Mind Matters News and Analysis on Natural and Artificial Intelligence
Herd of African elephants in National Park, Uganda
Herd of African elephants in National Park, Uganda
African elephants in National Park, Uganda/dvrcan, Adobe Stock

Elephants Who Fly — or Become “Persons” — Are Magic

Okay, it's impossible. But then why do thinkers who disbelieve the one believe the other?

For decades, researchers were transfixed with the idea of humanizing great apes by raising them among humans and teaching them language. Emerging from the ruins and recriminations of the collapse, philosophy prof Don Ross has a new idea: Let’s start with elephants instead.

The myth of the “talking animal,” far from receding into the ancient mists from which it sprung, never dies, as a recent essay at Aeon by a philosophy professor shows. The myth answers needs that cannot, perhaps, be realized in the real world but cannot die either:

We know that elephants are more social – and far more intelligent – than cows. But the comparison goes far beyond the question of intelligence and alertness. I believe it’s possible that elephants have all the cognitive and emotional capacities it takes to be persons. I’m not claiming they belong to the species Homo sapiens, obviously: rather, I mean they might have the potential to deserve the label ‘person’ in recognition of their particular status or identity. Along with many philosophers, I think that being a person involves something different to being a living organism with human DNA.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that elephants currently express the full range of personal and creative capacities that humans do. But I suspect all that’s missing are certain informational and institutional structures, along with the motivations to innovate upon them. In humans, we know what those structures look like: they are the books, movies, museums and laws that manifest in the world what otherwise exists only in our heads. It might be that there’s a lot going on in the heads of elephants, but they just haven’t been moved to externalise and store it in the environment the way we have.

Don Ross, “The elephant as a person” at Aeon

But wait. Why haven’t elephants been so moved? This is like saying dogs don’t wear shoes on salty pavement because they haven’t been moved to make them. In short, it depends on a grammatical equivocation around the origin of the ideas themselves.

Consider the sentence itself:

“It might be that there’s a lot going on in the heads of elephants, but they just haven’t been moved to externalise and store it in the environment the way we have.” (from the text above)

Now let’s try the sentence again, this time with a life form about which more of us know much more:

“It might be that there’s a lot going on in the heads of dogs, but they just haven’t been moved to externalise and store it in the environment the way we have.” (a single word alteration from the text above)

Dogs walking on salted pavement would be better off with shoes. But their minds don’t encompass the idea of making shoes. Some may argue that that’s just because they don’t have hands. However, the dogs don’t take humans’ shoes and try to wear them; they take them and chew them to pieces. Most likely, dogs don’t see the point of shoes because shoes involve a number of abstractions that they can’t manage.

Ross acknowledges this obvious, general objection to his “arresting speculation” as follows:

Some theorists argue as follows: if our nearest living relatives [apes] aren’t naturally prepared for language, then this is a good basis for conjecturing that no nonhumans are. In turn, this suggests that only humans can be persons.

Don Ross, “The elephant as a person” at Aeon

However, he says, the objection ignores convergent evolution, where quite different life forms develop the same solution to their problems. For example, insects, birds, and bats all developed flight, in different ways.

But wait. While convergence in nature is real, it accounts for existing, not merely speculated, facts. The bird did not teach the bee or the bat to fly. The bee and the bat just flew, along with the bird; students of evolution describe that fact as convergent evolution.

There is no evidence that a convergence between human and elephant intellect is happening elsewhere than in the vast, non-spatial, and minimally-chartable world of the human imagination.

Ross and many other well-meaning people have simply decided that elephants must be able to think like humans, possibly in part for the same reasons that our primeval ancestors believed in wise owls and talking trees: It hurts to be alone.

A trendy approach to keeping the myth alive is to define human abilities in ways that invite comparison with animal behavior. One new buzzword is “hypersociality”:

The most important dimension on which hominins split off from other apes was in adopting hypersociality: that is, in developing brains that are specially adapted to coordinating thoughts and actions with others. The current scientific consensus is that this hypersociality coevolved with language. So we shouldn’t be surprised that apes, who are social but not hypersocial, don’t have brains that are prepared for language. They might be smart enough to perform the kinds of mental computations it takes to use language, but they won’t necessarily be motivated to do so. They have not evolved in ways that incline them to share and contrast general views of the world. However, evolution has created hypersociality convergently, in branches of the tree of life that are further from our own than those occupied by chimps and gorillas.

Don Ross, “The elephant as a person” at Aeon

Readers who are used to hearing how sociable apes are and how much their groups resemble human societies will be surprised to learn suddenly of the apes’ deficiency in comparison with elephants. But that is the nature of myths; they suddenly switch gods, kings, and heroes, as needed.

