Antony recently said on his choices for Meltdown, "I want to create a kind of paradise. I want to walk through that forest and see and hear the hardcore beauty and strength in art and music that makes sense to me. The weather is changing and everybody knows it. I want to participate What is my relationship and responsibility to the world around me? Frontier expressions of emotion and beauty can be fantastic tools with which to enter that discussion."
Readers fail when they allowthemselves to believe the old mantra that fiction is the thing you relate toand writers the amenable people you seek out when you want to have your ownversion of the world confirmed and reinforced.
This framework goes back to Descartes, whose dualistic universe of absolute mind at one end and absolute matter at the other admitted nothing in between. Indeed, Descartes reasoned that since animals are not rational, they are not conscious, and since they are not conscious, they cannot even be aware of pain; their piteous howls during the horrible experiments on them were to him mere reflex, the unfelt expression of material reactions .
f the core elements of life, sensation, and emotion are so widely distributed as to encompass a huge swath of the animal kingdom, what the moral difference between a species with higher capabilities and one without? In his thoughtful 1985 essay “,” the philosopher of biology Hans Jonas takes up three activities attributed solely to humans and explores their deeper implications. As it happens, given what we know today, elephants arguably meet all three tests. Jonas’s standard is worth revisiting in this light — not to diminish its significance for , but to consider what it means for the one other animal, at least, that might share it.
On one count, elephants fail the tool test, for they do not make artifacts they then reuse (and obviously have not developed the kind of technology that has completely unleveled the odds in our efforts to hunt or trap or train them or encroach upon their habitat). However, between them and their environment, such as sticks to scratch between their toes and remove bugs from other areas, or twisted clumps of grass like Q-tips to clean inside their ears or whisks to swat at flies. As J. H. Williams recounts in (1950), work elephants in Asia collared with bells have been known to plug up the bells with mud so that they can go and steal bananas in the middle of the night unnoticed — a purposeful modification of someone else’s tool. Elephants dig holes for water, cover them with plugs of bark and grass, and return later to their secret stash. Elephants learn by trial and error what sorts of materials do and do not shock them in their efforts to break through electric fences — and in at least one recorded instance (described in Lawrence Anthony’s ), followed the buzzing of the fence all the way around to its origin, the generator, which, having been stomped to smithereens, allowed them to untwine the fence and go their merry way.
Even bare, bleached old elephant bones will stop a group if they have not seen them before. It is so predictable that filmmakers have been able to get shots of elephants inspecting skeletons by bringing the bones from one place and putting them in a new spot near an elephant pathway or a water hole. Inevitably the living elephants will feel and move the bones around, sometimes picking them up and carrying them away for quite some distance before dropping them. It is a haunting and touching sight and I have no idea why they do it.
or those who find this type of evidence sentimentalized, dubiously interpretable, or otherwise unsatisfactory, there are various nice solid measurements that provide useful but crude indicators of elephants’ relative intelligence. At birth, an elephant brain is about a third its adult size. A human brain at birth is a quarter its adult size, whereas for chimps it is half and for most mammals the figure is more like 90 percent. A greater span of growth outside the womb like this accompanies a more important role that nurture and learned skills play in the animal’s maturation — as infants they are more helpless and dependent than an average mammal, but as adults there will be much more that they can do. The elephant brain is also notable for its high level of spindle neurons (associated with sociability), very large temporal lobes and hippocampus (the primary seat of memory processing), and convoluted neocortex (linked to general cognitive complexity, common to other intelligent species such as dolphins and higher-order primates).
he second reason for the taboo is that in modern Western science, the whole concept of life is so mechanical that, if you look closely, not even people are supposed to be anthropomorphized. Emotional, holistic terms such as , , and have no place in an impoverished language of chemical transactions at the micro level and selection pressures at the macro. Not that chemical transactions and selection pressures are not essential influences, because of course they are — but from our current knowledge of them, they are acutely inadequate to describing the subtleties of lived experience.
But when you ask what these things mean , as translated into capabilities and actions, you find yourself back in the mushy territory of observing quasi-mythical or very-human-seeming behavior and trying to analyze its significance from the outside. And in the category of things you might be prone to romanticize, at the very top there is a faculty that also tops the list of features supposed to distinguish man from animal — and that could, if properly deciphered, unlock the rest of elephant experience for us in a way nothing else will. “The Romans fancied that the elephants had reason, and understood the language of men, though they could not answer them,” the nineteenth-century historian John Ranking . The Romans were not alone. What elephants may be lacking most of all is not language but the Rosetta Stone to prove they have it and clue us in to what on God’s green earth they’re talking about all the time.
To respond to the ideal writer takes an ideal reader, the type ofreader who is open enough to allow into their own mind a picture of humanconsciousness radically different from their own asto be almost offensive to reason.
However, this sort of thing does not necessarily rise to the level considered worthy of the label “language” — though determining where that level should be is hard to say. Even taking into account the impressiveness of all these forms of interchange, and the fact that there is much about them yet to be discovered and explained, we risk defining the term out of its useful meaning if we stretch it to encompass so much that human (or humanlike) powers of complex abstract discourse cease to be recognizably extraordinary.