by Don Ross
Photo by Robert Postma
the necessary capacities for personhood...
We just need to help them acquire
the cognitive scaffolding...
It's obvious that they're aware of one another, but in a minimal kind of way. They tend to stay loosely clumped together as they graze, and they don't deliberately knock into other members of the herd.
Shouting gets their attention, but it tends to elicit a flickering inspection at most, which subsides into cud-munching indifference when they realize you represent neither a threat nor a treat.
Cows don't gauge how to respond to sights, sounds and smells by carefully studying the subtleties of one another's reactions (which is why they can startle each other into stampeding).
When you're with a herd
of cows, you're basically alone.
Elephants engage in low-frequency vocalization, most of which you can't hear, but you can certainly see its effects.
If you're fidgety, for example, all the adult elephants will notice and become uneasy. Typically they take their cues from their female leader, the matriarch. When you're with a herd of elephants, you're not alone at all; you're in a highly charged atmosphere, shimmering with presence and feeling.
To an outside observer,
elephants appear to have highly responsive minds, with their own
autonomous perspectives that yield only to careful, respectful
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:
Along with many
philosophers, I think that being a person involves something
different to being a living organism with human DNA.
In humans, we know what those structures look like:
It might be that there's
a lot going on in the heads of elephants, but they just haven't been
moved to externalize and store it in the environment the way we
The behavioral economics
experiments that a colleague and I are planning to run with a group
of semi-wild, female elephants in South Africa should begin to test
the plausibility of this arresting speculation.
As the philosopher Peter Singer has argued, human moral progress has historically consisted of the steady expansion of the circle of beings we regard as persons.
At present, many people treat elephants as objects of entertainment and sources of valuable ivory. Although the international ivory trade was banned in 1989, poaching is on the rise - and in 2017, the US president Donald Trump lifted the US ban on imports...
To harvest their tusks,
humans slaughter elephants at rates that, if they were persons,
would amount to genocide.
At several South African game reserves in the 1990s, rangers kept stumbling upon rhinoceros carcasses with gaping puncture wounds in the neck and shoulders. These rhinos were clearly not victims of poachers, because their horns were intact.
It took the authorities some time to identify the perpetrators:
In just one park, Pilanesberg, more than 40 rhinos died this way between 1992 and 1997. Their killers, like most humans who inflict violence, had troubled childhoods.
South African authorities had been doing regular elephant 'culls' for much of the 20th century, ostensibly to manage the elephants' impact on local ecosystems. They preferred not to leave any adult elephant witnesses, because the survivors often became hostile and dangerous.
The elephants also appeared to bear witness, in that they spread anxiety to others.
So it became common practice to shoot all the adults in a herd. Older male bulls were often targeted, as they had already enjoyed multiple opportunities to spread their genes. Baby elephants, meanwhile, were usually spared.
Thus, the culls created
hadn't had the chance
elephant social norms...
In females, this expressed itself in social withdrawal, neurotic habits, self-wounding, and dysfunctional parenting.
Male orphans, Bradshaw pointed out, labored under an additional burden. In normal conditions male elephants, upon reaching sexual maturity (c18 years), leave the herd of cows and calves to form bachelor groups, led by older, experienced bulls.
But due to the culling,
many male babies in Pilanesberg had been raised in reserves without
the benefit of this mentorship. Unsurprisingly, all the 18- to
22-year-old male rhino-killers during the 1990s had been orphaned in
Some of the culprits were shot. But the most effective measure taken by authorities was the introduction of older bull elephants, from other parks.
Almost immediately after
their arrival, the rhinos stopped being harassed and violated. Human
poachers were once again their main threat.
We might be tempted to imagine them imparting fatherly wisdom:
But there are at least two features of the 'wise lawmaker' story that could be regarded as implausibly anthropomorphic.
These possible explanations reveal two influential and related ideas about what it takes to be a person:
That gives us two hypotheses to consider in relation to elephants.
