In my world there is a society with Biology based technology. They have a number of biologically engineered creatures that perform various tasks. I was going to have them use a pheromones to communicate to these creatures as well as control them. But can pheromones really be used communicate complex commands?

I main worried about rang of communication as well as how to communicate complex commands.

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    $\begingroup$ yes, in theory, but it would be a horrible way of doing it. Why do you suspect there to be problems? $\endgroup$ – Raditz_35 Jul 13 '17 at 13:14
  • $\begingroup$ I suspected might be problems communicating complex commands as well as problems with range. $\endgroup$ – Bryan McClure Jul 13 '17 at 13:46
  • $\begingroup$ What might be a more reliable way of controlling and communicating with genetically engineered creatures $\endgroup$ – Bryan McClure Jul 13 '17 at 13:47
  • $\begingroup$ This is still very unspecific. I think your question would be improved if you could name the things you worry about, maybe someone can think of ways to avoid them. Take complexity: I agree, that would be a problem, but why do you think it is? A chemical can certainly be as complex as you like. Another reason I am asking is to find out if you do know enough about biochemistry to understand an answer. $\endgroup$ – Raditz_35 Jul 13 '17 at 14:57
  • $\begingroup$ @Raditz_35 ok Ill edit it $\endgroup$ – Bryan McClure Jul 13 '17 at 21:19

This could work quite well if your organic race is insectoid in origin. Many insects use pheromones to communicate with each other in close proximity to perform tasks, guide each other and warn others of danger.

And, as David mentions in his answer, you can combine a number of simple instructions to add up to complex behaviour. This is the fundamental concept behind Swarm Intelligence, an area of study that is heavily influenced by animal behaviour, mainly that of insects, hence the name "Swarm". Swarm Intelligence looks at how having a large number of creatures / objects working together, each following a simple set of instructions, can lead to interesting and complex behavioural patterns, some of which we can't predict until seeing it in action.

A good place to start with this kind of study would be with Ant Colonies, which utilise Swarm Intelligence to excellent success. Each worker ant actually does very small, simple tasks, in sequence, but because each Ant is following this simple set of instructions, it all comes together like pieces of an engine.

For a bit of science mumbo jumbo, look no further than the Ant-Man movie. In it, one of the devices used is an Electromagnetic Communications Device, which basically allows a human to control nearby ants by sheer force of will.

The scientific explanation of how the tech works is.... admittedly a bit lacking, but what the movie does tell us is that it basically stimulates their olfactory nerve centres via electromagnetic waves, simulating the effects of various pheromones to get them to perform whatever task you need them to.

Basically, for a realistic approach that's based in some form of science, you'll want to make your society insectoid, probably a swarm race, like The Zerg, and have each member of the society have a clearly defined role, so that together they act as one functioning unit.

Extra: It's also fairly common for these kinds of races / societies to have a central intelligence or collective consciousness, where a single hive mind dictates the actions of the smaller drones, but this isn't absolutely necessary.

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to WorldBuilding.SE! If you haven't done so already please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have fun! $\endgroup$ – Secespitus Jul 13 '17 at 15:00

TL;DR it isn't possible to have one pheromone relay a complex command, but many sets of different pheromones relaying simple commands could possibly achieve the desired effect.

So you're going to want to research E. O. Wilson, because he's basically the pioneer of chemical ecology, and discovered much of what we know about ant pheromone interactions. But no, it's not very likely that you could relay super complex commands. You would be able to communicate abstract ideas like "danger", "this type of food exists nearby", "this is a trail to that food", and some sort of concepts like that. However, you can't get the specificity of say "I want you to pick up this box, take it to Mr. Johnson, and take the payment of 15 credits for it." with a magic bullet, catch all pheromone.

Though it would be possible to use a complex series of command and primer pheromones, each one relating a simple piece of information. So you could have your box lifter specifically engineered to want to pick up boxes with a specific pheromone tag. Then a trail would have to be laid out for it to follow. On the receiving end, someone would have to administer another set of pheromones to have it perform the other tasks and move on to the next one.

  • $\begingroup$ Combos of pheromone tags could be used in a very strange, continuous form of language where different pheromones present simultaneously convey meaning that an almost (but not quite) identical combination of pheromones wouldn't, like the letters FATE and FAT having quite different meanings. The problem then becomes that you can't define the words sequentially (so ATE and EAT are exactly the same), and there are only so many different chemicals you can exude to convey meaning. And when a stinky human comes along they end up doing the equivalent of mashing the pheromone keyboard with their face.. $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Jul 13 '17 at 14:35
  • $\begingroup$ It could be possible that these engineered organisms operate strictly within clean environments, where they receive no interference. Imagine if you have a manufacturing line, where the organism.... let's call it a skrep. You have a skrep sitting in place within a sanitary environment beside a belt. Parts are delivered to the skrep on this belt. Each part has a pheromone tag, which the skrep interprets as being related to other tags. By this knowledge, it knows where that part belongs in relation to other parts. In doing so, you are able to have a skrep build things. $\endgroup$ – David Robie Jul 13 '17 at 16:47

The advantage of pheromones in communication is that it persists, which is why it is often used by animals to mark territory or for animals to find mates for sparely populated animals. The disadvantage is that it is very localized and can't be projected very far so it can't easily communicate at high speeds.

Which it will be very hard for you to do complex communication with pheromones. Think if you release a gas with pheromones, then someone else has to wait for the gas to disperse and travel to them, then they would need to respond in the same way. This means "conversations" in pheromones require a lot of time. Which will limit the development of deep communication complexity.

Technically, there is nothing to stop pheromones from communicating a lot of information because the use of many chemicals and the composition of chemicals can be used to boost the number of bit of information can be sent but ultimately the limiting factor of bandwidth comes down to the speed at which chemicals you release can reach the target.


Pheromones can convey very complicated information. Take the human Major histocompatability complex (MHC). It's a part of our genome which contains instructions for how to recognize various pathogens. Aspects of the MHC get exposed in some of the compounds our body releases, like sweat. It's been shown that we are capable of smelling someone else's sweat and reverse-engineer how similar or dissimilar their MHC is to our own!

The bigger challenge is a lack of locational specificity. Pheromones are gases, which means they slowly diffuse through the environment. Any instructions transmitted in this way will also diffuse this way. Pheromones and other olfactory sensations are best used in environments where this detail does not matter. Take bloodhounds. They actually are following a "cone" of smell emanating from the thing they are tracking. In their case, it doesn't matter if the location isn't specific because they can continuously hone in on higher and higher concentrations until they eventually find what they are looking for.

Pheremones also have limited specificity in time. They're pretty much limited by the half-life of the pheremone as it diffuses and ages. If an instruction is no longer required, it can't be removed. It has to run its course. Compare that with paper instructions that could be ripped up.


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