The Elephant before Darwin

The Elephant before Darwin


On the Wisest of the Animals

A sculpted wooden elephant on a tan background
Toy Elephant (1939) by Orison Daeda

The elephant is an animal that has symbolized wisdom and strength throughout history. This is perhaps the most obvious throughout the Eurocentric literature of the Environmental Sciences before Charles Darwin. Although not an animal native to the region, there is no lack of mention of the elephant in European texts, from Ancient Greece and continuing into Enlightenment-era Britain and France. The literature from these authors allows significant insight into the cultural context surrounding the discovery of these animals. Rather than demonstrating knowledge of the animal’s biology, these texts allow the elephant to become a symbol that sheds light on the state of the world during the time of each respective text. The elephant becomes a symbol for the state of religious and the intellectual values of these foundational European societies throughout history. Through this, it becomes clear which parts of the globe were considered the intellectual “center”, and which ones became the periphery as a result.

In Plato’s text Critias (c. 360 BCE), one finds one mention of the elephant. Critias describes the city of Atlantis, an oasis that is spoken of as if it were paradise. Depictions of paradise are common in literature throughout history, and each helps to dictate what a certain people viewed as an ideal society. In Critias, this ideal society is Atlantis, an island city-state. The geographic location of Atlantis demonstrates that Plato, who is an Athenian himself, accepts Atlantis as part of a Greek etiology. Through this it becomes clear that Plato believes his culture has its roots in paradise. This, in its essence, forms a sense of Eurocentrism, or in this case, Greco-centrism. The elephant in this text is mentioned in a passage that describes the incredible natural attributes of Atlantis: “There was an abundance of wood for carpenter’s work, and sufficient maintenance for tame and wild animals. Moreover, there were a great number of elephants in the island; for as there was provision for all other sorts of animals, both for those which live in lakes and marshes and rivers, and also for those which live in mountains and on plains, so there was for the animal which is the largest and most voracious of all.” The use of the word “abundance” here helps to illuminate the idea that Atlantis is a place of paradise, and that it is through this paradise of natural wonders that elephants are able to thrive in this environment. Although Plato does not go into great detail about the elephants themselves, it is obvious that they hold immense power and are animals to be respected when Plato writes that they are “the largest and most voracious of all.” In this sense, the elephant serves little purpose except to highlight the strengths of this island, and, in turn, the strengths and abilities of its people, who are essentially Greek. In fact, it does not shed the most flattering light on the animal which one now associates with great wisdom and intellect; all that the readers learn of the elephant is that it consumes great amounts of food and therefore must signal the natural abundance of its habitat. The elephant in this text serves as a symbol for power and intelligence of the this island society, and by extension it’s people, rather than that of the animal itself. And in turn, it serves as a symbol of greatness for Greece and hence, Greco-centrism.

A great shift is apparent in the perception of elephants in Aristotle’s work The Parts of Animals (c. 350) from a symbolic importance of elephants to a clearly more “scientific” view of their worth. Aristotle, like Plato, uses the elephant—as well as scientific knowledge in a broader sense—to once again place Greece in the forefront of knowledge and therefore power. However, whereas in Plato it is clear that the natural abundance that the People of Atlantis experience is through their superiority and graces from Poseidon, Aristotle credits “nature” when describing the size of the elephants. Aristotle notes:

There are horns also in all animals that have not been provided by nature with some other means of security; such means, for instance, as speed, which has been given to horses; or great size . . . such as has been given to these animals, and in a still greater measure to elephants, is sufficient in itself to protect an animal from being destroyed by others.

The animal in this text has less to do with proving the superiority of the Greek people through symbol, but does so through establishing intellectual superiority and more importantly the establishment of scientific knowledge. An elephant is clearly not an animal native to Greece, nor to any part of Europe. The knowledge of the existence of these animals in the first place, as well as further empirical knowledge of their anatomy, such as is presented in Aristotle, is impressive. Moreover, by writing authoritatively about the elephant, Aristotle allows the biology of these foreign and exotic animals to be told—and therefore claimed—by a Greek scholar.

