May 1999

Swimming elephants and the demise of gods




Fortunately, Singapore does not have a creationist movement; they would drive me mad. However, off and on, we come across literature from America, where they seem to have a continuing stronghold (like the gun culture) despite all reason and sanity. I remember that one of the arguments made to disprove evolution centres on elephants and their trunks. No intermediate form has ever been found archeologically, and in any case, what evolutionary benefit would any animal have, with one-third or one-half the trunk present-day elephants have? It only stands to reason, therefore, that elephants could only have been made exactly as they are by the Creator.

Of course, this reasoning is absurd. Admittedly, missing links are, well, missing, and until we find them, it will be difficult to know the habits and advantages of half-trunked animals. But the fact that we haven't found the missing links doesn't mean the missing links didn't exist, it merely means that our knowledge is incomplete. But be careful here: to say that our knowledge is incomplete is not the same as saying that the creationist theory is true. That is a leap of faith not just unwarranted by the facts, but flies against some other facts that we do know, about human evolution, for example.

Anyway, staying with elephants, to my satisfaction, one more piece of the jigsaw puzzle fell into place in May 1999. I quote the BBC report:

Early elephants used 'swimming trunks'

Scientists believe they have discovered why elephants have trunks - they used them as underwater snorkels.

New research suggests that the animals evolved from mammals like the sea cow which is still found in some of the world's oceans.

The elephants' aquatic ancestry was revealed by the careful laboratory study of one embryo and six foetuses, ranging in age from 58 to 166 days old.

Ann Gaeth, at the University of Melbourne, Australia, had the rare opportunity to look at the foetuses after her colleague, Roger Short, was sent the specimens from the Kruger National Park in South Africa. The foetuses were taken from elephants killed in a culling operation in 1993.

Ancestral features

She found that all the elephant foetuses contained a physiological curiosity called a nephrostome. This is a funnel-shaped kidney duct found only in freshwater fish, frogs and egg-laying reptiles and mammals.

"The elephant is so unusual," Ms Gaeth told BBC News Online. "No other mammal that produces live offspring has these nephrostomes."

The nephrostomes appear very early in embryo development and then disappear. Something that appears early in gestation is much more likely to be ancestral. Those features that appear later in development are likely to be related to more recent adaptations," says Ms Gaeth.

Ms Gaeth says that fossil evidence indicates that elephants left behind their aquatic life about 30m years ago. She has identified changes to their bodies that have occurred to adapt them to life on land.

Up periscopes

Their lungs now allow the elephants to suck up a large amount of water in their trunks and hold it there, before letting it gush into their mouths.

The trunks themselves appear extremely early on in foetal development, being shown in even the earliest embryo examined. This suggests that they were used when the elephants' ancestors lived in water, probably as snorkels.

Modern elephants still use their trunks in this way. When Asian elephants used for logging are required to travel from one island to another, they frequently swim.

Their necks are too short to allow them to breathe with their mouths, so the trunk is pushed up like a periscope and used as a snorkel.

Internal testicles

Further embryonic evidence that elephants once swam is that, unlike other land-living mammals, they have internal testicles and always have done. Seals and whales also have internal testicles, but only acquired them when their land-living ancestors took to the seas 60m years ago.

Fossil studies of elephant ancestry have been supplemented in recent years by DNA, biochemical and immunological evidence, all of which show that aquatic beginnings were likely. The modern elephants' nearest relatives are the sea cows - dugongs and manatees.

This latest work, backing up these suggestions, is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

There is little left for me to say. In a most unexpected way -- aquatic elephants! -- evidence and explanation have surfaced, and the creationist hogwash is one argument fewer.

That the creationist theory even retains a hold on some people, tells us a lot about the human mind. We are extremely species-egoistic. Many of our religions, as presently formulated, are highly anthropocentric, putting humans (once upon a time it was just the males of humans, to boot) at the centre of the intellectual and moral universe, with a direct line to one or more supernatural powers.

Creationism is just the bizarre fringe of this tendency. It is so highly defensive of the special position of humans in the scheme of things, that it is even unwilling to recognise that different species share an evolutionary history.

But the creationism-evolution argument is a minor sideshow compared to what I think is coming up next. It is whether humans have a central place at all. I am sure there will come a time when it will be clear that we do not. What that will mean for many religions must be cataclysmic.

Here is another BBC report, from 15 April 1999:

Out of this world discovery

Astronomers have discovered the first solar system other than our own. It has three planets orbiting a star that is 44 light years away.

The discovery of a group of planets orbiting a sun like our own will cause great excitement and raises the chances that there may be other forms of life in the Universe.

"It is one of the most important astronomical discoveries for decades," Professor Geoff Marcy, one of the discoverers of the system, told BBC News Online.

The star concerned is called Upsilon Andromedae. Although it is four hundred thousand billion kilometres from Earth, it is easily visible to the unaided eye in the night sky.

Jupiter-sized planets

In 1996, astronomers Geoff Marcy and Paul Butler of San Francisco State University (Sfsu) detected evidence that a planet, about the same mass as Jupiter, was circling the star.

Now they have discovered that two other planets are also orbiting Upsilon Andromedae.

Astronomers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Massachusetts have also made observations of the star and confirmed the findings.