Another inventive tactic for such myths is to pose an impossible challenge but then treat it as if it were a possible one. For example, with respect to the belief that elephants have a language like humans, we read,

Most scientists, while acknowledging that elephants communicate, still doubt that the semantics of their messages are based on syntax. The majority of researchers have similar doubts about parrots, toothed whales and the other species that possess both hypersociality and enough variance in acoustic signalling to support syntax in principle. However, we can’t have justified opinions on the subject of possible nonhuman languages until we have made a serious, realistic effort to decode their possible grammatical rules, and their other deep structures. This is a demanding challenge and, until very recently, we simply haven’t had the tools to try.

Don Ross, “The elephant as a person” at Aeon

Ah, and then we read,

A database of elephant recordings is now starting to accumulate in the research community. It attempts to capture acoustic, visual and tactile signals, matched to behavioural observations. But the problem of interpreting these data is vastly more formidable than decoding encrypted human text or vocal messages. If elephant communication has syntax, and if this syntax relies on cross-channel modulation, we shouldn’t expect the rules of elephant grammar to map on to the syntactic categories of any human language. Elephants inhabit deeply different lifeworlds from humans, have different hierarchies of motivation, and make different perceptual discriminations. And, except in the crudest terms, we don’t know much about what elephants might want to say to one another.

Don Ross, “The elephant as a person” at Aeon

Maybe. But maybe—reader, is it possible?—elephants are not like those elite space aliens who communicate such highly complex thoughts that humble humans cannot decipher their language. Maybe elephants just do not want or need to say anything much to each other.

Dr. Ross professes a sort of faith in Ockham’s Razor (a science decision-making principle by which the simplest explanation that accounts for all the evidence is the correct one): “It’s important to raise a caveat at this point. Scientific rigour demands that we consider whether there are more frugal explanations for complex behaviour – explanations that don’t involve positing new capacities such as language. ”

But his commitment to the dread Razor seems, at best, half-hearted. And, in fairness, his audience does not require any such commitment of him; indeed, they might see it as a betrayal of their key principle, that “science shows that” man is just an unexceptional animal.

That is probably just what science is good for, in the view of many of them. Otherwise, why would they even be interested in this sort of research?

Predictably, Dr. Ross abandons the Razor in a classic appeal to artificial intelligence (AI) to go where man cannot:

New machine-learning techniques, which can identify otherwise hidden patterns in data, could yield breakthroughs. But before we get this decoding mission off the ground, we have no empirical basis to reject the hypothesis that elephants use language. At this stage, a flat-out rejection of the possibility of elephant language is no less rash than naïve acceptance.

Don Ross, “The elephant as a person” at Aeon

It’s hard to be sure of much these days but here is a near-certainty: If the AI detects no significant patterns, Dr. Ross and his supporters will not consider the possibility that the reason is that there are none. We will be told rather that we need more powerful, more sophisticated AI. Of course, building a bigger data cruncher is much easier than ridding oneself of a romantic but unsupportable old idea.

Dr. Ross and a colleague propose a research project: with “a group of semi-wild, female elephants in South Africa” to “test the plausibility” of their idea. Okay. But do we really expect them to come back and say that, from their research, elephants are unusually intelligent among grazing life forms but that they show no evidence of the type of mental capacities that enable abstract thought?

Put another way: If science doesn’t really show that humans are just unexceptional animals, many people today will think that someone had better have a talk with science about the way it goes about its business.

The magician’s hat must always have a rabbit in it somewhere.


See also: Researchers: Apes are just like us. And we’re not doing the right things to make them start behaving that way… In 2011, we were told in Smithsonian Magazine, “‘Talking’ apes are not just the stuff of science fiction; scientists have taught many apes to use some semblance of language.” Have they? If so, why has it all subsided? What happened?

Does social ability distinguish human intelligence from that of apes? Not altogether, of course, but it plays a bigger role than we sometimes assume

Crows can be as smart as apes

Scientists clash over why octopuses are smart. New findings show, the brainy seafood breaks all the rules about why some life forms are smart. For many years, we’ve been trying to understand why the octopus is uniquely smart among cephalopods. Research answers some questions only to raise others, as a recent controversy shows.

Is the octopus a “second genesis of intelligence?” Can its strange powers provide insights for robotics or the human mind?

Yes, even lizards can be smart. If you catch them at the right time. But can we give machines what the lizard has by nature?


Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Ottawa, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she has published two books on the topic: Faith@Science and By Design or by Chance? She has written for publications such as The Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail, and Canadian Living. She is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist'€™s Case for the Existence of the Soul. She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Elephants Who Fly — or Become “Persons” — Are Magic