Current AffairsFamily/CommunicationReflectionApril 13, 20145Sharing The Planet

Are we really the smartest creatures on earth?

I read the most amaz­ing arti­cle recent­ly, about ele­phants’ abil­i­ty to rec­og­nize and react appro­pri­ate­ly to human voice and lan­guage.  In Kenya, ele­phants gen­er­al­ly encounter peo­ple from one of two eth­nic groups: Maa­sai or Kam­ba.  The Kam­ba tend not to pose a dan­ger to the ele­phants — while the Maa­sai often clash with the ele­phants over land and water rights.

Researchers had ele­phants lis­ten to record­ed voic­es of adult Maa­sai or Kam­ba males say­ing, in their own lan­guage, “Look, look over there, a group of ele­phants is com­ing!” They also record­ed Maa­sai females and chil­dren say­ing the same thing. Then they played the record­ing for fam­i­ly group of 58 ele­phants.  Here’s what happened:

When researchers played a Maa­sai male voice, ele­phants imme­di­ate­ly start­ed sniff­ing the air for dan­ger and retreat­ed into a bunched, defen­sive for­ma­tion. By con­trast, the ele­phants were unfazed by the Kam­ba male voice. Fur­ther, ele­phants didn’t seem to mind the voic­es of Maa­sai women and children.

Even when researchers re-syn­the­sized the Maa­sai male voice so it resem­bled a female’s, the ele­phants still rec­og­nized it was male and act­ed defen­sive­ly. The results indi­cate that ele­phants can pick up even the sub­tlest vocal cues to assess the lev­el of a threat.

Many stud­ies besides this one have shown that ele­phants are extreme­ly intel­li­gent: among oth­er things, it seems they expe­ri­ence a sub­tle and broad vari­ety of emo­tions, includ­ing joy, play­ful­ness, sad­ness and grief. They can learn new facts and behav­iors, mim­ic sounds, self-med­icate, demon­strate a sense of humor, cre­ate art (that is, do activ­i­ties that seem to have only an artis­tic or expres­sive pur­pose), use tools to com­plete tasks, and dis­play com­pas­sion and self-awareness.

This par­tic­u­lar study caught my atten­tion, though, because it demon­strates ele­phants’ abil­i­ty to dis­tin­guish between humans who are like­ly to be a threat to them and those who are not. In oth­er words, that they have the capa­bil­i­ty of trust­ing (or not trust­ing) humans based on pre­vi­ous expe­ri­ences they’ve had with humans of var­i­ous sorts.

Once I got past feel­ing sad that some humans  are a threat to these gen­tle, intel­li­gent crea­tures, it made me think about how casu­al­ly we assume our own supe­ri­or­i­ty to all oth­er intel­li­gences on the plan­et.  And how, as we spend more time get­ting curi­ous about high­ly intel­li­gent ani­mals like chim­panzees, dol­phins, ele­phants, and pigs, our assump­tions about our supe­ri­or­i­ty come into question.

Thank good­ness that the sci­en­tif­ic method, when prop­er­ly applied, does­n’t allow us to remain in com­fort­able igno­rance, our assump­tions unchal­lenged.  I look for­ward to the day when sci­en­tists dis­cov­er facts that demon­strate beyond doubt that these crea­tures with whom we share this orb have gifts and capa­bil­i­ties sur­pass­ing our own.

Until then, while I may not have proof, I sus­pect the ele­phants often pity us, and the dol­phins find us amusing. 


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