The Smartest Creatures on Earth

The difference between you and Chewbacca: Are humans the brainiest creatures on the planet? Here's what separates us from other animals.

Things with Minds

What do we think when we talk about animals?

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"Elephants can be dangerous." I remember thinking those very words with an unusual concentration one afternoon, while being chased by wild forest elephants in an impenetrable thicket in Ivory Coast, West Africa. . . 

"Dangerous"? Here's how an elephant is likely to do it. He or she might knock you down, or maybe just toss you down with a grab and flick of the trunk, then stab you with a tusk, pin and crush you with a foot, or press down with that boulder-sized forehead until you pop open like a piece of rotten fruit. Being inside a car is better, but an adult elephant, male or female, can run a tusk right through the door of your car or use a few tons of body weight to crush down from the top. It can't be a pleasant experience sitting inside that car, and in the end you'll consider yourself lucky merely to be alive and still able to articulate the words that tell what happened--assuming, of course, that you are.

Still, no one is particularly surprised to hear that an elephant or any other wild animal is dangerous. Wild animals are supposed to be dangerous. It is surprising, though, when a wild animal deliberately seeks you out, seems to be pursuing you not out of some irrational explosion of rage, not from dumb and blind instinct, not according to an automatic, machine-like sequence of predatory behaviors, but rather with what looks like real intent and even, possibly, focused calculation.

Such may have characterized an encounter biologist Douglas Chadwick experienced one evening at the edge of the Nilgiri Reserve in southern India. In his book The Fate of the Elephant (1992), Chadwick describes the start of that evening in idyllic terms. After visiting the distinguished elephant expert Raman Sukumar, Chadwick began a pleasant, late afternoon hike with two young students who served as Sukumar's research assistants.

The three hikers were passing along the edge of the reserve, a relatively open area where the trees thinned out and mixed with grass and shrub, and where, at the moment, many flowers were brilliantly blossoming in response to recent rains. But it was getting dark, and they picked up the pace.

By the time they approached the dim strip of road and a dark hulk that seemed to be the waiting car, evening had arrived. Chadwick was carrying a flashlight, which he flicked on as a friendly beacon to the driver. Immediately, however, a great burst of trumpeting shattered the peace. Chadwick turned off the light, heard and felt the thudding of heavy feet, and he and his two companions ran for their lives. They tried veering back in the direction of the road and car--only to be cut off by another burst of trumpeting and more pounding footfalls. They kept running. One of Chadwick's companions shouted at him to move in a zig-zag pattern among the trees. (Because of their great mass, elephants have trouble making quick turns.) The American began zig-zaggingly tripping among the denser shafts of darkness that must have represented trees, while still listening to, indeed feeling, that heavy thudding behind him. After a time, the pounding in the earth became indistinguishable from the pounding of his pulse. He stopped to listen and heard nothing. The biologist began to think he was being not chased so much as tracked. He began to feel, as he put it, "like elephant prey."

He and his companions, afraid to return in the direction of the car, finally ran over to a different part of the road, flagged down a late-running bus, and in a small village tavern persuaded an inebriated car-owner to ferry them back to their waiting friend on the road. The friend was very upset. The elephant had moved up beside the car in complete silence, so the driver inside, sitting next to his open window, had been about as startled and alarmed by the first explosive burst of trumpeting as Chadwick and his companions had been.

"I will never know what that elephant had in mind that night," Chadwick writes, "but upon reflection, I have to credit the animal with giving us fair warning. If it had really been out to smoosh us, it could have merely waited where it was and let us bump right into it."

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Probably the passage does not at all strike you as odd. Nor, perhaps, will it seem odd even when I point out the logical contradiction it embodies. Chadwick tells us, in the first part, that the animal in question has a "mind." He implies that the animal made deliberate choices and had emotional responses. Then, in the second part of the passage, he reiterates four times that the animal is an "it," which is the same pronoun we use when referring to a lifeless, mindless, emotionless, brainless, faceless, random bit of inert matter. A thing. So who or what is this creature: an animal with a mind, with emotions and some capacity for deliberation, or an inanimate thing that belongs in the same category as a rock, a stick, a clod of dirt, or a lump of coal?

A dozen other linguistic habits tell a similar tale. Animals are "trained," humans "taught." Animals have "fur," humans "hair." Animals operate by "instinct," while people are moved by "plans" and "ideas." A newborn animal is a "cub" or "puppy" or "calf," while people come into this world as "babies" and are soon transformed into "children." An animal might be an "adolescent," but only a person is a "teenager." An adult animal will be either "male" or "female," but never a "man" or "woman." An animal can be "killed," but only a person can be "murdered." A dead animal makes a "carcass," whereas a dead person becomes a "corpse" or even, under the right circumstances, a "body in repose." Indeed, animals decay and disappear entirely after death, while only humans, so we tell ourselves, can hope to find some kind of coherent, soulful existence on the other side. Animals "die." Only you and I are going to "pass over."

You might argue that humans really do have minds while animals obviously do not, although your primary evidence for such a remarkable exclusivity may be your own conviction that it must be so. You might insist that humans really will find life after death, although you will be left explaining a strongly-held belief that can neither be proven nor disproven. You might say there is an actual difference between "hair" and "fur." You might want to point out the distinctions between "trained" and "taught"--and call my attention to the fact that in some circumstances, such as with the kind of repetitive muscle learning that atheletes endure to perfect their skills, we do talk about humans "training" or "being trained." Our linguistic habits can be complex, and we rely on creaky old words to make fine shades of meaning concerning the nature of the tangible, observable world. So perhaps the simple pronoun convention--the matter of "it" versus "he" and "she," as well as "that" versus "who" and "whom"--illustrates my point as well as anything.

Words project thought. The structure and habits of our language are flags, reasonable indicators of the structure and habits of our thinking, including our ordinarily invisible presumptions and prejudices: the distorted lens of our own minds. And in the case of our usual thinking about animals, the common habit of creating one thought island for people, the island of "who" and "whom," and a second thought island, that of "it" and "that," to contain that vast world made up of all animals and all things, suggests an astonishing conceptual divide that simply fails to reflect reality. The reality is this: We are a good deal more closely related to any animal than we are to any object. And to mammals, especially large-brained mammals like elephants, we are far more closely related than we ordinarily admit.

The Smartest Creatures on Earth