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The Greatness of Elephants

Jun 17, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 38 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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One of The Scrapbook’s favorite journals is the Ethics and Public Policy Center’s quarterly, The New Atlantis. TNA, which has just celebrated its 10th anniversary, is concerned with unpacking matters of technology and science, and grappling with how such advances relate to human nature. If you’re a Leon Kass fanboy—and, really, who isn’t?—The New Atlantis is your Tiger Beat.


The latest issue features an amazing piece by Caitrin Nicol titled, suggestively enough, “Do Elephants Have Souls?” In it, Nicol grapples with the majestic beasts, explaining what we know about them (they bury their dead; they practice art; they communicate not infrasonically, but seismically) and asking, well, whether elephants might have souls.

Nicol is making a very careful, and very heterodox, argument. She rejects the reductive reasoning of Peter Singer—a rat is not a fish, nor is it a pig, nor a dog, nor a boy. She is, instead, suggesting that on the continuum with a nematode at one end and homo sapiens at the other, elephants are probably much closer to our end of the scale. And that we ought to properly appreciate the beauty of this fact.

Some conservatives fear this beauty because they worry that recognizing soulfulness in an animal might lead to PETA-style hippie mischief or worse—the utilitarian Singer-ism which erodes human dignity. But Nicol does a fine job of explaining why this fear is misplaced, and why an embrace of the elephant can only serve to deepen our humanity:

Staff members at the Elephant Sanctuary told me of an incident with one of their “girls,” who spotted a fallen bird outside her barn and ran right over to it, utterly distraught. She crooned and stroked it and did not settle down till it had been properly laid to rest. What did this mean to her, exactly? We don’t know. But she was clearly very moved by a fellow creature’s woe and had no trouble seeing it for what it was, different life forms though they were. How sad when we,

“higher” animals who share this gift, convince ourselves to dull it.

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:29-31). If a single little bird is worth the all-consuming grief of Dulary the Elephant and the cosmos-animating mind of the Father of Creation, and human worth surpasses that, then what is there to lose in holistically appreciating the life of this one bird, even insofar as it resembles ours? And how much more than the bird an elephant, which by its own extraordinary nature shows that all species are not equal—but is a portal to the world of non-human life, and the possibilities therein.

All hail the elephant. And all hail The New Atlantis.

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