Popular Science Monthly/Volume 23/August 1883/Mental Capacity of the Elephant
By WILLIAM T. HORNADAY.
ACCORDING to the popular idea, man is the only animal endowed with reason. Even after modern scientific classification forced from all the humiliating admission that man is an animal, the idea of his supreme superiority over all the rest of the animal kingdom was embalmed in the formula, "Man is a reasoning being." The reasoning faculty is, to the popular mind, the gulf which separates him from the so-called dumb brutes, wide, fathomless, and impassable. While there are many who believe that this gulf which separates reason from absence of reason is occasionally bridged over, as it were, in the case of individual animals of phenomenal intelligence, there are a few who deny its existence altogether. Whenever enough evidence is accumulated to compel the unconditional surrender of the ground man has assigned for his exclusive occupancy, whenever it is clearly and conclusively shown that man's intellectual supremacy over the lower animals is due to the degree and not to the quality of his intellect, it will mark the beginning of a new era in psychological thought.
The principal purpose of this paper is to show the scope and quality of intelligence displayed by the animals of a certain species, the elephant, and to afford some data for a comparison of the mental processes of this animal with those of man.
Of late years, or we may even say during the last decade, the question as to whether any of the lower animals are ever capable of reasoning: has been often discussed. Hundreds of instances of unusual intelligence displayed by domestic animals have been related, and in many cases the actions of certain individuals have been admitted to be the result of reasoning. The dog has furnished a far greater number of such instances than any other animal, but we believe that this is due not so much to his superior intelligence as to the fact that he is brought into closer relations with his master, man, than is any other animal. A great many stories are told of the horse, cat, and elephant, and a few others detailing the performances of three or four remarkably intelligent chimpanzees and orangs have been repeated until they are now worn threadbare. Siamangs, baboons, and other members of the monkey tribe, parrots, canaries, and even fleas, have also attracted attention by their intelligent independent actions, or their performances under training. It appears that by universal consent the dog has been given the first place in the arrangement of animals according to their intelligence. Dr. W. L. Lindsay, however, who has made a careful, critical, and highly elaborate study of the subject of "Mind in the Lower Animals," thus arranges the orders of mammalia in a descending series according to the degree of intelligence manifested by their most gifted members:
1. Bimana, higher man only, however,
Apparently the elephant has always been regarded as an animal of third or fourth rate intelligence, as compared with common domestic animals and the great apes. Cuvier, in his "Regne Animal," records his conviction that in sagacity the elephant in no way excels the dog, and some other species of carnivora. Sir Emerson Tennent, even after a careful study of the elephant, is disposed to award the palm for mental superiority to the dog, but he hastens to add, "not from any excess of natural capacity, but from the higher degree of development consequent on his more intimate domestication and association with man."
Surprising as these opinions may seem in the light of certain facts to be presently adduced, much more surprising is the opinion of Mr. G. P. Sanderson, who has been more intimately associated with elephants than any man living. After several years' continuous service, entirely devoted to the capture of wild herds and their management while under training in captivity, he writes as follows of the Indian elephant:
"Its reasoning faculties are undoubtedly far below those of the dog, and possibly of other animals; and in matters beyond the range of its daily experience it evinces no special discernment. While quick at comprehending anything sought to be taught to it, the elephant is decidedly wanting in originality."
An opinion from such an authority is entitled to great weight in a consideration of the entire subject, and it is possible that Sanderson's estimate of the elephant's powers of original reasoning is correct; but in the mind of the writer there is no question of the elephant's general intellectual superiority over all other animals, except higher man. More than this, I believe that the hitherto universal failure to recognize this fact has been a real loss to the student of psychology.
While the subject-matter of this article has been drawn almost wholly from observations of the Indian, or Asiatic, elephant both in a wild state and under various conditions of captivity, there is no evidence whatever to prove that, according to an idea which has quite generally prevailed, the African elephant is less intelligent and tractable than his East Indian congener. While many intelligent people have been led to believe that Africanus can not be trained to service at all, actual proof of his intellectual inferiority is wholly wanting, and there is no good reason for believing that any can be found. Whenever it becomes necessary to accumulate evidence in his favor, the task will be a simple and easy one.