Further evidence of the Greek claim to knowledge is found when Aristotle discusses the sexual reproduction of Elephants. “In the elephant also there are but two mammae, which are placed under the axillae of the forelimbs . . . A single young one is of course a first-born, and so such animals as only produce a single young one must have these anterior dugs to present to it; that is they must have the dugs which are under the axillae.” Once again, there is a use of scientific language in describing elephant anatomy, as well as the knowledge that elephants only produce a small number of offspring. A European intellectual claiming knowledge about something of which he has no firsthand experience can be seen time and time again throughout these early writers. The establishment of this idea determines Aristotle as well as Greek scholars in the forefront of scientific knowledge and therefore superior.

Pliny the Elder’s first-century Natural History offers a broad view on a diverse range of animals. With the change from Greek to Roman thinkers, so too is there a shift from Greco-centrism to Roman-centrism and with it a change in representation of elephants. Pliny writes:

Let us now pass on to the other animals, and first of all to the land animals. The elephant is the largest of them all, and in intelligence approaches the nearest to man. It understands the language of its country, it obeys commands, and it remembers all the duties which it has been taught. It is sensible alike of the pleasures of love and glory, and, to a degree that is rare among men even, possesses notions of honesty, prudence, and equity; it has a religious respect also for the stars, and a veneration for the sun and the moon. (8.1)

What is interesting to note here is the likening of elephants to man. With this is the implication that the most man like animal is the best. In the text, the elephant is the first animal to be mentioned after man himself. This indicated that the elephant is high in the natural hierarchy, and is therefore high in the social hierarchy as well. By describing the elephant as obedient as well as religious it seems as though Pliny is attributing all positive qualities of the ideal man onto this species of animal. The veneration for sun and moon and religious respect for the stars links the species to the Roman people who likewise worshipped gods of the natural elements.

By positioning the elephant as an animal that possess great intelligence, it allows all those who can tame the animal to appear even more superior. Pliny writes: “The first harnessed elephants that were seen at Rome were in the triumph of Pompeius Magnus over Africa, when they drew his chariot; a thing that is said to have been done long before, at the triumph of Father Liber on the conquest of India.” (8.2) While it is clear that Pliny is praising Pompeius Magnus by mentioning his defeat of Africa, he is even further praised by the notion that he was able to tame such incredible animals as the elephant. Pliny admits that this was not the first example of a tamed elephant. He does, however, attribute the first tamed elephant to the triumph of Father Liber who is a Roman figure and therefore a leader of a foreign land. Not only are the elephants tamed, but they are a symbol of success, as they are connected to the winning chariot, which, in turn, is directly controlled by man. One can imagine the powerful image of a chariot being pulled by elephants; it would certainly make the driver seem impressive.

Pliny allots many sections of his text to the Elephants, and all of them engage with people. This makes sense, as Elephants are not animals native to Europe and so it would be difficult to collect all information about Elephants without relying on the stories of others. In this regard, this Natural History seems to be a compilation of knowledge that is constructed through many human testimonies. Pliny discusses the global desire for ivory: “These animals are well aware that the only spoil that we are anxious to procure of them is the part which forms their weapon of defence, by Juba, called their horns, but by Herodotus, a much older writer, as well as by general usage and more appropriately, their teeth.” (8.4) Pliny establishes his text as one with historical context when he mentions Herodotus, a writer from the fifth century BCE. The lineage that places Herodotus as the historical expert on elephants comes from a Eurocentric perspective, given that the species that cannot be found in that area. In this way, much like hunters sought after ivory, the only knowledge Western thinkers are “anxious to procure of” the elephant is that which can be used to serve a purpose to the people of whom the text is written. By taking away the part of the elephant that they use as for defense, ivory hunters are effectively taking away the part of the elephant that makes it physically superior to humans, aside from their size. Human’s obsession with taking away an animal’s sense of power reinforces humans as the top of the natural hierarchy. This is further shown as Pliny discusses the fear in nature of man: “No doubt, such is the law of Nature, such is the influence of her power—the most savage and the very largest of wild beasts have never seen that which they have reason to fear, and yet instantly have an instinctive feeling of dread, when the moment has come for them to fear” (8.5) That which elephants have to fear are humans themselves. Pliny attributes this fear to a “natural” order, which is another way of furthering the legitimacy of the superiority of humans over other animals, even the “largest of wild beasts,” the elephant. It is not even the sight of humans that make the elephant fear them, but simply their inherent superiority, much as a pray instinctively fears its predator.

