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.

To the Tower

A recent article in The Independent shows once again how deep our human need of magic can be. The Tower of London, among the oldest buildings in the city, and often considered the most haunted, was apparently protected by magic. Archaeologists have discovered ritual marks on the support timbers of the representative of the Queen’s residence that they believe were intended to keep the devil out. Given that building has been around for a few hundred years, that’s really not all that surprising. The amazing aspect, at least to me, is that the signs are a rare admission on the part of those in power that they are occasionally not in charge. In any case, now that Halloween is in the air, it seems appropriate to think about how even the most rich and powerful aren’t secure from spiritual anxieties. It’s no wonder that bishops were so powerful, back in the day.


Since I’m writing a paper that discusses grimoires, magic has been on my mind lately. Anyone who follows the books I post on either this blog or Goodreads might easily discern that. The concern that Medieval people had with witches was their supposed ability to work magic. Ironically, historians of science are now suggesting that the study of magic may have led to what we now think of as science. In order to manipulate the physical world, you have to understand how that world works. Magic might have had some benefits for society after all. And we are still prone to magical thinking. It is deeply embedded in the human psyche. Magic, like miracles, can be fortuitous, but the prudent know better than ever to count upon them.

The Tower of London was the, or one of the, castle(s) of the city. Political prisoners were held there and often left with their heads in separate compartments. Even a regular tour of the grounds will include references to ghosts. A city as large and as sophisticated as London still can’t escape the past. The hex marks found by archaeologists may date from the early modern period—the time of the Reformation and thereabouts—but the human mind has not much changed since then. While we may not put secret marks on our buildings any more, we still instill them with a sense of magic. And people move out of haunted houses so often that some states have requirements to reveal troubling histories of properties before someone decides to buy. We are a society enamored of technology and future progress, and yet we stop and wonder when Halloween is in the air.

Prehistoric Steps

Britain has always had a share in the great events of the past (speaking strictly from a western hemisphere point of view). Not only did the ten “lost tribes” of Israel end up there (according to some, with apologies to Joseph Smith), but young Jesus traveled there with Joseph of Arimathea (according to others, with no apologies). While these stories are obviously non-historical, Britain does have an illustrious heritage that has left Stonehenge and the Cerne Abbas giant in its wake. It is thrilling to read, then, that fossilized footprints from some 850,000 years ago were recently discovered. Coastal erosion, similar to the event that revealed Skara Brae to the world, uncovered the footprints for a short time in Happisburgh, near Norfolk. About 50 footprints were discovered, according to The Independent, with a group comprised of women, men, and children. They were walking alongside a stream, apparently looking for the Pleistocene version of carry-out fish-n-chips at least 844,000 years before Adam and Eve.

The British landscape boasts an ebullient antiquity. Our years spent in the British Isles involved exploring everything from Lanyon Quoit in Cornwall to the Ring of Brodgar on Mainland, Orkney with our friends. It is a land where the past lives on into the present. No wonder some speculated that the biblical past made its way here as well. At least now we know that some very early humans did as well. Homo antecessor, the makers of the prints, visited a Britain replete with elephants, hippopotami, rhinoceri, and hyenas. It is speculated that they may have domiciled on off-shore islands to keep safe from the predators that roamed pre-Roman England. One thing we know for certain about people is that they do get around.

Chirotherium storetonense  trackway, photo credit: Ballista

Chirotherium storetonense trackway, photo credit: Ballista

Homo antecessor is an extinct species. Many of the hominids that contributed in some way to the possibility of our existence are long gone, creating endless headaches for scriptural literalists. Their lives, as The Independent speculates, may have involved being preyed upon by large predators and the constant search for food. They also liked to walk on the beach. I wonder how far they had come on the road to religious belief. Constant fear of predation must surely have played into it. We don’t know how far back the evolutionary chain religion goes, but we do know that it is a profoundly human outlook. You can’t stand beneath the towering Neolithic menhirs of the Ring of Brodgar and not feel it. Sometimes a walk along the shore is all it takes.