Ælian and Pliny describe the performances of African elephants in the amphitheatre at Rome, the former with considerable detail. African elephants were used by the Carthaginians in their wars with the Romans, but it is stated by the historian Armandi that, from inexperienced and deficient training, they proved less effective than the elephants of India.
A gentleman who lately arrived in this city from the west coast of Africa informed the writer that he had just seen at St. Paul de Loanda an African elephant, considerably larger and older than Jumbo, at work loading timbers into a ship, and that the animal performed his tasks with surprising intelligence and precision.
The Indian elephant's reputation for mental superiority over the African is apparently due to accidental circumstances. It is true that trained elephants of the former species outnumber the African by perhaps more than sixty to one, but it is also true that in Africa the inhabitants are mostly negro savages who have neither the resources, intelligence, nor inclination necessary to the wholesale capture and domestication of elephants. Unlike the inhabitants of Hindostan, Ceylon, Burmah, and Siam, who from time immemorial have made a business of the capture and training of wild elephants, the negroes of Africa look upon the elephant only as an ivory-producer. The splendid tusks of Africanus make his total extermination only a question of time. Long before the world will have reached the necessity of utilizing this animal as a beast of burden, the ivory hunters will have finished their war of extermination, now being waged with such alarming success, and the chances are that the zoologist of the future will describe this animal as so entirely inferior to the Indian species, both in intelligence and temper, that only a few individuals were ever successfully trained. It is the misfortune of Africanus that he belongs to the undeveloped continent. Two centuries hence, when the last of his race goes to join the mammoth and the mastodon, his captive congener in India will still be devouring his four hundred pounds of green fodder per day, in peaceful domestication, while in the jungles, the progeny of the wild herds which now roam the forests, secure from destruction under the stringent English laws, will still be protected for the perpetuation of the species.
The intelligence of an animal may be measured by taking into account, separately, its intellectual qualities, as follows:
1. Powers of independent reasoning or observation.
Closely allied to these are the moral qualities which go to make up an animal's temperament and disposition, about as follows:
1. Amiability, which guarantees security to his human associates.
Before entering upon a discussion of the intellectual powers and moral qualities of the elephant in accordance with the outlines just given, I wish to state that in matters involving facts I shall confine myself strictly to my own observations made on Elephas Indicus, except where otherwise stated. A point to which we ask special attention from beginning to end is, that in endeavoring to estimate the mental capacity of the elephant, we shall base no arguments upon any particularly intelligent individual of a given race or species, as is always done in discussions of intelligence in the dog, the cat, the horse, parrot, and ape. On the contrary, it is the intention to reveal the mental capacity of every elephant living, tame or wild, of both the Indian and African species, except a few individuals with diseased minds. It is not to be shown how successfully an elephant has been taught by man, but how all elephants in captivity have been taught, and what every wild elephant is known to be capable of. In endeavoring to determine the mental status of the dog, horse, cat, ape, or elephant, or even human beings, the average intelligence of all the members of an entire species, or at least an entire race, should be the objective point of the inquiry.
Under the head of intellectual qualities we have first to consider the elephant's
Powers of Independent Observation and Reasoning, or Reasoning from Cause to Effect.
While many wonderful stories are related of the elephant's sagacity and independent powers of reasoning, it must be admitted that an indefinitely greater number of much more wonderful anecdotes are told on equally good authority of dogs. But the circumstances in the case are wholly to the advantage of the dog, and against the elephant. While the former roams at will through his master's house and out-door premises, through town and country, mingling freely with all kinds of men and domestic animals, with unlimited time and liberty to lay plans and execute them, the elephant in captivity is chained to a stake, with no liberty of action whatever, aside from eating and drinking, and amusing himself by swaying his body, swinging one foot, or switching his tail. Such a ponderous beast can not be allowed to roam at large among human beings, and he never leaves his stake and chain except under the guidance of his mahout, who directs his every act. There is no telling what wonderful powers of reasoning captive elephants might develop if they could only enjoy the freedom accorded all dogs, except the blood-hound, bull-dog, and a few others.
