Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Article excerpt

Elephants have been characterised as highly sensitive, socially aware and intelligent because they have noticed in the mirror a white cross marked on their head. What a pathetic test! Jumbo can do far better than that.

The ancients speculated whether animals knew God, had memory, foresight or emotion, could distinguish between the good and the bad, the just and the unjust, could be happy, were political, could count, knew shame and so on. In relation to elephants, however, the elder Pliny (killed in the eruption of Vesuvius AD 79) had no doubts. He summarises: 'The elephant is the nearest to man in intelligence. It understands the language of its homeland, obeys orders, remembers the duties it has been taught, loves affection and marks of honour -- indeed, it possesses abilities rare even in man, like honesty, prudence, fairness, respect for the stars and reverence for the sun and moon'.

Pliny then provides the proof, in the shape of the circus elephant that, unable to learn the steps of its routine properly, was seen to practise them secretly at night, or the military elephant that 'learnt the shapes of Greek letters and used to write out in Greek "I myself wrote this and dedicated these spoils won from the Celts"'. …

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