I was quite struck yesterday by a news item about elephants. There is a herd of elephants in Africa that was formed from orphaned youngsters in the period between the early 80s and 90s – the adults and older juveniles had all been culled. 20 to 30 years later, and members of this herd do not have the social understanding of undisturbed herds. They are not able to tell the difference, for example, between the call of an older potentially threatening elephant and a younger one. Nor do they know how to respond appropriately to the call of a strange elephant, which is to bunch together in defensive formation. Rather, their response was random. Also, "young, orphaned male elephants became hyper-aggressive and attacked and killed rhinoceroses."
The first point that struck me was the implied depth of healthy elephants’ social interaction and learning, how long that takes and how comparable to humans it is. Indeed, it seems to put elephants at least on a level with us socially.
And then I looked up their brains, which are 3 or 4 times as big as ours, and no less complex. There must be a reason for that. It’s not about servicing a large body, because dinosaurs had tiny brains. The hippocampus, which is linked to emotion, is proportionately 40% bigger than in humans – making it about 5 times as big in absolute terms. And the memory part of the brain is much bigger than ours.
|Blue Whale and Human Brains|
See Elephant Cognition in Wikipedia. Fascinating article.
And they live in tight knit family groups for their long lives, and they exhibit a wide range of emotions including grief, and altruism towards other species.
And it left me thinking wow, an older elephant is probably more human on an emotional and social level than most humans – maybe than all humans. They have these deep bonds with each other, they live for them, and they have a very complex social structure that takes decades to learn.
And we have this thing that other animals don’t seem to have to the same degree, a particular type of abstract and practical intelligence. And it’s our fate to live that out, even though it often makes us unbalanced in a way that wild animals aren’t. But we don’t have that elephant humanity, not so easily, not to the same degree. That deep connection with emotion, and closeness over decades to others, as a foundation for living.
And then I thought with the sheer size of elephants’ brains, it’s probably not just about more awareness in a way we’d understand: they are probably aware in ways that we have no conception of. And the same goes for whales, whose brains are even bigger.
I once read an account in a Laurens Van der Post book of a female elephant and calf who were foraging happily, when they became surrounded by lions. And from miles and miles away these other elephants sensed her danger and headed straight for her and arrived in time. It wasn’t a noise thing, it was a psychic thing based on the depth of their relationships, and I know that humans at their best are also like this, and I’m like that sometimes, particularly when friends are about to arrive at my house, I feel them coming.
But it makes the point that there is unusual awareness there, and that’s probably the tip of the iceberg. You just wonder what they are aware of. I get a feeling of breadth and depth that comes from quiet and a natural existence and the developed social structure and the learning that gets passed down and the sheer size of their brains.
And as far as I can see, there don’t seem to be aspects to the human brain that an elephant doesn’t have, suggesting that they could eventually learn all the things we can if they had hands and speech. It’s a matter of learning, and it has taken humans thousands of years to build the complexity of knowledge we have.
But maybe that’s irrelevant. The elephant brain does not seem to be needed very much for practical tasks – you only need a tiny brain for that – so there must be some huge inner thing going on. I may be wrong, I’m speculating, but what else could it be? Some kind of profound connection to and awareness of life, beginning in highly developed family relationships and moving out from there. And it’s something learned over decades, it’s not just a given, an instinct.
Science tries to understand the brains of different species in terms of the ratio of brain size to body, and guess who comes out top when you do that? Humans. Well, apart from one species of tree shrew. It is in the opening sentence on the human brain in Wikipedia. So I’m suspicious of that method, I can see no reason for it apart from a clumsy attempt to confirm what must seem like common sense to many people, namely that humans are more intelligent than all other species. And the tree shrew confirms that for me, it’s like a joke thrown into human hubris.
And then I got thinking about the elephants that grew up without the older ones around, and how they spend their whole lives not knowing basic social things. And it made me think of racehorses and boarding schools.
I think it’s rare these days for humans to be fully socialised in the way of elephants in their natural state. It is a Cancerian quality. I think there are grounds for ascribing that sign to elephants.