An excited correspondent sent me a link to this video of an elephant painting a picture of an elephant.
[youtube _LHoyB81LnE Elephant painting an elephant]
It is an engaging video, and comments on other websites from eyewitnesses (most often reporting their visits to Thailand) to such “artwork creation” give good evidence that this is not a fraud. The elephant is actually holding the brush to the paper and moving it with precision.
A more important question is whether the elephant is recreating an image from its memory or is simply repeating a series of brush strokes that it has learned through training. If the former, it is fair to call this painting art—and a clear example of creativity and a self-reflective consciousness. If the latter, it is a circus trick—but a good one!
In The Descent of Man, Darwin wrote, “The mental faculties of man and the lower animals do not differ in kind, although immensely in degree.” On the surface, Darwin’s statement seems to include a belief in gradients, a gradual and continuous phylogenic climb. This would imply that species only slightly lower than humans on the evolutionary ladder ought to have at least a rudimentary creativity, and if properly equipped (we have opposable thumbs, remember), could demonstrate it. It may be true. Some primates, using signs because of vocalizing limitations, have been able to show significant language skills. This is frightening to some. The existence of self-reflective consciousness in animals is anti-Cartesian (Descartes thought only humans had souls and, therefore, consciousness), and anti-Creationist.
But what seems continuous may actually be a series of discontinuous steps, consciousness-creating quanta, each occasioned by genetic mutations, which by their GATC substitutions are inherently incremental and discrete. The creative, self-reflective consciousness that streams through human culture may not be unique because we are special. Humans may have become special because we are discontinuously unique.
In The Missing Link in Cognition, a collection of essays edited by Herbert Terrace and Janet Metcalfe, self-reflective consciousness is defined as “the ability to doubt what one knows, to deny or affirm one’s beliefs, to judge one’s own memories and percepts, to comment on one’s dreams, to recollect and reflect upon one’s own past…” There are many studies of self-reflective consciousness in animals: elephants seem to have some understanding of death; they often attend the bones of relatives. Chimps appear to grieve when family members die. Dolphins recognize mirror reflections as images of themselves.
Some chimps paint abstractly, but what about this wondrous pachyderm, capable of representational art that is nearly as recognizable as the cave paintings at Lascaux? Is she aesthetically aware as she paints the elephant holding a flower? Researchers Gisela Kaplan and Lesley J. Rogers, noting that sales of elephant-painted canvases are being used to raise money for zoos and conservation ask:
“Is this really art, or are the paintings more or less accidentally pleasing to us but not to the animal itself?… The ﬁrst step in deciding whether an animal might have produced a painting as art is to ﬁnd out exactly what that animal can see. If an animal seems to use color aesthetically but either lacks color vision entirely or is able to perceive only some colors, we would have to conclude that any aesthetic use of color is accidental, however pleasing it may appear to us.”
But elephants cannot see the same spectrum of colors that humans do. Emory University’s Shozo Yokoyama suggests that elephants, like humans with deuteranopic color blindness, may see only blue and yellow, with intermediate colors perceived as shades of gray (as in the lower left image)
It is not clear in this video what role the handler is playing. Certainly he is choosing the colors and handing the elephant the brush. The real story, I suspect, is that like a dog trained to climb steps, jump through hoops, and do back flips in a set sequence, this elephant creates his “art” after intensive training in copying a painting originally done by a human—many trials repeated and repeated with rewards and punishments until the animal has mastered the trick. As proof of this faithful, rote memory, there is another video online of the same elephant painting a nearly identical picture. As Horton says, “I meant what I said, and I said what I meant. An elephant’s faithful one hundred percent.” Or, perhaps there is something to the old saw, “An elephant never forgets.”
Finally, and sadly, young elephants in Thailand are separated from their mothers and subjected to a brutal domesticating training regime called phaajaan (“breaking the love between”). Click the link if you have stomach or curiosity. Phaajaan is, they claim, necessary to “break” the animal…or to make it paint.
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Three days after I posted this, CNN picked up the story, but their piece was simply a couple of minutes of “gee-whiz.” No research. No attempt to figure out what is actually happening.