Summary of Our Improbable Universe
Chapter 9: Elephant Spirit
The harsh conditions that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs favored warm blooded beings that nurtured their young. The birds and the mammals therefore inherited the earth. In varying degrees their nurturing goes well beyond the provision of food. It includes teaching the young how to find food , how to avoid being someone else's food, and how to be a particular species in a social sense. The combination of instincts and learned behaviors of both the individuals and groups is the total psychic being of these modern animals. This totality is what I call "Spirit". It is both tangible and intangible. Depending on the species and the individual, nature and nurture have varying contributions to the psychic essence of these advanced beings.
This dichotomy is well illustrated by the elephant. Depending on the circumstances and the animal, its behaviors will be dominated by passions or thoughtful application of experience and culture. It has the largest brain of any land animal. Even though herbivores are not noted for their mental powers, many naturalists consider it to be one of the most intelligent animals. Zoo keepers consider it to be one of the most dangerous because of its sudden shifts in mode. It is also among the longest lived of animals. Usually it takes sixty years for its sixth set of teeth to wear out and then it dies. Its long life is matched by the length of time that it requires to reach various stages of maturity. As with humans, sexual maturity begins after at least a decade of life. Also as with humans a great deal of learning and experience is required before they reach the full flowering of their being.
This learning occurs within the context of the family group of about ten animals. This kinship group is led by a matriarch who is the oldest female. The survival of the family depends on her decisions. She must use her wisdom and instincts to guide her family to food and water. In times of danger it is up to her to organize a defense or to lead a retreat. The younger elephants learn how to assume this roll from experience, example and direct communication. The elephant uses a very large repertoire of signals to transmit communications. Scent, sight and sound are combined in many complex ways to create rich emotional and factual messages.
Even though the elephant does not possess the verbal abilities of modern humans, its rich social life mirrors our own. The numerous parallels that exist between our reality and that of the elephant are illustrated in this chapter by describing a period of time in the life of a single elephant family. This description synopsizes that of Cynthia Moss in Echo of the Elephants ( William Morrow and Company, New York, 1992). This story is a real life account of a family that was led by a matriarch named Echo. Her story and those of her family are touching to us because we have so much in common. However there is no effort to anthropomorphize the elephant in this account. On the contrary, these stories are meant to show the richness of the spirit of the elephant in its own right. It is meant to show that humans do not possess a monopoly on the ability to pass their being from generation to generation on a psychic level as well as a genetic level.
Like ourselves, elephants have evolved their biological and psychological essence over tens of millions of years. They have acquired many traits that we find admirable and some that are not so appealing. The two kinds of elephants that remain today are the sole survivors on a family tree that had six hundred branches. Their being was forged by the life and death struggles of countless animals over countless generations. If humans can't see fit to allow them a toe hold on existence in this century, we will have committed an unspeakable genocide. Our descendents will mourn the loss of the elephant and will consider us to have been greedy barbarians.