In the history of
ethology (the science of animal
behavior), these criteria are often run together. But it's important
to pry them apart, because it's key to understanding why I think
elephants might have the properties it takes to be basic sorts of
The key idea is that our personhood comes from our use of collective ideas about what deserves praise and blame in guiding our actions. That is, we conform to shared assignments of responsibility - reasons - for the consequences of what we do.
But this makes no sense
unless we suppose that reasons can take precedence over spontaneous,
unreflective responses, and can, at least sometimes, be effective
causes of our behavior.
Suppose that your supervisor harshly criticizes your work, making you feel angry and humiliated. When you interact with her, you will probably suppress or restrain your emotions, because you and your manager are both aware of the professional expectations that normally prevail.
But if you were drunk or tired, your observation of these norms might be unreliable. You'd have trouble, we might say, in interacting as a properly responsible person.
Similarly, an infant or
an adult with severe dementia might not be regarded as a 'full'
person, because they can't reliably attend to personal social
responsibilities. (In practice, societies often insist on granting
these people the legal protections and rights of persons, but under
the guardianship of others who are capable of exercising
To communicate collective reasons, it seems that one must be able to exchange symbols with two general characteristics.
This requires structures of meaning (semantics) that are based on rules for ordering signals (syntax).
When I refer to 'language' here, I mean a signaling system that involves displaced reference and syntax-based semantics...
Elephants who lack
direct experiences of their own
which groups of
humans to avoid...
To try and assess this, we ought to reflect on behavior that's hard to explain without displaced reference and abstract communication.
For example, in parts of eastern Africa, elephants are hunted by some communities (such as the Maasai), but not by others. Herds have learned both to distinguish between human languages, and to communicate these distinctions to other elephants.
In other words, elephants
who lack direct experiences with humans hunting them nonetheless
know which groups to avoid.
To take another example, it's only recently that Botswana has been safer for elephants than Zambia.
But elephants living on
the borderlands of those countries now travel rapidly by night when
they're in Zambia, hiding among the trees during the day to avoid
detection. Because the adults walk faster than their youngsters,
they leave them in the care of stay-behind minders on the Botswana
side of the border.
Applied to various species, this question has inspired a huge and passionately contested scientific debate. The possibility of nonhuman language has been investigated most extensively in our nearest living genetic relatives: chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas.
Apes cannot talk for the
basic reason that they lack suitably manipulable vocal tracts.
However, several well-known apes, including
Kanzi the bonobo and
Koko the gorilla, were taught to
use keyboards or sign-language expressions.
Such syntax as they have managed to use has been crude and simple, and limited to specific ranges of narrow conditions. Most importantly, it's not obvious that any ape has ever used language to do anything other than express a relatively immediate desire.
Neither Kanzi nor Koko showed inclination to just report on how they viewed the world for the sheer sake of it, something human children do spontaneously and prolifically. Nor is there a clear instance, despite dedicated efforts, of an ape choosing to do something because he or she recognized the social existence of a normative reason for it.
Thus, these studies offer
little hope for the possibility that we might use language to draw
nonhuman apes into human-style conversations about what kinds of
actions are good or bad, and why.
However, this logic ignores convergent evolution:
The closest living
relatives of birds are lizards; lizards cannot fly; but that doesn't
license an inference that no nonbirds can fly. Likewise, the fact
that our closest living relatives don't use language does not
justify the conclusion that no other creatures can.
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
Dogs meet the first criterion but not the second; many songbirds meet the second criterion but not the first.
There is a loose consensus among comparative psychologists that the zone of possibility for both criteria currently boils down to the following animals:
It's important to raise a caveat at this point.
Scientific rigor demands that we consider whether there are more frugal explanations for complex behavior - explanations that don't involve positing new capacities such as language.
For example, in the case of the reformed rhino-killers, part of the story certainly involved the young bulls' hormonal responses to the presence of the older males.
Also, communication by simple emotional contagion, without any use of language-like signaling, is common across a huge range of species.
