Learning from Elephants

27. August 2018

It seems to me that news about elephants is suddenly everywhere. And not only in the new book by Françoise Malby-Anthony of the Thula Thula game reserve in South Africa,  An Elephant in My Kitchen, what the herd taught me about love, courage and survival*, but also in the news in Africa, Asia and Europe.

Could it finally dawn on us that elephants and their ancestors, with millions of years of survival skills implanted in their genes, might have some answers to the multitude of our own, often self-inflicted, problems?  Could it possibly make sense to enhance our joint biosphere by combining our technology with the very ancient know-how of the largest land animal on the planet?  What we continue to learn about and from elephants is simply astonishing:

This month, Clifton Leaf published an article in Fortune entitled What Elephants Can Teach Us About Alzheimer’s Disease**. Apparently elephants do not experience our kind of brain deterioration with advancing age. (Between 2000 and 2015  Alzheimer deaths have increased by 123 % in the US). Dementia in old age is not known to occur in elephants. Elephant matriarchs can remember far away locations they have visited decades earlier. There is little evidence that elephants suffer from mental decline with advancing age. And while there are theories about different biological mechanisms that keep elephants’ neurons working away throughout the decades, another theory, with considerable research supporting it, might be due to the fact that elephants are profoundly social creatures with tightly knit extended family networks of all generations joyfully living together.

Three generational African elephant family. Photo credit: Kevin Lings / shuttertsock

When elephants’ extended family units are not allowed to thrive (mostly due to human interference) they have difficulties maintaining their sanity. But while we bring the ever increasing disruption of our social fabric upon ourselves, elephants do everything they possibly can to maintain and foster their social coherence.

The late Daphne Sheldrick*** told us that elephant orphans (mostly orphaned as a result of poaching), nursed back to normal adulthood at the Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage in Kenya, and once released back into the wild, will come back to the nursery to show off their new wild born babies. They also return regularly to the nursery to comfort newly arrived traumatized orphans. Nobody has yet figured out how they know when new orphans arrive. Could we possibly learn to keep our extended family networks intact, or has our competitive wiring made this kind of social collaboration impossible?

From an article written by Bob Jacobs on August 8, 2018 for The Conversation entitled What elephants’ unique brain structures suggest about their mental abilities****, we learn that the morphology of elephant cortical neurons is radically different from all other mammals. The difference in brain structure appears to give elephants the ability to engage in longer term contemplation while our brain structure is wired for fast decision making. Anybody who has ever been physically close to an African elephant can almost feel how the elephant is collecting information through touch, smell, vision, chemical analysis and probably a few other senses we are not even aware of.  Only after contemplating the collected data he decides how to interact with the human in front of him.

African matriarch analyzing what’s in front of her. Photo credit: Max Thomsett : shutterstock

Vincent Lynch***** of the university of Chicago, by studying the elephant genome, has already discovered in 2012 that elephants have many more cancer tumor suppression genes than humans do. The gene p53 plays an important role in reacting to damaged DNA. We have one copy of p53, elephants have 20. Is that the reason why elephants do not appear to suffer from cancer?

Elephants, over the millions of years that they have evolved into the thinking,  sentient and social beings the are today, are proof to me that adaptation to the dramatic changes of the natural environment is entirely possible.  Abandoning our flawed belief that we can control nature to conform to our short term whims and objectives would be a first giant step towards a saner world. Learning from elephants might just help us to get there!

____________________________________________________________________________*An Elephant in My Kitchen by Francoise Malby-Anthony with Katja Willemsen, first published in 2018 by Sidwick & Jackson, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, London; ISBN 998-1-5098-6489-8 HB; ISBN 978-1-5098-6491-1 TPB; copyright © Françoise Malby-Anthony and Katja Willemsen 2018.

** What Elephants Can Teach us About Alzleimer’s Disease by Clifton Leaf, published by FORTUNE, August 3, 2018

*** Dame Daphne Marjorie Sheldrick (4 June 1934 – 12 April 2018 ) was a Kenyan-Bristish author, conservationist and expert in animal husbandry. In 1977 she founded the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and the Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage in honor of her late husband.

**** What elephants unique brain structures suggest about their mental abilities by Bob Jacobs in THE CONVERSATION. Link: http://www.theconservation.com/what-elephants-unique-brain-structures-suggest–about-their-mental-abilities-100421/ .

*****Did a zombie gene help elephants to beat cancer by David Lynch, published in The Atlantic, August 2018; Link: http://www.theatlantic.com/science/archove/2à18/08/did-a-zombie-gene-help-elephants-t–beat-cancer/567583/