An Elephant’s 100 Percent

When I walked out of that dissertation defense, still a little unsure whether I’d passed or not, I thought my testing days were over. My early memories of struggling with exams—I wrote that a sphere was a kind of weapon on one vocabulary test I recall—made me anxious for an end of the process. Hadn’t I proved myself time and time and time again? People are funny that way. We’re suspicious of those who pass. Are they really as smart as that, or have they learned to game the system? (Admittedly, with what’s going on in Washington these days doubts about intelligence have definitely earned their keep.) Tests, however, have become less common these days, at least in the fearful exam room context. Now we’re giving them to animals.

It has long been clear to me that animals are quite intelligent. When that mouse, cat, squirrel, or robin pauses in front of you, looks you in the eye, then decides its course of action, it’s clearly thinking. Of course, some animals are more on the GOP scale of intelligence, such as deer that bolt out in front of cars, while others—ironically including elephants—show up 45 in tests we assign. An article in The Independent describes how elephants are far smarter than we’ve given them credit for being. Jealousy, perhaps, makes the elephant’s own party withdraw protections from endangered species. We’ve got to be sure nobody shows us up. At least not while we’re on camera.

Animals have greater thinking abilities than we’ve been willing to admit. For being so highly evolved, we’re an awfully petty species. We don’t want to share our great accomplishments with others. We’ll call the amazing architecture of the bowerbird “instinct” rather than admit they can build homes better than many in the Appalachians can. We’ll kick over anthills rather than face the fact that a hive mind is a terrible thing to waste. We’ve known for decades, if not more, that all life is interconnected. Because we’ve got opposable thumbs and reasonable cranial capacity, we’re the best thing this planet could hope to evolve, so we tell ourselves. What has made us so insecure? Why do we find the prospect of animal intelligence so frightening? It’s terribly hard to give up the role of being lord and master, I guess. Or if we were to switch it to a classroom analogy, we always want to be the teacher, never the student. But after walking out of that dissertation defense twenty-five years ago I learned that the testing had only begun.

2 responses to “An Elephant’s 100 Percent

  1. Reblogged this on Talmidimblogging and commented:
    Great post…

    Like

  2. Jeremiah Andrews

    Hey Steve.
    It is a known fact that elephants feel deep emotions, just as humans do. The family units, the way parental elephants care for their young, and even more potent, is an elephants memory, and their ability to miss and mourn their dead fellows, probably more than a human reaction. Simians and apes think and feel as well.

    When I was much younger I worked at Miami Metro Zoo, and had learned signed language to communicate with one of our female chips who used to come out to her moat and talk with people who could do the same. It was miraculous to watch and know she was feeling and thinking just like I was.

    Animals are smart. It is the height of human arrogance to think that we are above them, when in reality, human can learn a great deal about life, if we observed our animals the same way. Dog owners have that gift, because we train our dogs in our own image, for human like responses.

    Jeremy

    Liked by 1 person

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