The discovery is a momentous one. It offers the first evidence that solar systems like our own could be commonplace in our galaxy.

Planet formation

Until now, astronomers had detected many Jupiter-sized planets orbiting nearby solar-type stars but not a solar system.

"It implies that planets can form more easily than we ever imagined, and that our Milky Way is teeming with planetary systems," said Dr Debra Fischer of Sfsu.

The innermost of the three planets circles Upsilon - and only about 8 million kilometres from its surface. Its 'year' would be only 4.6 days. Although the planet is estimated to be about the mass of Jupiter, it must be a completely different world.

Being so close to its parent star, it must be very hot on its starward side. Its other side may always look away from its sun and may be very cold. Huge storms would rack the planet as heat is passed around the world.

Massive planets

The other two planets are thought to be somewhat larger. One would have a mass of about 2 Jupiters and take 242 days to circle Upsilon, in an oval orbit about 129 million kilometres from the star.

The third planet is even more massive, about 4 times the mass of Jupiter. It is even further away at 400 million kilometres. It takes about 4 years to circle the star.

No current theory of planetary formation predicted that so many giant worlds would form around a star.

"I am mystified at how such a system of Jupiter-like planets might have been created," said Professor Marcy.

"This will shake up the theory of planetary formation," adds Robert Noyes, Professor of Astronomy at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

The research data will be published in the Astrophysical Journal in July. News of the discovery has also been posted on Marcy and Butler's Website and that of the Extrasolar Planets Encyclopedia.

Unlike aquatic elephants, I was hardly surprised by this discovery. With zillions of stars in the universe, we should expect to find solar systems around at least some of them (and "some" means billions). On the contrary, it would be truly astounding if our sun, a very ordinary star, were the only one to have planets circling it. Well, it isn't. That we now know. Similar discoveries of other solar systems will be coming in through the next few years, accelerating until they are no longer news. That we can bet on.

With zillions of stars, there must be zillions of planets and moons. It is just that our ability to observe astronomical bodies is just too crude at this stage for us to see them yet. Of these zillions of planets or their moons, the probability of life, or intelligence, must be, not just very high, but assured. In fact, the question I have for myself is not whether there is life or intelligence out there, but how many.

You may have noticed that I am treating life and intelligence as different things. Firstly it is obvious that one may be able to discover life-forms, without those life-forms exhibiting intelligence as we know it. But then the reverse may also apply. We may discover intelligence without any life-forms which we may recognise as life. The only kind of life-forms we know is carbon-based. Is that the only possibility? We don't know. And if we don't know, then how do we know what to look for?

In fact, humans are now looking more for intelligence than life. Our radio telescopes are on various missions to look for radio patterns in space that may indicate the presence of other intelligent "beings" -- which is a word I use reluctantly, for want of a better one. I fear too many readers have a mental picture of a "being" drawn from our experience with cinema. I have the sneaky feeling we will be shocked when we do find intelligence, by the physical form of that "being". It may be just a layer of ultraviolet slime on a bone-dry moonscape, but that slime may be a phenomenal neural network that can think and ooze a chemistry able to re-organise the geology on which it rests, to create its "technology". We may not recognise it even if we stumble onto it. Or it may be like a fungus with deep roots connecting with other fungi-like beings, perhaps all underground. Or it may be like a swarm of insects, but the "being" is not an individual insect, but the organised sum total of the entire swarm, sharing a singular mind.

Encountering intelligence from space will be "earth-shattering", especially if they turn out to be more intelligent than we are. We will have to completely redefine the human's place in our conception of the intellectual and moral universe. We will suddenly be exposed to ideas and possibilities never before imagined, perhaps pertaining to social organisation, moral systems and logical pathways. We may even be exposed to possibilities of time travel or the disembodiment of "souls". None of our religions take into account time travel (and all the topsy-turvy cause-and-effect problems it may create), or the concept of simultaneous existence of a single "soul" in multiple bodies. Even the existence of a single "soul" in serial bodies -- i.e. reincarnation -- is extremely threatening to many religious teachings. What if "souls" can migrate from humans to slime to swarms of gnats, where does that leave the God-favoured position of Man? What if "souls" can't migrate, but slime is cleverer than humans, where too does that leave us?

It is difficult to imagine scenarios of events that we have never experienced. Yet, human history has some possible parallels, in contact between civilisations.

The most optimistic parallel is the contact between the European civilisation and the Chinese. This contact was a creeping one, spread over a thousand years, between two civilisations not too unequal in size and technology. The Roman and Han Empires had news of each other, and a trickle of trade and exchanges got through. A thousand years later, it was still merely trickling. Marco Polo's tales of Kublai Khan's China were often greeted as fantastic by a readership that knew very little beyond the Adriatic Sea. But because they were intellectually and technologically not too far apart, the two civilisations generally drew strength from each other as they came to know each other better, while maintaining many of their own traditions. This is a process that is still continuing today.

At the other extreme is the contact between the European civilisation and the Aztec. It was too sudden and the technology gap was too great. Huge portions of the culture and religion of the Aztecs were wiped out by the impact. Their gods could not survive the arrival of other gods.

As I said earlier, with zillions of planets and moons out there, encountering intelligent aliens is not a matter of whether, but when. The interesting question is what happens after that. Which, if any, of our gods will be left?

Yawning Bread