Not only do elephants help to signify the superiority of man over animals, but the superiority of one population of humans over the others. According to Pliny,

“In the year 502 [BCE] a great number of them were brought to Rome, which had been taken by the pontiff Metellus, in his victory gained in Sicily over the Carthaginians; . . . Verrius informs us that they fought in the Circus, and that they were slain with javelins, for want of some better method of disposing of them; as the people neither liked to keep them nor yet to give them to the kings” (8.6).

The violent use of elephants signifies the inferiority of the Carthaginians, who solely used these magnificent beasts in circuses. In the eyes of the Carthaginians, elephants were not even good enough as gifts to their King. For Pliny, this shows the ignorance and stupidity of the Carthaginians who did not see the full potential of the elephants, unlike the Romans who used them in battle and as tamed beasts. Rome is portrayed as the ultimate society, as shown by their successes in Carthage, as well as their use of the Elephant. In this instance, the elephant is used, once again, as a symbol of power of one people in contrast to another. It helps to further the Roman-centrism found in this time as well as to establish and prove the natural hierarchy of man over nature. Just as Plato uses elephants to highlight the strengths of the Greek People, Pliny affirms the superiority of Rome in his writings on the animals. Whereas Plato uses an almost completely allegorical writing to show the Greek superiority, Pliny relies on far more historical context of Elephants.

It has been noted previously that ivory was considered extremely valuable. Ivory was considered a symbol for status, just as elephants can themselves were. When discussing Ethiopians, Pliny notes: “Tusks of enormous size are constantly to be seen in the temples; but, in the extreme parts of Africa, on the confines of Æthiopia, they are employed as door-posts for houses; and Polybius informs us, on the authority of the petty king Gulussa [of northern Africa], that they are also employed as stakes in making fences for the folds of cattle.” (8.10) There are two interesting aspects of this quotation: First that Pliny seeks his knowledge on this culture from a Greek scholar, author of the second-century BCE text The Histories. This allows Pliny to place his work in a Greek lineage that puts the Greeks and Romans in the position of global keepers of knowledge. The second, and more relevant to elephants, is the description of the use of ivory in these communities. Communities that, I would add, are not European, as both Ethiopia and the area from which king Gulussa hails are in Africa. The use of such a valuable substance as elephant tusks for such mundane purposes as doorposts and stakes in fences makes these populations appear somewhat inferior for not realizing this material’s full worth. This is another instance of othering, as well as furthering the idea of superiority of the European people.

There is a clear passage of knowledge from scholar to scholar that becomes evident when Pliny describes the reproductive qualities of the elephant: “The vulgar notion is that the elephant goes with young ten years; but, according to Aristotle, it is two years only. He says also that the female only bears once, and then a single young one; that they live two hundred years, and some of them as much as three hundred.” (8.10). Here, one sees that Aristotle has had a direct impact on the knowledge that Pliny presents. In this passage, Aristotle is seen as the source that Pliny trusts. This is evident through the contrast between what is considered the “vulgar” notion, something that one must assume Pliny does not agree with, and the Aristotelian knowledge that the elephant is pregnant for merely two years. It is unclear who held the “vulgar notion.” The use of vulgar in this quotation, however, insinuates a certain amount of inferiority; a source of knowledge beneath Aristotle and consequently Pliny.

