Elephants: We Hardly Knew Them, a Conversation with Dale Peterson

Dale Peterson has spent his career writing about subjects ranging from art and literature to computers to psychiatry to travel, including penning the biography Jane Goodall: The Woman Who Redefined Man

When it came to elephants, Peterson decided the history, strength, intelligence, and dominance of the world’s largest land animal were better explored in words that had already been written. Thirty-Three Ways of Looking at an Elephant is a diverse anthology of stories, essays, and scientific pieces that paints a vivid portrait of the species and its many complexities. Excerpts range from a discussion of elephants’ unconditional loyalty for each other to an examination of the first Sanskrit writings about the animal. 

We took a minute to talk with Peterson about why and how he selected the work for Thirty-Three Ways of Looking at an Elephant, as well as his hopes for the book.

TF: Is there a particular reason you chose to focus on elephants? 

DP: I love elephants. They are magnificent and among the most intelligent and interesting animals on the planet. They are also seriously threatened by human expansion, greed, and folly. Therefore they deserve all the help and attention we can give. 

I have taken the time to produce this book as a way of helping, in my own small way, to educate the public about this magnificent and seriously threatened group of animals. (There are three species—Asian elephants, African savanna elephants, and African forest elephants.)

TF: What about them as animals is especially significant to you? 

DP: Four things make them very special: their size, intelligence, emotionality, and female-dominant societies. Size is the most obvious. They are earth’s largest land animals. Everyone knows that, but they are still, I believe, bigger than most people imagine, given that most people have experienced them at a distance in limited and constrained circumstances. Closer up, their enormous size becomes more obvious, although even then it may not fully register.

On the university campus where I taught for many years, there is a life-sized bronze statue of P. T. Barnum’s famous African elephant Jumbo, who was, according to Barnum, “tremendous and unparalleled . . . in stature.” I took some students out one evening, along with a small ladder, to measure the height of the statue. We found the bronze Jumbo to be about eleven feet tall. After we finished measuring the statue, we went into one of the university’s lecture halls, a room with high ceilings, around ten and a half feet high. An older adult male African savanna elephant would destroy that lecture hall just trying to fit inside. 

Elephants’ intelligence cannot easily be measured, but it is a fact that their brains are three times the size of human brains, by weight, and contain some 250 billion neurons, roughly three times the number of neurons in a human brain. The greater cognitive abilities of the human brain are not, then, strictly a matter of size or neural density but rather the result of structure and specialization. Human brains have a comparatively larger cerebral cortex, with around three times the number of neurons of an elephant’s cerebral cortex.

Emotionality is something the book documents quite well. Elephants are clearly emotional (mothers unquestionably love their offspring, for example, and siblings give every indication of sheer joy in playing with each other). One significant aspect of that emotionality is their empathy, which is documented both in several interesting anecdotes and some scientific research. Elephants are inclined to help each other, relatives and nonrelatives alike, in dangerous circumstances. 

The female dominance of elephant societies is certainly one of the most remarkable things about them, since the great majority of mammalian societies are male dominant, a social and behavioral phenomenon based at least in part on the fact that, for most mammals, males are bigger and more aggressive. Older adult males are, in fact, dominant to females on an individual basis, but females still dominate elephant society. Males leave their birth group at adolescence and become generally, though not entirely, asocial. Elephants are matriarchal, in short, which is a special and wonderful fact about their lives and behavior. 

TF: How did you go about researching the pieces you selected for the book?

DP: When I began this project, I already had a sense that its basic structure should be historical. In terms of the history of human awareness of elephants, I knew that the earliest writing on elephants was in Sanskrit, written by inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent thousands of years ago; that elephants had come to the Mediterranean Basin as a result of Alexander the Great’s march of conquest into the Indian subcontinent in the fourth century BCE; that Aristotle was the first person with a scientific orientation to describe elephants; that Europeans had no contact with elephants for about a thousand years after the Fall of Rome; and that a major shift in modern European awareness about these animals began during the colonial period, a time when European “sport” hunters came to Africa with their big guns and small minds. 

