Re: [asa] Elephant altruism

From: Schwarzwald <>
Date: Sat Nov 28 2009 - 11:12:38 EST

Heya Iain,

I'm not sure even the presence of such behavior in other animals would
affect Collins' argument, since (from what I know of it) it's not totally
predicated on human uniqueness, but rather a question of how such would come
up through an evolutionary process - particularly the evolutionary process
as commonly described ("Darwinism"). And 'fixing' the evolutionary process
such that certain traits are likely to show up seems to bolster Conway
Morris' own view.

That said, the examples seem too grey-area for me. I'd like to know how they
knew the elephant was trying to rescue the baby rhino (stuck in the mud, if
I read the same site as you), rather than any other explanation (being
curious, mistaking the rhino for a baby elephant, etc). Or how the
worker-elephant was refusing to place the log out of concern for the dog,
rather than due to some kind of training or general confusion. The elephant
and the worker with the broken leg seems very interesting, but as with the
other stories I can't find a site that goes into greater detail - and a lot
more detail would be needed to take it seriously.

Either way, I think it's a win either way for Francis Collins' argument. If
it's something unique to the human species, then it further bolsters the
general uniqueness of humanity. If it's something that seems to pop up in
evolutionarily distant species, then it suggests that the moral law is
something built into biological development, either as an innate tendency or
something that is discovered rather than invented.

On Sat, Nov 28, 2009 at 10:37 AM, Iain Strachan <>wrote:

> As I recall, Francis Collins in his book "The Language of God" makes
> much of the argument for the "moral law" (after C.S. Lewis), in other
> words the innate sense of right and wrong that we all seem to have,
> which on occasion prompts us to act altruistically - helping others
> for no return benefit to ourselves, and often to our own risk. As I
> recall he seems to indicate that this is unique to the human species
> and is possibly a pointer towards God (though he warns about the "God
> of the Gaps" argument).
> However, I've recently been looking at a web-page about "Elephant
> Art", and came across a sub page about elephants engaging in behaviour
> that seems to be highly altruistic in nature. Googling "Elephant
> Altruism" brings up a number of well-known anecdotes (there are
> several instances of these being cited). These are, of course only
> anecdotal evidence, but would seem to indicate that elephants, at
> least act according to the moral law. Some examples:
> (1) An elephant that spent considerable time attempting to rescue a
> baby rhinoceros, despite being attacked repeatedly by the mother of
> the animal. (Altruism with no personal benefit).
> (2) A worker elephant that was assisting in lowering logs into holes.
> At one point it refused to lower the log. It was discovered that the
> apparent reason for this was that there was a dog trapped in the hole,
> and the elephant would not complete the task till after the dog had
> been rescued. (Sense of right and wrong?)
> (3) A remarkable tale of a herder on a camel that was stampeded by the
> matriarch of the elephant herd. He was knocked off and broke his leg.
> When he didn't return to base, his colleagues came out to search for
> him. When they found him, they also found a female elephant standing
> guard over him who had moved away from the herd to look after him.
> She had picked up the man with her trunk (according to the account),
> and placed him under a shady tree and stood guard, occasionally
> touching him gently with her trunk, apparently to soothe and comfort
> the man. ( Altruism, compassion, empathy?)
> As I say, these are only anecdotal evidences. But I'm wondering what
> folks on the list thought about this kind of thing, and where it
> leaves Francis Collins's "Moral Law" argument?
> Iain
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Received on Sat Nov 28 11:13:01 2009

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