LAUSANNE — Is wildlife a world of bullies? We like to imagine the relationships among living beings as a no-holds-barred struggle for survival, a twisted vision of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, conveyed by the political and economic doctrine of social Darwinism. And yet, examples of cooperation abound in the animal world. Mammals, insects and even microorganisms, virtually all living beings who live in groups actually, have developed forms of collaboration. Helping each other out can be beneficial to all parties, for example when killer whales team up to hunt and improve their chances to feed and ultimately survive.
But are there really authentic altruistic behaviors in the animal world? "Altruism is a selfless act, with no other benefit than to improve the state of the other," says Jennifer Mcclung, an ethologist at the University of Neuchatel, Switzerland. "As far as animals are concerned, this behavior can be observed mostly in how parents care for their offspring, while human beings can be altruistic with perfect strangers." Not all experts agree with the idea of talking about bona fide altruism in animal behavior. Yet, examples defy the doubts: Some animals really do bend over backwards for others.
In their natural environment, chimpanzees sometimes help the injured or adopt abandoned young ones. Experiments conducted in captivity have shown similar behavior. When offered the choice between two colored tokens, capuchin monkeys prefer the one that will allow them to share a reward with a fellow monkey, rather than the one that awards an entire lot of grapes to themselves only. The famous Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal, who has been documenting such behaviors for the past 20 years, is sure that primates follow altruistic impulses based on empathy, the ability to feel the emotions of others. His opinion, however, isn't shared by everyone. Some argue that the results of certain experiments could indeed be the consequence of conditioning, rather than the proof of a laudable intent.
Some chirping and a few strokes of the trunk is all it takes for an elephant to reassure another frightened elephant. A baby elephant stuck in a ditch manages to get out with the help of an older elephant. And a group of elephants might remain several days with a dead one as if to pay him homage one last time. In the animal world, elephants are among those whose social ties are the most developed. Much of their behavior suggests that they are able to feel empathy. But are they really willing to act for the benefit of others without expecting anything in return? Or are we over-interpreting their actions through the prism of human morality?
A herd of elephants showing affection to each other — Photo: Max Pixel
Working your entire life to feed the offspring of others and soldiers who voluntarily put themselves in the firing line to defend their community: These examples of extreme selflessness really do exist... among insects. The bizarre behavior of bees, ants, and termites, to name just a few, were already a source of questioning for Darwin. But there is an explanation. Unlike most living beings, which transmit their genes through reproduction, social insects favor the spread of their hereditary lines by protecting those they are related to. This is not altruism in the sense that we, human being, understand it. Rather, the consideration shown by ants is a form of genetic programming.
Help! If a rat sees another rat locked up in a plastic tube, it will try to free it, even if that means having to share its food afterwards. But maybe the savior just wants company? Research published in Animal Cognition in 2015 suggests that it is the distress of its fellow rat that encourages the rodent to act. A rat will open a hatch in the wall of a plexiglass aquarium if it allows another rat to drag itself out of the water. However, the same rat won't intervene if the other is in the same device but in the dry. The rodent will come to its partner's rescue even more quickly if it has already had the unpleasant aquarium experience itself.
Whale of a gentleman
The following scene took place in the icy waters of the Antarctic Peninsula. A group of killer whales were swimming side-by-side. They spot a very fat seal taking shelter on a block of floating ice. Their hunting technique consists in generating a wave that will destabilize the block. Once the seal is in the water, they can finally eat it. But here comes an unexpected player: a humpback whale. It gets between the prey and its predators, strikes the water with its huge tail, and momentarily gets the seal out of the water with a delicate "backhand." The seal is safe. After he had witnessed this surprising face-off, an American biologist started to look into the interactions between humpback whales and killer whales and published his results in Marine Mammal Science in 2016. Of the 115 cases reported to him, he identified about 30 in which a whale appears to have deliberately intervened to stop an attack. That a whale should react in this fashion when one of its offspring is targeted is not surprising. But that it does it to save an animal from another species is more difficult to explain because it doesn't bring the whale anything. Humpback whales probably are used to intervening as soon as it identifies a killer whale attack, regardless of the prey. If that's the case, then whales' altruism towards other species would happen somewhat inadvertently.
With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.
CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.
Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.
It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.
Abundant sunshine, low temperatures
The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.
Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.
It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.
Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park
Chinese want to expand
The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.
The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.
The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.
The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.
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