I don't have the space to work through these alternatives, but the reader can consult my academic work to see why I don't think these accounts are sufficient to explain the startling range of elephant social coordination and learning.
It's becoming steadily
less controversial among scientists that some nonhuman animals,
including elephants, can at least send one another signals about
states of affairs that aren't under direct mutual observation - that
is, they can achieve displaced reference.
The majority of researchers have similar doubts about parrots, toothed whales and the other species that possess both hypersociality and enough variance in acoustic signaling 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
the rules of elephant grammar
to map on to the syntactic categories
of any human
(The familiar trumpeting might not involve enough acoustic variation to be useful for anything other than broadcasting urgent emotions such as fear and anger - but it's clearly used to communicate warnings.)
In addition, elephants have a range of standard trunk and head gestures that carry mutually understood signals.
Finally, they clearly
communicate information by touching one another in specific ways and
places. They have receptors for processing information from this
tactile probing - which, given their precision control and highly
labile trunk lips, supports fine discriminations.
That is, varying states in one channel (trunk vibrations) could introduce general but systematically related changes to the meanings of signals in another channel (say, trunk touches).
In the human symbol
system, for example, two identically shaped arrows can mean 'Turn!'
and 'Don't turn!' if they're modulated by a second code system in
which green means 'Go!' and red means 'Stop!'
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.
At this stage, a flat-out rejection of the possibility of elephant language is no less rash than naïve acceptance.
Consider again the Pilanesberg rhino-killers, who were ultimately reformed by the older males.
Perhaps they were simply emotionally inhibited from demonstrating violence by the perception of angry feelings, or just signs of dangerous hormonal arousal, in the dominant bulls. Something closer to effective norm-recognition must have been involved, however, if the youngsters inferred that they were expected to take steps to calm themselves down.
I refer to 'taking steps' because we have evidence of how elephants can reduce their own emotional excitement by touching their own faces with their trunks.
The fact that the young hooligans didn't gradually reduce their molestation of rhinos but abruptly stopped it after the arrival of the older bulls is highly suggestive that they recognized a generalized norm.
If that capacity could be
established, and if it were integrated with linguistic
communication, then I think we'd be right to say that elephants were
endowed with at least a basic form of personhood.
Among the most striking characteristics of humans is the way we've filled a constantly expanding range of niches - beginning with geographical niches, but extending to more abstract economic ones, in the sense of 'ways of making a living'.
We do this collectively, not individually; and innovation of norms is clearly essential both to coordinating collective exploration and to stabilizing the new institutions that maintaining novel niches requires.
By contrast, although
elephants inhabited a range of climates before our ancestors drove
them back into their African and South Asian redoubts, they all
sustain themselves in roughly the same way, and in the same way that
all their ancestors have done.
But elephants' economic limitations are compatible with an alternative hypothesis:
If this is true, perhaps
elephants' limited social-behavioral variation is based mainly on
limited motivation, rather than on limited intelligence or a
restricted ability to normatively regulate themselves.
to participate in lotteries:
the prizes are turnips, pumpkins
They are the basis of
experiments that I and another economist colleague, Glenn
Harrison of Georgia State University, are preparing to run with
a small group of elephants in South Africa.
We do this by giving human subjects sequences of pairs of lotteries and asking them to choose one from each pair. For example, one choice in a sequence of approximately 40 pairs might be between a 50 per cent chance of winning £20, and a 10 per cent chance of winning £100.
These choices aren't just hypothetical: subjects know that they'll play some of the lotteries they chose for real money. We design the sequences of choices in such a way that we can estimate how our subjects respond to different kinds of risks.
Furthermore, we can
mathematically combine these estimates with other properties we
measure, using additional experimental procedures, to create causal
models that explain how varying circumstances affect people's
approaches to taking chances.
These experiments won't require the elephants to be isolated in strange environments.
Food lotteries will
simply be put into their foraging space, along with visual cues that
convey information about the lotteries. We'll use variation in the
shapes of flags to tell them about probabilities, and different flag
shades to tell them about magnitudes of possible prizes.
