The Other I

March 8, 2011

Rediscovered wisdom

The work of a professor from Cambridge University studying elephants was reported by the BBC this morning.  The report includes a video of elephants cooperating with each other to solve a problem that could not be solved by either of them alone, and suggests that this is an astonishing discovery.

Asian elephants (Image: Science Photo Library)

It goes on to say – as if this is revolutionary –  that researchers have actually documented elephants in the wild helping each other and says that we see”amazingly complex behaviours – culture, tool use, social interaction” throughout the animal kingdom.

How is it that we are just discovering what our ancestors before us knew tens of thousands of years ago – that we share with other animals our intelligence, our problem-solving abilities, our capacity to work together for mutual benefit?

My guess is that it started when Christianity adopted the Platonic two-world theory by teaching that Homo sapiens is unique, that we were created directly by God, that we have souls that set us apart from every other living thing in creation.  Bit by bit, that alienated us from all the other animals.

In some ways, it may even have alienated us from any other members of our species whom we did not recognize.  So that we have the Spanish conquistadores in what is now Latin America asking the pope in Rome to determine whether the natives were actually human.   Even in the 20th century, we have American immigration authorities declaring that newly arrived European immigrants were significantly less intelligent than those already here, because intelligent tests were given to non-English speaking immigrants in English.


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