Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Sustainable societies

I've long been fascinated by elephants. Their sheer size makes them impossible to ignore...but despite it, they somehow manage to be cute. (Baby elephants are adorable). They seem to have a sense of humor lacking in many animals.

Elephants are highly social creatures who share a surprising number of qualities with humans. Those trunks make a handy manipulator device, if not as versatile as fingers (but it does demonstrate that another race on another world might have different ways of using tools. Like humans, elephants have an extended childhood.

The sexes live mostly apart, with females forming small groups and males leading lives that used to be thought to be solitary. More recent research has indicated, however, that males socialize with one another. In one recent incident, a neighborhood in Africa was having trouble with a group of young elephants - all males - who were trampling gardens and vandalizing property. (Sound familiar?). A conservation group relocated an older bull to the area and the 'street gang' of elephants broke up and vanished quickly. Clearly, he got them back in line.

In fact, elephants don't have to live together to socialize. They communicate using infrasound, which carries long distances. Elephants can talk when several miles apart.

Elephants have midwives with them when they give birth. Orphaned calves are always cared for by another female (behavior which is unusual in other herd forming herbivores). They are the only species other than humans proven to honor their dead with ritual.

They are one of the few animals to pass the 'mirror test', demonstrating an ability to recognize their own reflection. The test is performed by drugging the animal then putting dye on it. They pass if they attempt to remove the dye. Other than elephants only bottlenose dolphins and the great apes have been demonstrated to pass the mirror test. What does that mean? It means elephants are self aware. In the true sense.

In the United Arab Emirates a huge array of fossilized elephant tracks, known as a 'trackway', was found recently. Analysis of the tracks (where they are going, the weight and size of the animal) indicates that the elephants that made the tracks were living much as elephants do today, moving in the same patterns as they went through their lives.

These tracks have been dated.

They are seven million years old.

Right here, on our own planet, we have a society that has been stable for seven million years. Talk about sustainability. In fact, the only thing that threatens that society is us...and I hope we have turned that corner.

The catch? Elephant society is non-technological. Although elephants do use tools - the National Zoo's 8 year old male Kandula demonstrated that when he was provided with food he couldn't reach...he went and got a stool and stood on it. Just as we would - they do not make them beyond basic modification. They're still in the stone age.

Which brings one to the worrying thought that a truly sustainable society has to be non-technological. Or does it? Can we learn from the elephants without sacrificing ourselves? If nothing else, elephants may teach us how to recognize, if we ever reach another world, non-technological sentients and other lifeways. At best, they may teach us how to save both them and ourselves.