The only thing that should really surprise us about the recent report that dolphins use names for each other is that we're surprised at all.
Ever since Descartes, it seems drilled into us that what separates us humans from the animal world is, well, nearly everything that matters. Yet over time we've also learned that animals can have emotions, beliefs and extraordinary capability to learn and communicate. In the case of dolphins, a new study by biologists at the University of St. Andrews suggests that dolphins may have signature whistles, a unique way of calling each other by name.
While it's unclear whether elephants -- another perennial favourite among our non-pet animals --have names for each other the way dolphins apparently do, it is established that elephants have a phenomenal system of communication. This is in part through vocalisation. Namibian farmers have discovered that playing a recording of an elephant alarm call is infinitely more effective in warding off the mammoth crop-raiding creatures than fences, ditches, sirens and a host of other fortifications (including rows of chilli peppers). But elephants also communicate through vibration it turns out, with seismic waves being picked up from the ground and transmitted through an elephant's feet to the head. The result being that elephants can stay in touch with each other from miles away.
A young writer named Caitrin Nicol has marshaled a formidable collection of such facts and factoids for the magazine the "New Atlantis" in a fascinating 70-page essay titled "Do Elephants have a Soul?" Elephants do stir the imagination.
They honour the dead, and perhaps not just their own. Nicol recounts an uncanny story linked to "elephant whisperer" Lawrence Anthony who died last year. Two herds of elephants Anthony had saved and resocialised -- animals that had not been near his house for more than a year prior to his death -- mysteriously showed up at his place just hours after his passing, having crossed a vast South African game reserve to get there.
Elephants have excellent memories -- and emotion. At a ranch for maltreated animals from circuses and zoos in Tennessee, Nicol relates how a newcomer, a 51-year-old elephant named Shirley, was introduced to a long-standing resident named Tarra. Shirley showed Tarra with her trunk each and every injury she had sustained over the years in the circus. Tarra gently moved her trunk over each injured part.
Nicol cites a 2002 book titled "Elephantoms" by zoologist Lyall Watson that contains the following anecdote reported by rangers in Addo Park in South Africa:
A fence repair inadvertently separated a mother from her baby. When the rangers approached to help, the mother became agitated. There were apparently historical reasons why elephants in this area distrusted human beings. The protective mother put her trunk through the fence as if to calm the calf.
After a couple minutes, the youngster quietly repaired to a shaded tree off to the side where it appeared to camouflage itself. When moments later a truck appeared on the road, the mother charged over and threw a fit: clouds of dust, stamping, noises. In the midst of the confusion, the calf took the opportunity to slip unnoticed through a gap in the fence back to the other side to await the mother, who then calmly made her way back to her offspring.
A plan between the two, a performance, a clever diversion?
It is always possible that some of these occurrences are misinterpreted. We human beings do like to project. It's also true that we tend to feel secure when we can classify things in tidy fashion. Roger Scruton's 2006 book "Animal Rights and Wrongs" is, among other things, a case against the foolish Cartesian thinking that puts human life in one neat, simple basket and animal life of all kinds in a clearly delineated other. The book is an argument for grappling with gradations.
This is what biologist Rupert Sheldrake has been doing for years.
Sheldrake has observed, for example, the unexplained fact that a not insignificant numbers of dogs -- regardless of changes in the time of day or mode of transportation taken by their human companions -- are seemingly able to anticipate when their owners are coming home. Sheldrake asks whether there may be some communication taking place between dogs and their owners that we don't yet understand. Incidentally, did the elephants know by telepathy that "elephant whisperer" Anthony Lawrence had died?
Pretty fanciful stuff, you say?
In the case of elephants, suggests Nicol, it's possible that "scientific language simply breaks down in describing who they are -- as it does with beauty and love -- leaving us at the edge of a vast field of signals out of ordinary range."
So do elephants have a soul? I'm not ready to say no. More observation, further inquiry and additional pondering please -- with humility and respect. I am pretty certain we don't know everything yet.