Elephants can do math and ants are good at physics. Can this scientific discovery transform the links between man and beast?
The human race is considered the most intelligent living species on earth. This belief is, of course, held by humans – whether or not it is shared by other species in the animal kingdom remains a mystery to scientists. This vanity has, unsurprisingly, led civilization to be narcissistic. The collective conviction of the superiority – intellectual and otherwise – of their own kind has rendered human beings incapable – reluctant? – recognize the sensitivity and intelligence of other forms of life on the planet. This sufficiency had an interesting consequence: the endowment of “human” qualities to flora and fauna. This human need to anthropomorphize creatures large and small in order to perceive them in the light of humanity – wise, emotional and intelligent – is evident in works of literature, whether it is Aesop’s fables with their talking animals, the Jatakas documenting the many lives of the Buddha, some of which were in animal form, or the beloved Cheshire cat and his brothers in Lewis Carroll Alice in Wonderland.
The time, however, may have arrived for those blinders to finally disappear and for human beings to recognize that the intellect and a scientific mind may not be their monopoly. Scientists from two independent research groups have discovered a mathematical law in the way elephants use their trunk and a principle of physics in the construction of underground tunnels by ants. Scientists say the ants, despite their spot-like brains, are smart enough to perform a complex behavioral tunneling program – it mirrors the tunneling strategies familiar to engineers – to build complex underground cities. The animals, as usual, are benevolent; scientists now believe that the dynamics of the elephant’s trunk can be used to develop bio-inspired robots to detect, grab or manipulate objects.
These scientific discoveries open an intriguing question of the chicken and the egg. For years, despite their condescension to their fellow human beings, humans have been inspired by animals and their behavior in various fields such as fashion, art and architecture. This phenomenon even has a name: biomimicry. In terms of evolution, then is it possible that animal intelligence played a role in helping the first humans – the world’s first imitators – to solve some challenges? Humans have amazed, and even envied, animals for their keen senses, their remarkable efficiency and their ability to adapt to new situations and conditions; today’s robotic engineers, like those at Boston Dynamics, base many of their designs on animals. Recent findings on elephants and ants, while linking science and literature, have opened up the possibility that anthropomorphism could be used as capital for conservation practices. With the planet entering its sixth phase of mass extinction – more than 500 species of land animals are expected to become extinct soon – humans should take responsibility for protecting wildlife and ecological balance now that science has proven that the differences between man and beast may not be that much.