jueves, 6 de diciembre de 2012


Edwin Francisco Herrera Paz

Journey of African Elephants
Yesterday, while watching TV with my kids (Nat Geo, I guess… can’t really recall), I was surprised to see a group of African elephants trying to rescue one of its babies that had fallen into a lagoon where the herd was quenching its thirst. It was virtually impossible for the little creature to escape for there was a certain height from where the baby was to where the elephants were standing. While the baby was drowning, his aunt came down, and standing behind him began her rescuing attempt. Given her unsuccessful efforts, his mother went down as well, also joined by a male. After many efforts, the mother came up with an ingenious idea: instead of pushing the baby out through to the steep end, she pushed her son several feet to the other end, which was much lower. With the help of the entire herd the baby finally came out, but then, suddenly, began to sink into the muddy soil. The elephants tried in vain to get him out, because the more he struggled, the more he sank in. Suddenly, the mother came up with another idea: she began to dig a canal in front of her son. She was soon joined in this task by other elephants until the baby was finally rescued through a dry canal. The entire rescue operation lasted around 7 minutes.

Incredible! I was simply astonished. Who says humans are the only intelligent beings on earth? In front of the camera, this impressive group of mammals showed more intelligence than some civilized people. Among the features of this rescuing operation one can notice a very quick emergency response, perfect coordination and teamwork, ingenuity and creativity, but most importantly, a strong will to help their fellow. The operation seemed to be performed by a well trained rescue team.

Elephant swiming in a river
Science shows, increasingly, that intelligence is not a gift limited to us, bipedal mammals; that it’s widely distributed among the animal kingdom. However, only humans have the ability to transcend our environment and daily lives, use our members to create very intricate mechanisms, and to develop sophisticated and highly accurate forms of communication. Despite that, I have no doubt that if we allow the evolution of elephants a sufficient amount of time (which could be considerable depending on environmental pressures), they will end up adapting their trunks to the use of tools, developing a complex form of oral communication, and increasing their capacity for abstraction and planning. And maybe, just maybe, they could become a technologically advanced society.

The question arises: are we humans unique? Has God built this magnificent universe to be enjoyed only by us, imperfect fallen mammals, full of passions, with a tendency to destroy each other? Well, I'll tell you what I think.

Marine animal
Why would God create something as rare as life in the first place? Really, life is something very, very strange. While most events in the universe tend to increase disorder (which in physics is called the second law of thermodynamics), life just seems to follow the opposite path. The simple forms evolve to form more complex structures, and this occurs at multiple levels, in a manner that resembles fractals. The temporal direction of life seems to be opposite to that of the inanimate world. Although other types of complex systems exist, the evolution towards complexity causing a variety of adaptive forms of life is unique, as far as we know; but why?

Specialized molecular machines evolved to cooperate and form organelles; different organelles specialized and cooperate to form cells; cells specialized and cooperate to form tissues; different tissues specialized and cooperate to form individuals; individuals specialize and cooperate to form communities; communities specialize and cooperate to form conglomerates of communities, and so on. Do these processes of increasing complexity end with globalization? Or, is it possible to conceive multiple levels of complexity above this?

Complex organic molecule
This evolution to complexity is not limited to the human race. A colony of ants (or other eusocial species) functions as an orchestrated whole that has been considered by some scientists as a superorganism, and there are many examples in biology in which the limit between community and organism is blur. I can say that the distinction between an “organism” and a “community of lower level organisms” is just the result of our tendency to structure reality into categories, which is, at the same time, the result of operational, pragmatic cerebral processes that helped us survive as a species. Categories are useful in science as well as in daily life.

However, levels of complexity do not possess true boundaries. We are a continuum that goes from organic molecules to communities. In this sense, all living beings on earth (and perhaps other planets) are tide to each other. We are parts of the same river of life, flowing from free, simple molecules to progressively higher levels of beautiful order and complexity.

In my personal opinion, what God intended allowing the development of life through physical laws, was to create a system capable of conquering. Conquer what? You may ask. Well, I do not know, but I can sure speculate. I think that if living systems are allowed the sufficient time to develop, could some day, through higher orders of complexity, domain progressively larger environments and finally save the universe from an inevitable death. Living systems could someday find a way to control the omnipresent and destructive second law. At a very large level of complexity a universal superorganism will have mastered the intricate recesses of the physical world, including the secrets to neutralize entropy.

Wow! Can you imagine? The domination of the second law of thermodynamics and the immortality of the universe obtained by the systems which God created for that purpose! The second law is related to destruction and disorder. In the spiritual world, destruction and disorder, namely evil, are related to malignant entities with decadent purposes. It is likely that in some distant future humanity will finally understand that theology and science are two sides to the same coin.

Herbivorous dinosaur
Well, maybe we will conquer the universe, but only if we survive. It is now that we have our chance. The dinosaurs ruled and fail, and if we fail other species may take our place. Who knows? Perhaps elephants, birds, a social insect, or specie we now neglect to see. It all depends on how we deal with security problems for humanity: climate change, nuclear weapons, the dangers of an annihilating pandemic, sustainable development, caring for our environment, or even the danger of a meteorite impact. In addition humanity must, at this crucial and decisive time, develop new models to successfully expand to higher levels of complexity.
Ferocious extinct species

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