1. Reconnoitre dangerous ground by sending a scout or spy.
Having on one occasion in hunting elephants approached to within fifty yards of the stragglers of a large herd of about thirty animals, which was scattered over about four acres of very open forest and quietly feeding, certain individuals of the herd on the side nearest us suddenly suspected danger. One of them elevated his trunk with the tip bent forward, and scented the air from various points of the compass, a sure sign of danger suspected. A moment later an old elephant left the herd and started straight for our ambush, scenting the air with upraised trunk as he slowly and noiselessly advanced. We instantly retreated, unobserved and unheard, and the elephant advanced until he reached the identical spot where we had a moment before been concealed. He paused and stood motionless as a statue for about two minutes, then wheeled about and quickly but noiselessly rejoined the herd. In less than half a minute the whole herd was in motion, heading directly away from us, moving very rapidly but without the slightest noise. The huge animals simply vanished like shadows into the forest. The entire herd formed in single file before proceeding a quarter of a mile, and continued strictly in that order, one directly behind another, for several miles. Like the human dwellers in the jungle, the elephants know that the easiest and most expeditious way for a large body of animals to traverse a tangled forest is for the leader to pick the way, while all the rest follow in his footsteps.
In strong contrast with the stealthy and noiseless manner in which elephants steal away from a lurking danger or ambush discovered, from an open attack, accompanied with the noise of fire-arms, they rush away at headlong speed, quite regardless of the noise they make. On one occasion a herd which I was designing to attack, and had approached to within forty yards on one side, as they were feeding in some thick bushes, discovered my presence and retreated so silently that they had been gone five minutes before I discovered what their sudden quietude really meant. In this instance, also, the alarm was communicated by silent signals, or sign-language. Tame elephants are never known to tread on the feet of their attendants or knock them down by accident; or, at least, no instances of the kind have ever come to my knowledge. The elephant's feet are very large, his range of vision is very circumscribed, and his extreme and wholly voluntary solicitude for the safety of his human attendants can not be due to anything else than independent reasoning. The most intelligent dog is apt to greet his master by planting a pair of dirty paws on his coat or trousers. The most sensible carriage-horse is liable to step on his master's foot or crowd him against a wall in a moment of excitement; but even inside the keddah, with wild elephants all about, and a captive elephant hemmed in by two, three, or four tame ones, the noosers actually work under the bodies and between the feet of the tame animals until the feet of the captive are tied.
All who have witnessed the tying of captives, one by one, in a keddah, wherein a whole wild herd have been entrapped, testify to the human-like quality of intelligence displayed by all the tame elephants who assist in the tying and leading out and subjugation of the captives. They enter into the business with both spirit and understanding, and as occasion requires will deceitfully cajole or vigorously punish a troublesome captive. Sir Emerson Tennent asserts that the tame elephants display the most perfect conception of every movement, both of the object to be attained and the means to accomplish it. While this statement probably exceeds the exact truth, it truthfully conveys the impression made upon the beholder.
We come now to the second intellectual quality, or memory.
So far as this may be regarded as an index of an animal's mental capacity, the weight of evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of the elephant. Every one who attended either Barnum's or Forepaugh's circus during the last year witnessed an imitation military drill performed by from twelve to sixteen elephants, which, in animals of any other species, would be considered a most remarkable performance. The following were the commands given by the trainer, understood and remembered by each elephant, and executed without an instant's hesitation or any mistake. These we will call the
Accomplishments of Performing Elephants.
1. Fall in line.
In all, fifteen commands obeyed by the whole company of elephants.