The conditions involve no
stress or direct conditioning by humans, or indeed any structured
interaction between elephants and people beyond relaxed
I predict that we would then want to say that we'd found a limit on the extent to which elephants are persons so far, but these limits appear to be circumstantial rather than fixed. This prediction is grounded in the discovery that normative innovation among humans relies on 'basic' personhood as a starting point, but then dynamically, and massively, expands in interaction with tools and other persons.
This needs brief
The psychologist Jonathan Haidt at New York University has accumulated a range of experimental and observational evidence that he argues shows that natural human normative life is mainly a matter of using culturally evolved social traditions to regulate emotional responses.
Even modern people in industrialized societies, Haidt maintains, tend to seek rational justifications for most of their normative judgments only when they're challenged by contrary opinions, or when their actions are misinterpreted by others and they must explain them by reference to socially approved motivations.
Dan Sperber and Hugo Mercier defend similar conclusions
The Enigma of Reason (2017).
As a gathering wave of
philosophers argue - including, most prominently, Andy Clark
of the University of Edinburgh and Kim Sterelny of the
Australian National University - the most important structures for
human norms were literally built by us and reside outside of our
Most people don't truly understand such concepts as risk diversification or dynamic rebalancing, and take few or no steps to try to understand them.
They rely instead on a simple heuristic:
They can apply this heuristic only because there are well-established, easily accessible and trusted institutions around, such as stockbrokers, interactive websites and pension-fund managers.
So, to whatever extent
someone doubts that elephants truly respond to explicit reasons,
remember that the same is true of human behaviour too.
People not only recognize the existence of norms and other reasons (as I argue elephants might); people also store normative reasons in their environment as a point of reference. Books, websites, software manuals and constitutions are obvious examples; so too are financial services companies.
Clark calls this built-up
reference environment cognitive scaffolding. This massively
amplifies the cognitive, ecological and symbolic complexity of the
basic personhood that elephants might already share with us.
know a lot and make sensible choices.
But they don't
They are mutually attentive and emotionally attuned. The most important service a good matriarch performs for her herd is to reduce the amplitude of group emotion by keeping calm and showing sound judgment.
Good matriarchs know a lot and make sensible choices. They are a kind of cognitive scaffolding for the others.
But they don't publish
memoirs for the benefit of their successors. They don't carve
parables on rocks. It's unlikely that they deliberately and
collectively build theoretical knowledge, because to do that beyond
a rudimentary level one must keep a record of conjectures and
I am suggesting that what stands between elephants and us is not necessarily limited intelligence, limited ability to report facts to one another, or limited ability to signal preferences. Rather, it might be a lack of ability to store records of reasons in the environment.
If our deep-learning
algorithms can crack the elephant communication code, and enable us
to engage in conversation with them, perhaps we could create this
means of storage, such that elephants are motivated to attend to it.
To cite a very simple
example, we have
trichromatic vision and elephants
don't. More dramatically, we can't do displaced reference by
touching one another; but elephants might be able to, and might need
to do so to give full expression to their most important ideas.
But I like to imagine the grad students of our grad students adding sounds built from the elephant repertoire to probe the deeper dimensions of elephant economics - say, how they frame choices over reward prospects in the relatively distant future.
And perhaps the grad
students of their grad students will provide elephants with pads
they can touch with their trunks, which would enable us to ask them
how they'd respond if they saw an elephant attacking a rhino - or if
they saw people attacking an elephant.
We morally distinguish between killing persons and killing nonpersons:
Elephants might have the necessary cognitive and emotional capacities for personhood, and even the potential to share joint experience of personhood with us, if we help them acquire new cognitive scaffolding.
As Bradshaw describes in her book with justified anguish, they already suffer emotional trauma and normative collapse when people subject them to violence. We have urgent reasons for stopping this slaughter.
A time might come soon
when we can and should apologize to the victims, in terms they can
appreciate as fellow persons...