a greater complexity through their refined communication, but animals have a greater complexity through their range of communication.


2 Oxford English Dictionary

3 SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment - Communication and Echolocation

4 Herbst, Christian; Stoeger, Angela; Fitch, Tecumseh - Mystery of Elephant lnfrasounds Revealed.

5 Wayne Staab - The Sounds of Africa

6 University of Rhode Island and Inner Space Centre - What sounds can people hear?

7 Sunday Moulton - Human Language Forms: Speech, Writing & Gestures

8 Oxford English Dictionary

9 Georgia Tech College of Computing-The Waggle Dance of the Honey Bee-Video

10 Wikipedia - Blue-capped cordon-bleu

11 The book 'A Primer on Communication Studies' - Types of Nonverbal Communication

12 The book 'A Primer on Communication Studies' -Types of Nonverbal Communication

13 -

14 -

15 Sunday Moulton - Language Talk

16 Hannah Berry George - How much sign language do you know?



In addition to the footnotes, I have also used aspects of these sites, books and videos to research this topic. icresearch/genomeediting content/145/16/dev15088811F1



Tea Romih - 'Humans are Visual Creatures'


Fact Monster - 'animal communication'

© 2000-2017 Sandbox Networks, Inc., publishing as Fact Monster.­ communication/ 10 Oct 2019

'Communication and Social Psychology'

E.T. Higgins, G.R. Semin, in International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, 2001



Brian & Deborah Charlseworth - 'Evolution, A Very Short Introduction' National Geographic- 'Inside Animal Minds'



Centre for Innovation - Leiden University - 'Module 1: 1. Human language and animal communication systems'

Khan Academy- 'Types of animal communication'

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