It being impossible, or at least impracticable, to supply so large a number of animals with furniture and stage property for a further universal performance, certain individuals were supplied with the proper articles when necessary, for a continuation of the performance, as follows:
16. Ringing bells.
While it is true that every act in the latter part of this performance was not participated in by every one of the elephants who went through the military drill, there is no room for doubt of the entire ability of each individual to understand the meaning of the whole thirty-three commands, and to remember them all accurately and without confusion. The most astonishing feature of the performance was, aside from the perfect obedience of the huge beasts, their power of memory, which is without a parallel in the history of trained animals.
We come now to a consideration of the
Accomplishments of Working Elephants.
In all the timber-forests of Southern India every captive elephant is taught to perform all the following acts and services, as I have witnessed on many occasions:
1. To salaam, or salute, by raising the trunk.
4. To lie down to be washed, first on one side and then on the other.
In all, sixteen distinct acts.
Every working elephant in India is supposed to possess the intelligence necessary to the performance of any of the acts enumerated above at the command of his driver, either by spoken words, a pressure of the knees or feet, or a touch with the driving goad. For the sake of generalization I have purposely excluded from this list all tricks and accomplishments which are not universally taught to working elephants. We have seen, however, that performing elephants are capable of executing nearly double the number of acts commonly taught to the workers; and, while it is useless to speculate upon the subject, it must be admitted that, were a trainer to test an elephant's memory by ascertaining the exact number of commands it could remember and execute in rotation, the result would far exceed anything yet obtained. For my own part, I believe it would exceed a hundred, if not many times that figure. The performance in the circus-ring is limited by time and space, and not by the mental capacity of the elephants.
When we come to consider the comparative comprehension of animals under man's tuition, we find the elephant without a rival.
On account of the fact that an elephant is about eighteen years in coming to anything like maturity, according to the Indian Government standard for working animals, it is far more economical and expeditious to catch full-grown elephants in their native jungles than it would be to breed and rear them. About ninety per cent of all the elephants now living in captivity were caught in a wild state and tamed, and of the remainder at least eight per cent were born in captivity of females that were gravid when captured. It will be seen, therefore, that the elephant has derived no advantage whatever from ancestral association with man, added to the most careful selection and breeding which, all combined, have made the colly, the pointer, and the setter the wonderfully intelligent animals they are. For many generations the horse has been bred for strength, for speed, or for beauty of form, but the breeding of the dog has been based chiefly on his intelligence. With all his advantages, his comprehensive faculties, even in the most exceptional individuals of a whole race, are not to be compared to those of any adult elephant fresh from the jungle.
The extreme difficulty in teaching a dog of mature age even the simplest thing is so well known that it has passed into a proverb: "It is hard to teach an old dog new tricks." In other words, the conditions must be favorable. What is the case with the elephant? The question shall be answered by Sanderson. In his "Wild Beasts of India," he says: "Nor are there any elephants which can not be easily subjugated, whatever their size or age. The largest and oldest elephants are frequently the most easily tamed, as they are less apprehensive than the younger ones."
The most striking feature in the education of an elephant is the suddenness of his transition from a wild and lawless denizen of the forest to the quiet, plodding, good-tempered, and cheerful beast of draught or burden. There takes place in the keddah, or pen of capture, a mighty struggle between the giant strength of the captive and the ingenuity of man, ably seconded by a few powerful tame elephants. When he finds his strength utterly overcome by man's intelligence, he yields to the inevitable, and accepts the situation philosophically. Sanderson once had a narrow escape from death while on the back of a tame elephant inside a keddah attempting to secure a wild female. She fought his elephant long and viciously, with the strength and courage of despair, but she was finally overcome by superior numbers. Although her attack on Sanderson in the keddah was of the most murderous description, he states that her conduct after her defeat was most exemplary, and she never afterward showed any signs of ill-temper.
