The Social Contract by Robert Ardrey (continued):

And what in the meantime happened to the discontinuity between human and animal societies, and to the corollary that “human social life is culturally, not biologically, determined”? Nothing. Sociology and cultural anthropology carried on as if nothing at all had happened.  And with equal poise they ignored the inroads of linguistics.

Expanding studies of animal communications have reinforced the revolutionary conclusions of such students of linguistics as Noam Chomsky and Eric Lenneberg that a child’s rapid learning of language could not be possible if biological patterns were not as much present as those motor patterns making possible walking. Even our unique capacities for speech are placed among the characters that have come to us via the evolutionary way.

Masses of hard evidence are today destroying the essential premise of the three central sciences of human understanding, that a discontinuity exists between human and other animals. I might until recent years have accepted a single human capacity as uniquely ours, shared with no animal below the rank of Homo. This is our recognition of death and our tendency for ritual. In African Genesis, while stating my suspicion that students who subscribe to animal limitation usually turn out wrong, I still accepted the prevailing opinion that no animal recognises death. Then in later years I encountered, again and again, the Elephant Story. And I turned out wrong.

Two scientists, Richard Laws of Cambridge and Irven Buss of Washington State University, are generally accepted as our ranking authorities on the vast grey giants. Both, however, are ecologists and have devoted their principal efforts to observation not of elephant behaviour but of the elephant’s disregard for niceties of relationship to his environment. But in 1963 I ran into Buss in western Uganda during the course of one of his tours of duty, and for the first time heard the Elephant Story. Built somewhat on the proportions of an elephant himself, Buss would command authority even if it were not for his scientific reputation.

It was the kind of problem Buss faced. His tentative solution was to tranquilise a member of an elephant party, attach a radio transmitter to the creature, then follow the beeps with a light plane. Ingenious though the solution might seem, there were two difficulties. The use of a dart gun to inject a tranquiliser into a wild animal was a technique then new, and just how much drug to use on a creature so huge was still a matter of guesswork.  And the second was the problem of social defence. We shall discover later in this enquiry that defence is normally the first function of any society, human or other animal. Elephants are among those who have perfected it. And one of Buss’s first experiments was a disaster.

What we think of as an elephant herd is normally a family party of several mature cows and their offspring. Buss selected a young cow, her calf close at her side, as his target. But no sooner had the dart penetrated her hide than he realised that that he had overestimated the dose.  She collapsed like a punctured, withered balloon.  He and his African helpers were equipped with antidote for such emergencies, but they could not approach. Confronted by the angry, trumpeting phalanx of defenders of the downed cow, they could only wait and hope. After an hour and forty-five minutes she died.

It was not Buss who first recognised her death. It was her elephant family. In an instant they ceased their defence, moved aimlessly about. Only after that instant did Buss realise what had happened. But it was not the end of the elephant story. The oldest cow, perhaps the grandmother of the lot, moved the party away into the edge of the forest. The little calf still lingered by its dead mother. The old one returned, played with it a bit with her trunk, then coaxed it off to join the waiting group. Now the old one returned again. She broke down branches, pulled up grass, and covered the forequarters and the head of the departed. Then she returned to the family, and all, in elephant silence, vanished into the forest.

The recognition of death was inarguable. But was the ritual that followed simply the inexplicable response of a single, strange, inexplicable old female?

One comment on “Another Excerpt from The Social Contract – a Personal Inquiry into the Evolutionary Sources of Order and Disorder by Robert Ardrey.

  1. Matt Terry

    I’m still waiting to find one difference between humans and “higher” mammals and birds, at least. If one is open, conversations can be had with them, and the “native” interpretation of them as co-equal, or even superior, spirits to their own, was nearly global, was it not also correct? I’ve seen every emotion humans carry, in the animals I live with. The expressions of faces, in eyes, of posture, are the same for all mammals, as far as I can tell, and vary mainly in amplitude, not in kind. As to the contemplation of death, what animal doesn’t fear it when it’s made clear to them? We don’t fear the step if we don’t know it conceals a mine. To segregate that as some Dawkinsian genetic program, divorced from the awareness of and distaste for being somebody’s lunch, is as preposterous as suggesting animals don’t enjoy sex, either.

    Our only skill as elevated above other animals as, say, the lion’s strength, cheetah’s speed, jaguar’s cunning, the owl’s hearing, eagle’s vision, and kite’s swoop, are above their competitors’, is pattern-recognition. We do that better than they do (but they still do it, and not infrequently outsmart us!). Add opposable thumbs and, collectively, the game was on, and they never really stood a chance, until we wised up and realized we wanted them around after all.

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