Monday, November 04, 2013


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.
Ad Break: I offer skype astrology readings (£60 full reading, £40 for an update). Contact: BWGoddard1 (at)

And we have so many ways of not being socialised like that. People just being people together. When there are things to do, you do them. And when there aren’t, you’re just together, just being, kids included. In Tibetan religious ceremonies, you have kids running in and out, they are part of life. In the West, we try and control them in church, which is artificial. And we send them upstairs when we have our adult friends around. Well, probably more in the Protestant than in the Catholic countries.

And there is an over-emphasis on the opposite sign to Cancer, which is Capricorn, the demands of the world, the need to find your place in the world. And with racehorses they are taken from their mothers very young – I think they need years with them – and put in boxes and subject to training and pressure to perform, and soon that is all they know, and they become insecure when they’re not either performing or in their boxes.

And it’s the same with the private school system, at least in England, where kids are taken from Cancer aged 8 and put into Capricorn. So instead of gaining emotional security from family relationships – if the families are not too fucked up in the first place to do that properly – you learn to get it by proxy through performing, through exam grades and then professional achievement. The compensatory factor often makes people inflated. So it all gets twisted up, it’s a sort of brainwashing, even though some come out relatively unscathed, and that push to perform can for some be quite good despite everything else.

And you see it in middle age, these people who’ve probably done ‘well’ for themselves, they have money and professional and social status, but how many marriages have they been through, what sort of upbringing have the kids had? The primacy of that sort of togetherness has been lost and forgotten, in fact it comes to seem a bit icky and sticky. Even the women lose it, you can see them really wanting their kids away at boarding school so they can do what they want.  

But elephants are not icky and sticky, they know how to be together and they probably also know about all the hard work it takes, and in their case it is the matriarch who has to sort it all out.


TheDeepGoat said...

Brilliant article! I have often thought that 'hold on a minute', we have been told for so long we are the most intelligent species, but the more i think about it i do not think this is true. Maybe even compared to the likes of dolphins and elephants we are still in the nursery stage of development.I think we have reached a point...and whether we carry on to the next stages or not possibly depends on how we 'allow' evolution to 'alter us'.We went down a certain track..a left brained patriarchal track..and look where it the military/industrial the 'anti life flow' systems glued in the driver of the society train that is blind and yet drives on anyway.Maybe if we had remained in the matriarchal tribal way then we would have been more like dolphins and elephants are today...they are not making bombs and fighting wars..they are engaged in areas of experience probably few of us experience..that of massive intuitions and the like..dolphins and their sonar, the wide range of 'clicking' communications..i think we have the POTENTIAL to become more than we are..but its pretty obvious we are not there yet. but if we can imagine it, then it is possible, and many can imagine what an enlightened human could be..telepathic, whole, empathetic, a being in commune with all the other planetary species...ok i am going on a bit, but you can probably get my drift:)

Anonymous said...

thanks for a great read! i really agree with your thought process here!

natasha said...

Loved this article so much. Thank you.

I read a beautiful story in a Dalene Mathee book once about an elephant hunter in the Knysna forests probably around 1920ish. He had laid a trap for en elephant family who often came down a very steep forest path to drink from the pool below. The hunter waited. The elephant family came along - matriarch in front. They got to just before where the trap had been laid and suddenly stopped. Their trunks were swinging silently as they stood still for ages. And then they moved back up the path they had come. They could not turn around. The whole family had to take backwards steps up the path until they reached a flat area where they could turn and walk normally again. ... amazing wonderful beautiful creatures.

Anonymous said...

..and of course there's this famous story:

In 1986, Peter Davies was on holiday in Kenya after graduating from Northwestern University. On a hike through the bush, he came across a young bull elephant standing with one leg raised in the air. The elephant seemed distressed, so Peter approached it very carefully. He got down on one knee, inspected the elephants foot, and found a large piece of wood deeply embedded in it.

As carefully and as gently as he could, Peter worked the wood out with his knife, after which the elephant gingerly put down its foot. The elephant turned to face the man, and with a rather curious look on its face, stared at him for several tense moments. Peter stood frozen, thinking of nothing else but being trampled. Eventually the elephant trumpeted loudly, turned, and walked away.

Peter never forgot that elephant or the events of that day.

Twenty years later, Peter was walking through the Chicago Zoo with his teenage son. As they approached the elephant enclosure, one of the creatures turned and walked over to near where Peter and his son Cameron were standing. The large bull elephant stared at Peter, lifted its front foot off the ground, then put it down. The elephant did that several times then trumpeted loudly, all the while staring at the man.

Remembering the encounter in 1986, Peter could not help wondering if this was the same elephant. Peter summoned up his courage, climbed over the railing, and made his way into the enclosure. He walked right up to the elephant and stared back in wonder.

The elephant trumpeted again, wrapped its trunk around one of Peter legs and slammed him against the railing, killing him instantly.

Probably wasn't the same elephant.

Anonymous said...

The last post made me chuckle...Why is it that we humans need to anthropomorphize other life forms in order to make sense of them? I agree that elephants are an amazing life form, and value their beauty and obvious complexity of social organization and intelligence. Comparing them to us is another matter. I guess we do this in order to gain some insight or way of understanding into a totally different life form. Yes, of course, we share some commonalities like being mammalian...but to suppose more than that is again, hubris.

Anonymous said...

Hippocampus is not linked to emotion - it is linked to sense of smell and smell memory, in dolphins the hippocampus is tiny, very tiny - does it mean that they have poor memory? An elephant can remember things for 60 years? Fine, I can do it too... Also brain size alone is not important that much anymore - just look at mice, crows, jays and magpies...and generally humans have more neurons in the brain than elephants, look on Wikipedia

Anonymous said...

the hippocampus takes up to 0,7% of the total inner space of the elephant brain, in humans it is 0,5% - not a mind-boggling diference after all...the insular cortex which is linked to conciousness has relatively less convolutions than in humans.I agree however - they are awesome, but please do not exaggerate things.