Empathy, altruism and the African elephant
Abstract: The quest to determine if non-human animals have emotional lives similar to man goes a long way back and is yet to result in a clear answer. The aim of this particular literature study is to determine whether or not the African elephant may host feelings of empathy and display altruistic behaviour. In search for an answer to this question, scientists have chosen to first evaluate the cognitive abilities of said species. They have done this through the testing of tool use, mirror self-recognition, memory and the ability to coordinate with another when performing a task etc. It is generally thought, that in order for complex emotion to exist within an individual, cognition, as an awareness of the self and others, must first be present. The African elephant has been found to perform at the same high level of cognition as chimpanzees. Empathy, although defined somewhat differently by different researchers, can be said to be the emotional state whereby an individual recognises and experiences the emotions of another. Probable evidence of empathy has been observed in both Asian and African elephants. For instance, consolation behaviour amongst Asian elephants in captivity and the apparent mourning of lost conspecifics seen amongst wild African elephants are strong indicators of such emotion. Also, the obvious, and to elephants unique, interest shown for the bones and ivory of their diseased, imply that elephant empathy is real. Altruism in elephants is more easily observed than empathy as it is a social behaviour directed outward towards another individual. The concept may be defined as: a selfless act (with or without risk for the performer) aimed at aiding another (related or non-related) individual in (perceived or actual) need. Variations of this behaviour have been thought to have been observed amongst African elephants. The attempts of a matriarch to help another, severely injured, unrelated matriarch is one example of such an act. Another is the removing of foreign objects, such as darts, spears, arrows or sharp branches, from the pierced body of a conspecific. In addition to behavioural studies, investigations of the neurological make up and internal communicational routes of the elephant brain have also been conducted. Despite their purpose not being the analysis of empathy and/or altruism specifically, the results of said studies may be discussed in relation to these concepts nonetheless. Empathy and altruism have in humans been found to occupy certain loci of the cerebellar cortex. This is interesting as the human cortex greatly resembles that of other mammals, elephants included, and the results might therefore be extrapolated onto other species. Furthermore, the elephant cortex has been shown to consist of a more intricate neuronal network, possibly potentiating a more delicate and rich signal transfer of emotions. In conclusion, there can be no firm conclusion. Empathy amongst African elephants is probable albeit not certain. As for altruism, the recorded examples of such behaviour performed by elephants are simply too few to provide a reliable answer. Further research is thus demanded.
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