For-Profit Education
A Confucian Breakfast

The Life of Elephants

Jonathan B. Wight

This has been a summer of elephants.  First, I stumbled across Water for Elephants, an engaging story of a Depression-era circus and its bizarre characters, including Rosie the Elephant who experiences a metamorphosis of sorts.  This was made into an interesting movie with Reese Witherspoon. 

Then yesterday a wonderful and moving article appeared, courtesy of the Ethics and Public Policy Center’s journal New Atlantis journal.  In “Do Elephants Have Souls?” Caitrin Nicol explores the moral relationship between humans and large mammals. 

ElephantElephants prove to be a particularly troubling case, because on the surface they experience emotions—they cry tears in stressful situations, they hug, they do artwork, and females bond with other female family and friends for life.  Particularly moving is the story of two elephants reunited, having last been in a circus together two decades earlier. 

Nicol’s article deals with the problem of anthropomorphism, transferring onto animals human traits.  Biologists can come up with alternative evolutionary explanations for behavior that make everything instinctual, without conscious choice or mind.  Sometimes, Nicol argues, the simplest explanation for elephant behavior is the best: they really do feel emotions of fear, love, and so on that humans can also experience. 

Over the next century years we will continue to discover that humans have been telling themselves lies about animals.  It’s much easier that way to control and butcher them.  But lies eventually catch up with you.



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