The historical influences on Pliny do not end at Aristotle. There is a very Hippocratic notion presented when discussing the preferences of the elephant in this chapter. Pliny notes:

“They are especially fond of water, and wander much about streams, and this although they are unable to swim, in consequence of their bulk. They are particularly sensitive to cold, and that, indeed, is their greatest enemy. They are subject also to flatulency, and to looseness of the bowels, but to no other kind of disease.” (8.10)

This harkens back to the Hippocratic idea that humans and animals are affected by their natural surroundings, an idea that Pliny mirrors in his own writing. This is shown through their sensitivity to cold as well as the movement of their bowels as a result of exposure to cold climates. Hippocrates considers similar ideas when he states: “A city that is exposed to hot winds . . . and to which these are peculiar, but which is sheltered from the north winds; in such a city the waters will be plenteous and saltish, and as they run from an elevated source, they are necessarily hot in summer, and cold in winter; . . . their [Elephants] bellies subject to frequent disorders” (Hippocrates on Airs, Waters, and Places). Although not describing the same phenomenon, Hippocrates explains the health effects of experiencing weather that is “peculiar” to an area.

Bestiaries are a collection of tales and anecdotes of exotic beasts that were distributed en masse in the medieval times. They were so widely distributed, in fact, that they were the second most popular kind of text after the Bible during these times. When one moves onto The Bestiary: A Book of Beasts, a medieval bestiary translated into English by T. H. White, and its description of the elephant, it becomes clear the shift back to allegorical teachings that was found in Plato. The Book of Beasts allots a few pages to describe the elephant, but not in the more empirical ways in which Pliny does. When discussing the reproductive qualities of the Elephant, something that is been discussed in almost all of the texts examined in this essay, The Bestiary: A Book of Beasts notes: “If one of them [an Elephant] wants to have a baby, he goes eastward toward Paradise, and there is a tree there called Mandragora, and he goes with his wife. She first takes of the tree and then gives some to her spouse. When they munch it up, it seduces them, and she immediately conceives in her womb.” (26) This text brings back the idea of Paradise that was found and described in Plato’s Critias. Here, however, Paradise is no longer located in Greece but further east. Although no specific location is mentioned here, it can be assumed that the general eastward movement can be towards the religious origins of Christianity. This becomes more obvious when one realizes the religious teachings of this text; the tree named Mandragora mentioned here is later revealed to be the Biblical tree of knowledge. Elephant reproduction, then, involves a re-staging of the fall of Adam and Eve, one that allots the role of Adam and Eve to the elephants. Pliny presented elephants as the animals the most similar to man, and here, their connection to Adam and Eve furthers the idea that elephants are man like by representing them as the original man and woman in Christian theology. This text strays from the scientific tones of Pliny as well as Aristotle, as there is no specific mention of conception but merely the vague description of both the male and female elephants eating from this tree. The purpose of this text, then, is not to portray elephants as they actually are in nature, but to use them as a teaching tool for religious ideals. This reflects the ideals of the Middle Ages from which this text originates.

Buffon, who wrote his Natural History in the 1700s comes a while after those writers that have been previously discussed. His Natural History marks a shift to a more practical manner of thinking, from the fanciful Book of Beasts, Plato, and even Pliny. Buffon writes:

The camel is the genuine treasure of Asia. He is more valuable than the elephant; for he may be said to perform an equal quantity of labour at a twentieth part of the expense. Besides, the whole species are under subjection to man, who propagates and multiplies them at pleasure. But he has no such dominion over the elephants, whom he cannot multiply, and the individuals of whom he conquers with great labour and difficulty. (123)

Here it is clear that Buffon admires the practicality of the camel far more than the grandeur of the elephant. In fact, the large size of the elephant seems to be a negative. This section suggests that an animal’s greatest attributes are those which allow it to be useful to man. In this we see, once again, the natural hierarchy that allows man to sit on top. If man cannot have dominion over the elephant, then what use is it in the grand scheme of things? Buffon introduces the idea of humans breeding animals and the prospects this may hold. Through breeding, humans are able to control the natural order of things by changing the very genetics of a species in a far more direct way than they previously could. This further solidifies humans’ place at the top of the hierarchy. Although humans appear to be superior to the camel, it is not clear that this is the case with the elephant. It seems as though the elephant, being unable to be tamed by man, is of far greater strength and therefore would be assumed to be greater than man himself. In this we see the beginnings of the abolition of the unquestioned opinion that man is greater than any animal.

