The Halt and the Blind
Disconnecting Your Left Brain

Signs of Intelligent Life

DreamingartI seem to be a little late to this party too, as usual, but I just saw the video of the elephant painting what looks to me like a self-portrait with a flower on Cute Overload. I got chills. It really freaked me out. In the background all the tourists are clapping and awww-ing like, "that's so cute." And all the while, this enormous trunk is delicately holding this tiny brush, hovering over the paper as though musing on the precise spot to start, stabbing down, drawing these perfect lines in one go to make a perfect cartoon of an elephant holding a bright flower in its trunk: a quick line for the ear, a dot for the eye, no tusks because she's too young to have any, four legs in perspective, a curvy line to suggest the ear. It's perfect. Perfect. The first thing I thought of was the cave drawings at Lascaux. The bison and horses there have the same clean lines. It wasn't people doing them. It was elephants. Wouldn't that be a good joke?

There are a number of painting elephants, apparently, and have been before this. Two Russian-born conceptual artists have been teaching Thai elephants, who are out of logging jobs due to deforestation, how to paint. You can buy their abstract doodles on Novica. Yeah, so elephants paint like cats paint. Watch this vid and see if you think it's the same thing.

Now take a look at those Lascaux paintings again. See any similarities?

Here's why this video terrified me: If Lascaux was one of the first glimmers of intelligence from genus homo, what does this painting say about genus elephas? Elephants are one of the few species besides humans who recognize themselves in mirrors. This suggests some kind of self-awareness. And art like this is deceptively simple.   Just getting the two legs in the proper perspective, behind the others, is a feat kids don't manage to master right off when they draw. It was the wavy line to suggest the ear that really chilled me though, because that seems to me to show a sense of abstraction, a higher cognitive function. Who's to say this isn't a self-portrait?

Watching this drawing being made was like watching ET trying to communicate, and Christy Brown drawing his first letter in "My Left Foot," and the recent video "In My Language," which gives the lie to the idea that all autistic people are mentally deficient. In all three cases, we find intelligence where we least expect it, revealed in an unexpected way. Which only makes me wonder how many other species, what other species, we've underestimated and failed to communicate with or even consider, in our tool-building arrogance.


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