What is it like to be… an elephant? Nobody knows, but Charles Foster makes an educated guess here. Very rarely can you read such a beautiful blend of poetry and philosophy, such a clean exercise of speculation and empathy as it is testing our ability to inhabit other sentient being’s lives, such a balanced criticism of our arrogance and narrow-mindedness. A delicious read!
As an elephant, you’d have a mind. You would, no doubt at all, be conscious. All the evidence agrees. None – absolutely none – disagrees. You’d have a sense of yourself as distinct from other things. (…)
Indeed, it’s a mistake to assume that in order to have a mind one has to have a mind that is like human minds. So let’s just say that, according to the evidence, it’s not obviously ridiculous to invite you, the human, to imagine yourself as an elephant. (…)
We can be cautiously Beatrix-Pottery with elephants. When the temporal glands near their eyes stream in circumstances that, for us, would be emotional, they’re crying. When a bereaved elephant mother carries her dead baby round on her tusks, or trails miserably behind the herd for weeks, her head hanging down, she’s grieving. When other elephants sit for hours around the body of a dead elephant, they’re mourning. When they cover an elephant corpse with soil or vegetation, or move elephant bones, they’re being reverential. When they cover a dead human, or build a protective wall of sticks around a wounded human, they’re showing an empathic acknowledgment of our shared destiny that we’d do well to learn. These, dear reductionists, are, as you would put it, the most parsimonious hypotheses.
Perhaps one of the reasons we’re so keen to deny non-human creatures minds, consciousness and personhood is that, if they’re people, they’re embarrassingly better people than we are. They build better communities; they live at peace with themselves and aren’t, unlike us, actively psychopathic towards other species. They know, and take account of, a great deal more information about the natural world than we do.
Charles Foster is the author of “Being a Beast, Adventures Across the Species Divide.” In his article for The Guardian, he also builds on Carl Safina’s “Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel.”
Featured Image: The Asian Elephant and Conservation Project, Yod Yeam #069