Then I began looking more closely and intensively for the most important and most readable written material. I also worked to incorporate materials that provided cultural diversity, which I found in African folktales, Sanskrit texts, and twentieth-century journalism, nonfiction, and fiction from India, Japan, Vietnam, and Myanmar. As well, I tried to find a diversity of interests and orientations—romantic, pragmatic, economic, religious, and scientific. 

TF: Were there any pieces you contemplated leaving out?

DP: Perhaps the biggest conflict I had was balancing readability and relevance. I tried to select every piece based on the quality of the writing—how engaging it might be for the average intelligent reader. On one or two occasions, however, I found pieces that seemed very relevant and yet were not especially easy to read. I kept them in. 

TF: Are there particular pieces that strike you the hardest or that you see as the most important? 

DP: For me, the pieces about elephant emotion and empathy are the most compelling and important. That would include stories (J. H. Williams’s tale “A Mother’s Love,” for example, or Lawrence Anthony’s anecdote about the elephants who freed a herd of captured antelopes) and some of the research (such as in “The Good Samaritans,” Katy Payne’s interesting study on empathy-based altruism among African forest elephants). 

TF: What is your favorite experience with elephants?

DP: Field research brought me close to elephants of all three species—Asian elephants in Myanmar, African savannah elephants in Kenya, and African forest elephants in the Central African Republic. I loved every moment of that research, but being with the elephants used for harvesting teakwood in the mountainous forests of northeastern Myanmar was really the most amazing and satisfying part. These were not wild elephants, of course, but rather formerly wild ones who had been captured, tamed, and trained to work at logging in places too remote and rugged for machines to go. But they were still real elephants, and I got close enough to feel the texture of an elephant’s tusk and tongue, which is pretty darned close. 

TF: What can people do to save these creatures from extinction? 

DP: One of the most distressing pieces in the book, Bryan Christy’s “Blood Ivory” (excerpted from “Ivory Worship,” which appeared in National Geographic in 2012) describes a very active trade in illegal ivory as carved devotional objects—sculpted representations of the Virgin Mary or the baby Jesus, for example—that was and apparently still is maintained and encouraged by the Roman Catholic hierarchy in the Philippines. 

There is a second market operating, at least when Christy was researching his article, in Vatican City, where, astonishingly, the importation and sale of ivory was legal. It seems to me that a campaign to end this shameful trade could help end the larger trade in elephants’ teeth that is threatening the very existence of one of God’s greatest creations. 

More simply and practically, people can donate to Save the Elephants or the African Wildlife Foundation. Elephants are wonderful. They are conscious, intelligent, emotional, and empathetic animals. Elephants are under serious threat from humans, who are killing them at an unsustainable rate for the pleasure of “sport” and the profit that comes from selling their teeth. Do not buy ivory. Do not in any other way support the trade in ivory.


Watch an evening with Dale Peterson, ecologist Carl Safina, Felicia Nutter and Allen Rutberg of Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, as they consider popular misconceptions, ancient and traditional lore, scientific knowledge, and the reality of elephant minds and emotions.


Dale Peterson’s books have been named Best of the Year by the Boston Globe, the Denver PostDiscover, the Economist, the Globe and MailLibrary Journal, and the Village Voice. Two titles have been honored as Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times. Peterson is the author of the definitive biography Jane Goodall: The Woman Who Redefined Man, as well as Elephant ReflectionsGiraffe ReflectionsThe Moral Lives of Animals, and The Ghosts of Gombe. With Jane Goodall, he coauthored Visions of Caliban: On Chimpanzees and People, and he is coeditor, with Marc Bekoff, of The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall, published by Trinity University Press. He is also the author of the new anthology, Thirty-Three Ways of Looking at an Elephant. A former fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, Peterson teaches at Tufts University and lives in Arlington, Massachusetts.

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