Re: [asa] Elephant altruism

From: Iain Strachan <>
Date: Sun Nov 29 2009 - 10:19:06 EST

I think Collins is fairly big on the idea that the Moral Law is applicable
(mostly at least) to human beings. He writes (The Language of God, p23):

"As best I can tell, this law appears to apply peculiarly to human beings.
 Though other animals may at times appear to show glimmerings of a moral
sense, they are certainly not widespread, and in many instances other
species' behavior seems to be in dramatic contrast to any sense of universal
rightness. It is the awareness of right and wrong, along with the
development of language, awareness of self, and the abilitity to imagine the
futures, to which scientists generally refer when trying to enumerate the
special qualities of Homo Sapiens".

And later ... (p29)

" .... "Would this be a deist God, who invented physics and mathematics and
started the universe in motion 14 billion years ago, then wandered off to
deal with other, more important matters, as Einstein thought? No, this God,
if I was perceiving Him at all, must be a theist God,* who desires some kind
of relationship with those special creatures called human beings, and has
therefore instilled this special glimplse of Himself into each one of us.*"

(Emphasis mine).

However, if the observations of Elephant altruism are true and valid, then
it would appear the same argument applies to them - does God want a
relationship with elephants, who have also some special glimpse of Himself
instelled into them?

It is also interesting to note his comment in the first quote about
"awareness of self". In a recent TV programme given by Marcus du Sautoy
(Dawkins's successor as prof of Public Understanding of Science in Oxford),
it was shown how self awareness can be tested by the "mirror
self-recognition test". In this test you place a child in front of a mirror
and watch it interact with the image. Then the mother takes the child away,
and under cover of wiping the child's nose, makes a mark on its cheek.
Above the age of around 18 months, children become "self-aware" and on
seeing the image with the mark on the face, immediately touch the mark on
their own face, implying that they have recognised the image as "me". The
program made the interesting observation that only three species could pass
this test, Humans, Orang-utans, and another ape (poss chimpanzee). However
I have read on another web-site, that elephants too pass this test, and will
touch a mark painted on them with their trunks when seeing themselves in a

All this leaves me wondering if there is a clear scientific explanation,
related to self-awareness, that leads to altruistic behaviour, and, if so,
whether this somewhat weakens Collins's/C.S. Lewis's argument.


On Sat, Nov 28, 2009 at 4:12 PM, Schwarzwald <> wrote:
> 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
> 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
> knew the elephant was trying to rescue the baby rhino (stuck in the mud,
> 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
> 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
> more detail would be needed to take it seriously.
> Either way, I think it's a win either way for Francis Collins' argument.
> 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
> 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 Sun Nov 29 10:19:52 2009

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