There are further examples of elephants being used in religious ways in William Paley’s text the Natural Theology or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity. Written in the early nineteenth century, this work outlines Paley’s idea on the existence of god through the creatures that he has created. Paley argues that in looking at man and all living creatures, one can see the divine design that allows one to believe that there is a god. This can be seen through his description and explanation of the elephant’s trunk. Paley writes: “Were we to enter into an examination of the structure and anatomy of the proboscis itself, we should see in it one of the most curious of all examples of animal mechanism . . . taken together, exhibit a specimen, not only of design (which is attested by the advantage), but of consummate art, and, as I may say, of elaborate preparation, in accomplishing that design.” (267-277) The design and elaborate preparation that Paley speaks of helps to determine the divine origins of the Elephant. Here, the uniqueness of the elephant further Paley’s religious argument, much as the Book of Beasts used elephants in its religious teachings. In these examples, one sees the religious nature of the elephant and how its grandeur and exoticness, as well as its likeness to man, can be used to prove the existence of a paradise, of the fall of Adam and Eve, and here as proof of a divine origin. It is the last text within which the deity is overtly present, as there is a transition from god in science, to science without divine explanations.

Around about the same time as Paley, Jean-Babtiste Lamarck was writing his text on evolution. Within this text we see the emergence of deep time, a geological notion that the earth had existed far before the theological timeline beings with the creation of Adam and Eve. The emergence of a scientific timeline helped to dispel the theological one that had previously prevailed in mainstream academia, as well as throughout the masses. Lamarck describes the ways in which parts of animals are either developed through their continual use, or diminished through inaction. Regarding the elephant, Lamarck writes: “From this habit of consuming, every day, huge volumes of material for nourishment, which distends the organs taking it in, and from the habit of only carrying out moderate movements the result is that the bodies of these animals have grown considerably thicker . . . as we see in elephants” (Zoological Philosophy). Lamarck describes the reason behind the elephant’s larger frame. None of his explanations, however, include divine reasoning. The reason the elephant is large is because of its relative laziness and the large sums of food it consumes, not because a god had decided that it would be this way.

Even further down the line, there is Darwin, who, writing in the mid-nineteenth century shows absolutely no inference to a god in his writing. He uses elephants to prove his theory of descent by writing: “the same number of vertebrae forming the neck of the giraffe and of the elephant—and innumerable other such facts, at once explain themselves on the theory of descent with slow and slight successive modifications” (Origin of Species). It is clear that in this part of Environmental sciences, the elephant as well as the scientist is void of any religious meaning. The elephant is presented in its most “scientifically accurate” portrayal, and as such signifies the end of religion in science as well as the innate superiority of man over animal.

The Elephant has symbolized the state of the world from the very first mention in Plato, to the detailing in Darwin. Through the evolution of its portrayal one is able to trace the changes in society. Where the elephant is described in its relation to a deity, it becomes clear the importance of religion in the Middle Ages. Where the Elephant is described in a scientific manner, we view the emergence of empirical study as well as the critical theories of Evolution. The Elephant is a symbol of Wisdom and is often described as the closest animal to Man himself. Through this there is a unique perspective and lens through which humanity can portray itself.

Works Cited

Aristotle. On the Parts of Animals. MIT Classics. MIT. Web.

Buffon, Georges Louis Leclerc, comte de. Natural History: General and Particular. Eighteenth Century Texts Online. University of Michigan. Web.;idno=004880992.0001.009

Darwin, Charles. The origin of Species. The Online Literature Library. Web.

Hippocrates. Hippocrates on Airs, Waters, and Places. MIT Classics, MIT. Web.

Lamarck, J. B. Zoological Philosophy. Vancouver Island University. Web.

Paley, William. Natural Theology. Darwin Online. Web.

Plato. Critias. MIT Classics. MIT. Web.

Pliny. The Natural History. Tufts University. Web.

White, Theodore Harold (Editor). The Book of Beasts. The University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries. Web.

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