Monday, December 13, 2010

The elephant and Earth's intelligent life

I recently woke up after having a dream about an endearing baby elephant that was lovingly being taken care of by the whole village in some random place on Earth, and so I googled elephants to learn more about this beautiful species of intelligent mammals.

I already have a profound respect for them: they are naturally vegetarians and therefore are naturally inclined to practicing non-violence. When I was involved in the Hare Krishna movement I learned to love animals like cows and elephants who exhibit non-violent behavior.

Elephants have brains bigger than human brains and are incredibly intelligent. Scientists now know that they have an extremely complex language and that they even mourn their dead. This may not be as outlandish as it may sound to some: dolphins also have a complex language and every member of the group even has a name that they answer to.

Humans have traditionally believed that we are the only species on Earth with the capacity for speech and complex communication, or the only intelligent species on Earth. It's only a myth. We merely are lucky enough to combine speech with our hands' dexterity so that we are able to complete tasks that other animals can't. We already know that other apes and monkeys with similar hands also have cultures and build tools to catch ants, break open nuts, for battle and for other tasks.

We even began to understand the communication biotechnology of ants and other insects, who use chemical signals and scent to let each other know where they are going and what they are doing so that, to an outsider, it appears that the entire ant colony operates as if it had a single mind. Much of the chemical communication system is orchestrated by the queen: she rules through chemistry and scent. We have begun using this knowledge to lead ants to specific places, leading them to think they are following the trail of other ants.

Ant communication is not limited to other ants: plants are able to communicate with ants and other insects in order to develop relationships that benefit both. The most intriguing case is the case of the lemon ant, who has evolved to live in the Amazonian lemon tree. The ants produce a pesticide that kills all the surrounding plants, which benefits the lemon tree by letting it monopolize all of the sunlight in the vecinity while the ants find safety, foodsources and are protected from the weather by building their colonies inside the trunk of the tree. Both species benefit.

Is the lemon tree instructing ants to do this (just as, say, carnivorous plants attract certain insects in order to trap them), or are the ants recognizing their special relationship with this plants and engineering an empire? It's intriguing either way, because it requires that all of these hundreds or thousands of little ants be on the same page, and recognize the complexity of the project that they're undertaking.

It also invites the possibility that, if we decode plant chemical communication, we may be able to use chemicals to configure the behavior of certain plants in our favor and develop symbiotic relations similar to the one that the lemon ants and the lemon trees have bioengineered.

There is so much more that could be said about the intelligence of ants. They have complex ventilation and other systems of engineering and building, their civilizations include millions of members with complex social and caste relations, they take care of each other and especially of their queens, and they wage war and enslave each other. All this intrigue happens daily in millions of ant colonies on Earth: in our anthropocentricity we forget that everyday empires crumble and rise beneath our feet.

Another recent elephant epiphany I had was the youtube video of the elephant that paints a self-portrait of an elephant handing a flower to someone. Some speculate that this elephant might be trying to communicate with people, others dismiss this as a trick he learned from his trainer. Regardless, it takes a special skill and level of intelligence for any non-human to be able to paint as precisely and skillfully as this elephant does.

All the science fiction movies that we make about similar things happening in other worlds cannot compare with the facts of nature and the realities of Earth life: especially because the intelligence and language and other features of other Earth species is truly astounding. We have become an arrogant ilk of apes. The movie Earthlings spells this out by labeling our particular forms of prejudice against other creatures of our planet, 'speciesism'.

The fact that we use words like 'beast' or 'animal' in a derogatory way is testimony of our sense of superiority. It is true that we ARE superior in many ways to other creatures, but we should one day strive to speak of how 'deelephantizing' it is for an elephant to work as a slave at a circus just as it is 'dehumanizing' for a human to work at a sweatshop. There is a moral problem there that we have to discern our way through as Earthlings.

The more we learn about the other species, the more we realize that we are just one of the many intelligent species on Planet Earth. This should be a refreshing insight. Some day, thousands or millions of years into the future, we will hopefully develop ways to communicate with other species more effectively and we may be able to continue to cooperate and work together effectively for the common good, just as we and the elephants did in the Thailand relief efforts after the 2004 tsunami.

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