Elephants are extraordinarily empathetic. Research has confirmed that they console distressed companions, and countless anecdotes demonstrate that they save lives in peril - those of fellow elephants, whether or not they are related, humans, and other species. But elephants, like humans, are intelligent and individually variable. One might say 'humans are empathetic," but this statement recognizes that some humans-- due to a combination of nature and circumstance (emphasis on the latter) -- are cruel and unkind. These are our Ebenezer Scrooges. Are there, too, miserly elephants-- elephants who would pass by a baby elephant trapped in mud, or a human with a broken leg? Below, I draw upon research, anecdotes, and elephantine brain structure to try to answer this question.
First, I want to give you a few examples of elephant altruism and empathy, to convince you that they are remarkable creatures.
Once, an elephant under the command of a mahout was placing logs into holes in preparation for a ceremony. When the elephant arrived at one hole, she refused to drop in the log despite the commands of the mahout. Finally, the mahout dismounted and went to investigate-- and there was a stray dog sleeping in the hole. The elephant simply did not want to hurt the dog, and was willing to accept the punishment for not following orders instead.
Another time, an entire herd of elephants stepped off of a well-worn trail to avoid damaging a beautiful spiderweb, outlined by traces of dew, that hung across their path.
Elephants have complex societies with many customs that demonstrate their emotional connectedness with each other. For example, when a female is giving birth, the herd forms a protective circle to keep hyenas and other predators at bay; once the baby is born, the herd trumpets loudly, perhaps to welcome the newest arrival to their extended family.
Slightly more depressing evidence for elephant empathy comes from the rituals that follow the death of an elephant. Elephant funerals are well-documented; these are elaborate affairs where elephants touch the body, bury it in a shallow grave with leaves and sticks, cry, trumpet, and refuse to leave for hours or even days.
Finally, elephants truly do seem to never forget-- at least, they do not forget friends. Countless cases illustrate instances of elephants being reunited with human (and elephant) friends after years and decades apart. I challenge you to watch this video of an elephant reunion without tearing up: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lF8em4uPdCg .
In sum, a wealth of research, scientific field observations, and anecdotal evidence confirms that elephants demonstrate exceptional altruism and empathy. But what about elephants who get angry, or elephants who are mistreated?
Ebenezer Scrooge faces memories of his childhood when he is visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past, and we learn of sad circumstances that doubtless shaped his miserly tendencies-- a stingy father, a loving sister who dies in childbirth, and so on.
Similarly, elephants who are mistreated-- elephants in circuses, or elephants whose families have been slaughtered by humans, or those whose homes are closed to them by human expansion-- do kill humans. There are many elephant-caused human deaths per year, largely from male elephants. Some scientists suggest that elephants suffer from PTSD: in Nature, Joyce Poole and co-authors write"African elephant society has been decimated by mass deaths and social breakdown from poaching, culls [systematic killing to control populations], and habitat loss. Wild elephants are displaying symptoms associated with human PTSD." They argue that the rage demonstrated by these elephants leads to behaviour that is atypical in the same way a human with PTSD lashes out in a manner atypical of "normal" anger.
There are elephants who "go bad--" but, as with humans, most (if not all) of these cases can be traced back to experiences that (justifiably) lead them to feel despair and rage. Nothing, of course, can "justify" a killing, but we can understand why elephants kill.
Consider then, the following two examples of elephant rage: rages where they injure a human then suddenly seem to realize what they have done.
In an area of regular human-elephant conflict, a rampaging elephant smashed a house to bits before pausing in its rampage at the sound of a 10-month-old human baby crying. The elephant immediately calmed down, and carefully removed bits of rubble to uncover the baby's cot, rescuing her.
In another case, author Joyce Poole describes an counter between an elephant matriarch and a camel herder. As the man approached, the matriarch charged him and knocked him down, breaking one of his legs. She then immediately paused. He could not stand up, so she gently lifted him into the shade of a tree and guarded him until a search party found him.
The point of these stories is this: elephants are large, powerful creatures that do not always intend harm but can easily cause destruction; they demonstrate a remarkable ability to instantly switch from rage to apparent regret and care (of individuals of another species!). Would a human in the middle of an angry rampage be able to so quickly switch?
So, are there any elephant Scrooges? What is the take-home? These giants are, by all reports, largely peaceful and certainly empathetic beings. They are incredibly intelligent and self-aware, like us-- their distant cousins. Compare elephants to chimps, our closest animal relatives, and you will immediately see a difference: chimps are violent and impulsive (but not always) and elephants are peaceful and empathetic (but not always).
Perhaps that is the take-home: just like humans, other creatures are variable and individual; other creatures -- particularly those with large, complex brains-- are flexible. They are largely shaped by their lived experiences. Indeed, the amount of growing a brain does from childhood to adulthood iis a rough proxy for how much of a role learning plays in an individual's brain development-- elephant brains at birth are 35% of their ultimate size, compared to 28% for humans and 54% for chimpanzees. That remaining 65% is shaped largely by their experiences: like humans, elephant individuals are largely products of their environment.
And if we take up the whole sum of evidence, it seems pretty darn clear that elephants are at the very least "empathetic beings, like us." Might they be more empathetic? The default state of an elephant who has lived a relatively comfortable life is peace. Can we say the same?
The elephant brain has many features that exceed those of humans: in fact, their brains are by far the largest-per-size of all terrestrial vertebrates. And yet, their performace in many cognitive tests roughly equals that of primates, like chimpanzees. What is all that extra brain matter for?
InNeuroscience and BIobehavioural Reviews, scientists write: "Where elephants do seem to excel is in long-term, extensive spatial-temporal and social memory. In addition, elephants appear to be somewhat unique among non-human species in their reactions to disabled and deceased conspecifics, exhibiting behaviors that are mindful of “theory-of-mind” phenomena. Information gleaned from studies on the neural cytoarchitecture of large brains reveals that the neurons of the cerebral cortex of elephants are much less densely populated than in large-brained primates. .., this comparative perspective on the cortical neural cytoarchitecture appears to relate to differences in behavior between elephants and their primate counterparts."
Elephants are better at remembering, and are better at social and emotional processing, and are more likely to care and react to a hurt individual. They have a gigantic hippocampus, many spindle neurons, and giant cerebrum temporal lobes. They have a remarkable sense of theory of mind-- or being able to understand what someone else is thinking.
Humans are the best animals at many things-- but some of these things are killing, going to war, and destroying our environment. I argue that elephants have us beat in terms of empathy. There probably are some elephant Scrooges, but I would wager that there are far more human Scrooges.
One thing is for sure: if we have souls, elephants do too.
Research on elephants is full of examples of the animals apparently behaving empathetically—recognizing and responding to another elephant's pain or problem. Often, they even make heroic efforts to assist one another.