One of the main sticking points for those who say that we are just highly evolved animals is the capacity of humans to display spiritual characteristics. Humans show creativity in our ability to create art and music, to feel guilt, to be sympathetic, to have a concept of self, and to worship. Those who suggest we are just animals with big brains and no unique qualities have tried for over 100 years to find examples of “human behavior” in the animal kingdom. Some of those attempts have been front-page stories such as the reports of Koko, the gorilla. The trainer claimed that Koko created works of art and adopted a cat as a pet, but the bias of Koko’s trainer turned out to be the cause of the behavior. Most researchers admit that there was a great deal of anthropomorphism involved in the stories about Koko, and the same goes for elephant wakes.
Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human characteristics or behavior to an animal. Recently the Washington Post and The Week have published articles about elephants grieving and holding wakes or “religious services” when one of their kind dies. As you read the reports, you see strong suggestions that the reporters are engaging in anthropomorphism to support their claims of elephant wakes.
One report tells of seeing elephants touching corpses with their trunks and trying to lift them. It said they were “performing dominance behaviors typically used to protect sought after resources such as plentiful fruit trees or shady groves.” The reports also tell of members of five different elephant families interacting with a corpse for three weeks. There is also mention of a ten-year-old elephant walking away from her mother’s body with liquid streaming from her temporal glands indicating “great stress.” To suggest that these behaviors are religious ceremonies or elephant wakes seems to be the least likely explanation.
Elephants are herd animals. The matriarch is the leader of the herd, and when that leader dies, a power struggle takes place among the other females. This competition involves great stress, but it is a long way from a religious service. There is no evidence of elephants comprehending death. Some try to lift the corpse to its feet, demonstrating a lack of understanding of death. No elephant has attempted a burial, memorial, or preservation.
Humans are created in the image of God. We not only grieve, but we engage in behavior that indicates a belief that the departed is in a better existence. We honor our dead, and we continue to honor their memory. This is a spiritual awareness that is unique to humans. The value of human life cannot be denigrated by trying to find animal behavior with the same cause and effect.
— John N. Clayton © 2020
Reference: The Week, March 13, 2020, page 19.