Mr. Sanderson and an elephant-driver once mounted a full-grown female elephant on the sixth day after her capture, without even the presence of a tame animal. Sir Emerson Tennent records an instance wherein an elephant fed from the hand on the first night of its capture, and in a very few days evinced pleasure at being patted on the head. Such instances as the above can be multiplied indefinitely. To what else shall they be attributed than philosophic reasoning on the part of the elephant? The orang-outang, so often put forward as his intellectual superior, when captured alive at any other period of life than that of helpless infancy, is vicious, aggressive, and intractable for weeks and months, if not during the remainder of its life. Orangs captured when fully adult exhibit the most tiger-like ferocity, and are wholly intractable.
If dogs are naturally superior to elephants in general intellect, it should be as easy to tame and educate newly-caught wild dogs or wolves of mature age as newly-caught elephants. But, so far from this being the case, it is safe to assert that it would be impossible to train the most intelligent company of pointers, setters, or collies ever got together to perform the feats accomplished with such promptness and accuracy by all regularly trained circus-elephants.
The successful training of all elephants up to the required working point is so fully conceded in India that the market value of an animal depends wholly upon his age, sex, build, and the presence or absence of good tusks. The animal's education is either sufficient for the buyer, or, if not, he knows it can be made so.
The time required for the training of newly-captured elephants, and fitting them for all kinds of work, varies from four to six months, although instances are known wherein some have been worked in harness two months after capture.
The fourth quality, which serves as a key to the mental capacity and mental processes of an animal, is the degree of its
Promptness and Accuracy in the Execution of Man's Orders.
The most impressive feature of a performance of elephants in the circus-ring is the fact that every command uttered is obeyed with true military promptness and freedom from hesitation, and so accurately that an entire performance is often conducted and concluded without the repetition of a single command. One by one the orders are executed with the most human-like precision and steadiness, amounting sometimes to actual nonchalance. Human beings of the highest type could scarcely do better. To some savage races—for example, the native Australians, the veddahs of Ceylon, or the jackoons of the Malay Peninsula—I believe such a performance would be impossible, even under training. I do not believe their minds act with sufficient rapidity and accuracy to enable a company of them to go through with such a wholly artificial performance as successfully as the elephant's.
The thoughtful observer does not need to be told that the brain of the ponderous quadruped acts, as far as it goes, with the same lightning rapidity and clearness as that of the most intelligent man—this, too, be it remembered, in a performance wholly artificial and acquired, in which the animal depends solely upon the words of the trainer. I particularly noted the fact that the performance of Barnum's elephants was conducted without the use of any signs whatever.
In the performance of Bartholomew's horses, of which I once kept a record in detail, even the most accomplished members of his stud often had to be commanded again and again before they would obey. A command was often repeated for the sixth time before the desired result was obtained. I noted particularly that not one of his horses, which are perhaps the most fully trained of any living, was an exception to this rule, or performed his tasks with the prompt obedience and self-confidence so noticeable in every one of the sixteen elephants. The horses usually obeyed with tardiness and hesitation, and very often manifested nervousness and uncertainty.
In the mind of the elephant, e.g., each elephant, there was no confusion of ideas, but, on the contrary, a mental grasp on the whole subject, so secure and courprehensive that the animal felt himself master of the situation.
I have never yet seen a performance of trained dogs which could be considered worthy of serious comparison with the accomplishments of either performing or working elephants. In the matter of educational capacity the dog can not on any grounds be considered the rival of the elephant. The alleged mental superiority of the dog is based almost wholly upon his powers of independent reasoning and observation as exhibited in a state of almost perfect freedom. Until the educated elephant, who has grown to maturity under man's influence, is allowed the dog's freedom to plan and execute, no comparison can be made between them in this respect.
