By Rich Lowry
There’s a charming myth that the 18th-century poet Alexander Pope said, “The proper study of mankind is man, but when one regards the elephant, one wonders.”
One wonders particularly after reading an extraordinary essay by Caitrin Nicol in the journal The New Atlantis. She makes a powerful case for the moral status of elephants, a case that is especially poignant when the creatures are faced with the prospect of utter destruction. Only 500,000 or a little more still roam the Earth, and poachers slaughter tens of thousands a year.
Elephants aren’t just gentle giants, but complex and intelligent ones. They are intensely social, with bands of females staying together for life and assisting one another in giving birth and raising their young. They communicate vocally — including with sounds inaudible to humans — and seismically through the ground. They weep.
The phrase “an elephant never forgets” is such a cliché that we neglect its foundation in the creature’s truly astonishing memory. “This is attested to,” Nicol writes, “by outward indicators ranging from the practical — a matriarch’s recollection of a locale, critical to leading her family to food and water — to the passionate — grudges that are held against specific people or types of people for decades or even generations, or fierce affection for a long-lost friend.”
Nicol notes an essay by the philosopher of biology Hans Jonas discussing three uniquely human qualities, and sets out how elephants arguably share each one.
They make and use tools. Elephants clean their ears with clumps of grass. In Asia, when collared by bells, they can plug the bells with mud to stealthily steal bananas. In one recorded instance, when confronted with an electric fence, elephants followed the current around to the generator, destroyed it and made their escape. More....