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Wednesday, November 1, 2006

The Humanity of Elephants

posted by on November 1 at 11:17 AM

Last night, over drinks, in a bar, The Rosebud, whose atmosphere was warmed by pre-bebop piano jazz, a poet, Shannon Borg, informed me of a strange experiment that proved something that’s so incredible it changed my whole understanding of the largest land mammal. Scientists painted a white mark on an elephant’s shoulder (or thereabouts) and placed the big beast in front of a big mirror. What happened? The elephant stared at itself for a moment and then with its trunk tried to wipe off or figure out what the mark was doing on its shoulder. Meaning, instead of reaching for the mark in its reflection (what a dumb animal would do), it reached for the mark on its actual self. Meaning, the elephant knew that it was looking at an image of itself. Meaning, the elephant was aware of itself. The conclusion:

Elephants can recognize themselves in a mirror, joining humans… as animals that possess…self-awareness

This has tremendous implications for human society because, by definition, what separates us from almost all other animals is nothing else but self-consciousness, self-awareness, awareness of our individuality. If elephants have this same power of self-recognition then killing one is the same as killing a human being. And it doesn’t stop there: If an elephant kills a human being, stomps him/her to dust and death, then it should be charged with murder and face the judgment of our law system. We must now make room on death row for such elephants (as well as apes and dolphins, as they also possess self-awareness).

The minute you know who you are is the minute you know what you are doing. Elephants, welcome to humanity.

RSS icon Comments


your logic is Magnificent, charles.

Posted by cienna | November 1, 2006 11:26 AM

The New York Times magazine had a cover story a few weeks ago about how human incursion has caused serious problems in elephant society and in individual elephant's behavior. We're making them crazy.

Posted by Tone | November 1, 2006 11:32 AM

bonobos, common chimps, and sometimes dolphins. all narcissistic fools like us.

Posted by annie | November 1, 2006 11:33 AM

I thought what separated human beings from all other animals was language, not self-awareness.

Posted by Eli Sanders | November 1, 2006 11:45 AM

The characteristic that supposedly separates humans from animals has been "defined up" as animals have been found to meet every single one of the previous criteria. Once upon a time it was "tool use," but then someone observed animals doing that. Also, "language" but it appears certain animals may have some form of that as well (and if course there is Koko.) "Self awareness" seemed like a safe bet because it is notoriously difficult to perceive in others. And now these damn elephants and their mirror!

Back to the drawing board.

Posted by flamingbanjo | November 1, 2006 11:46 AM

Elephants also break into Indian villages and steal the homemade booze, getting liquored and then going on rampages. They're more like us than you think.

Posted by Gitai | November 1, 2006 11:49 AM

Actually, the experiment was a little more involved than what was described to you Charles, but that was indeed the result for one of the three elephants tested.

However, your speculation begs the question: if an elephant stomps a dolphin to death, is that murder?

Posted by COMTE | November 1, 2006 12:00 PM

Language? Try Kanzi.
Prepare to be amazed.

Posted by Laurence Ballard | November 1, 2006 12:07 PM

To me, it's not a question of any particular animal being on a par with us. All animals are on a par with us, we just happen to have a more potent combination of brains and opposing thumbs. Hence, we rule like giants over this earth. But make no mistake; there is no moral grounding in our rule. We have no "right," morally speaking, to dominate every other species on the planet like we do. However, as an animal like any other, we have the natural inclination to be as successful as possible, species-wise. We use whatever we have at our disposal to dominate our food chain, and by extension our environment. And dominate we have.

We need to stop worrying about which particular animals are on the same playing field with us, and realize that there IS no playing field. The game is long-since won. Humans have been victorious in the game of evolution. The hard part is deciding what to do now. Our victory means we are now in charge. We are the new Gods. The world is now whatever we collectively make it. Our power is unprecedented in the history of all non-alien life.

Posted by Matthew | November 1, 2006 12:07 PM

"I thought what separated human beings from all other animals was language, not self-awareness."

No. Apes, for example, can be taught sign language, and they can generate original sentences with the words they've learned. There are plenty of aphasiac human beings who can't use language but can reason just fine.

What separates us from animals can't be summed up in one or two words, and it varies from animal to animal.

Posted by Sean | November 1, 2006 12:23 PM

When I put peanut butter on a dog's nose and put him in front of a mirror, he licks the peanut butter off!

Posted by him | November 1, 2006 12:25 PM

It's just bizarre that language is now defined so tightly. Instead of just communicating very specific things, it now has to be "expressing an opinion or asking a question" according to the guy in the Kanzi article. So when I describe something, I'm not using language? And then of course Kanzi apparently expresses an opinion in the next paragrah. I mean, call it a whole different level of intelligence that we have, of course, but it just seems ridiculous in the face of so much evidence to say they can't use language

Posted by Jennifer | November 1, 2006 12:34 PM

My dog doesn't attack his mirror image like he would attack another dog that met him eye to eye. He walks by a huge mirror many times a day and ignores his relection. I used to have a beta fish that would spend hours trying o fight with his reflection if I left his dish in front of a mirror. Maybe this only proves that dogs are smarter than fish, or that they don't rely on eyesight as much as their other senses.

Posted by Amy | November 1, 2006 12:35 PM


A human being is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation's relating itself to itself in the relation; the self is not the relation but is the relation's relating itself to itself. A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity, in short, a synthesis. A synthesis is a relation between two. Considered in this way a human being is still not a self.... In the relation between two, the relation is the third as a negative unity, and the two relate to the relation and in the relation to the relation; thus under the qualification of the psychical the relation between the psychical and the physical is a relation. If, however, the relation relates itself to itself, this relation is the positive third, and this is the self (p. 13).
so does the account of the elephant exibit a true synthesis or is it missing the meta-relation that creates "spirit"?

Posted by charles | November 1, 2006 12:38 PM


That was actually factored into the elephant experiment: the researchers placed two "X"'s on the elephants, one visible, the other using a non-visible substance, because they wanted to rule out the possibility the elephants might respond to the smell of the substance rather than to its appearance. None of the three elephants tested responded in any way to the "invisible" "X"'s.

Posted by COMTE | November 1, 2006 1:00 PM

looks like we'll have to call all fishermen murderers for snaring dolphins, and remember every time we go to the circus that it's really evil for enslaving the elephants.

Posted by Sam | November 1, 2006 1:07 PM

Yes: murderous elephants must be put on death row. Then the homicidal homo sapiens will find out how badass they are: aren’t.

Posted by bc | November 1, 2006 1:31 PM

I once saw some guy trying to make out with himself in a wall mirror at Neighbours. Of course, he sank to the floor and passed out shortly thereafter.

Posted by Rachael V | November 1, 2006 4:06 PM

That NY Times article referred to is here:

If you are at all interested in this subject, this is really a compelling read about the societal breakdown of elephants and why it is happening. If the idea that an elephant can recognize itself in a mirror surprises you then this article will trip you out.

Posted by Kirsten | November 1, 2006 4:39 PM

Animals: Get a fucking job. It's your only hope.

Posted by Lloyd Clydesdale | November 1, 2006 5:33 PM

I thought the thing that seperated humans from animals is that we have nuclear weapons. "Self-awareness", my [i]foot![/i]

Posted by treacle | November 1, 2006 6:22 PM

Oh, and Kanzi is so three thousand miles away. Try Washoe at Central Washington University.

Posted by annie | November 2, 2006 9:10 AM

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