Finally, we come to a consideration of the elephant's moral qualities, but it is not pertinent to this inquiry to discuss more than those having a direct bearing upon the subject. In India the elephant bears a spotless reputation for patience, amiability, and obedience, except in the case of such individuals as have been afflicted with insanity, either temporary or permanent. I know of no instances on record wherein an elephant has been guilty of culpable homicide, or even of attempting it. I have never heard of an elephant in India so much as kicking, striking, or otherwise injuring either human beings or other domestic animals. There have been several instances, however, of persons killed by elephants which were temporarily insane, or "must," and also by others permanently insane. It is the misfortune but not the fault of the elephant that in advanced age and by want of necessary exercise he is liable to be attacked by a fit of must, during which period he is clearly irresponsible for his acts.
So many men have been killed by elephants in this country that the idea has of late years been steadily gaining ground that they are naturally ill-tempered and vicious to a very dangerous extent. Nothing could be further from the truth. We have seen that in the hands of the "gentle Hindoo" the elephant is gentle and reliable, and never attacks man except under the circumstances already stated. In this country, however, where he is at the mercy of quick-tempered and sometimes brutal showmen, who very often do not understand the temperament of the animals under their control, and who during the traveling season are rendered perpetually ill-tempered and vindictive by reason of overwork and insufficient sleep—with such masters as these to mete out punishment, without judgment or reason, it is no wonder that the animal occasionally rebels, and executes vengeance. I am convinced that an elephant could by ill-treatment be driven to insanity, and I have no doubt this has been done more than once in this country.
It is safe to say that, thus far, not one half the elephant's mental capabilities have been developed or even understood. It would be of great interest to determine by experiment the full educational capacity of this interesting quadruped, and, but for the lack of a permanent menagerie in this city, it would ere now have been undertaken. It would be equally interesting to determine the exact limit of its reasoning powers in applied mechanics. An animal that can turn a hand-organ with regularity at the proper speed, can be taught to push a smoothing-plane invented purposely for him; but whether he would learn of himself to plane the rough surfaces smooth, and let the smooth ones remain untouched, is an open question.
While it is generally fruitless and unsatisfactory to enter the field of speculation, I can not resist the temptation to assert my belief that an elephant can be taught to read written characters, and also to express some of his own thoughts or states of feeling in writing. It would be a perfectly simple matter to prepare suitable appliances by which the sagacious animal could hold a crayon in his trunk, and mark upon a surface adapted to his convenience. In Ælian's work on "The Nature of Animals," eleventh chapter of the second book, he describes in detail the wonderful performances of elephants at Rome, all of which he saw. One passage is of peculiar interest to us, and the following is a translation of it: "... I saw them writing letters on Roman tablets with their trunks, neither looking awry nor turning aside. The hand, however, of the teacher was placed so as to be a guide in the formation of the letters; and, while it was writing, the animal kept its eye fixed down in an accomplished and scholar-like manner."
I can conceive how an elephant may be taught that certain characters represent certain ideas, and that they are capable of intelligent combination. The system and judgment and patient effort which developed an active, educated, and even refined intellect in Laura Bridgman—deaf, dumb, and blind from birth—ought certainly to be able to teach a clear-headed, intelligent elephant to express at least some of his thoughts in writing. In this way it may, some day, be possible to open a channel for the communication of thought between man and the lower animals; in this way it may be possible to prove, beyond all possibility of dispute, the presence of the true reasoning faculty in other animals than man. That it does exist, to a greater or less degree, in all vertebrate animals, I have no doubt whatever. I believe that elephants have immortal souls as much as men, and are, as a species, far more deserving of immortality. I believe it is as much an act of murder to wantonly take the life of a healthy elephant as to kill a native Australian or a Central-African savage. If it is more culpable to kill a highly developed man than an elephant, it is also more culpable to kill an elephant than an echinoderm. Many men are both morally and intellectually lower than many quadrupeds, and are, in my opinion, as wholly destitute of that indefinable attribute called the soul as all the lower animals are commonly supposed to be.
If an investigator like Darwin or an educator like Dr. Howe should take it in hand to develop the mind of the elephant to the highest possible extent, his results would be awaited with peculiar interest, and it would be strange if they did not necessitate a revision of the theories now common among those who study the purely speculative portion of theology, which is based on man's immortal soul.