We are often asked to justify the link between elephant intelligence (or cognition) research with conservation. For years, when applying for grants, I tried to find the best way to draw a link between work in the laboratory and in-situ, field conservation. Recently, I was encouraged by comments from Indian and Sri Lankan wildlife officials who expressed disappointment and frustration with the overall lack of elephant behavior knowledge.
Interesting, I thought, as conservation organizations usually focus on protecting natural habitat and mitigating human-elephant conflict (extremely important areas of focus, no doubt), and rarely focus on elephant behavior as it relates to conservation practice. That's where we come in.
PART I: What is comparative psychology when elephants are the focus?
As a comparative psychologist by training, my primary scientific interest is in convergent cognitive evolution, specifically for social cognition. What this means is that I study elephants to better understand the evolution of complex social behavior in general. Most primatologists and comparative psychologists focus on non-human primates (monkeys and the Great Apes) because these animals help us better understand the evolution of human behavior. If a chimpanzee can do something we can do, but a monkey can not, this may indicate that our common ancestor possessed the same cognitive trait. If the monkey can do it also, this may indicate the cognitive trait evolved even earlier.
This reasoning doesn't work for the human / elephant comparison, as the estimated split between humans and elephants is 600,000,000 years ago, and our common ancestor is shared by so many species that it would be impractical and probably inaccurate to draw direct evolutionary comparisons. This means that if elephants (and dolphins and birds for that matter) possess similar cognitive traits to humans, they probably evolved independently but quite possibly for similar reasons. One hypothesis suggests that elephants, dolphins, corvids and primates share complex social intelligence (i.e., they are able to "think" about the importance of such relationships and how they work) because of an important, environmental need (one we do not yet understand) for big, or complex social groups. This may seem like a circular argument. Think of it this way -- eusocial insects (ants, honeybees, etc.), species that form complex social groups around a single or very few breeding individuals, are incredibly complex socially. There is a social hierarchy with role assignment and size dimorphism. But it is highly unlikely that it is cognition or thought that drives honeybees to sacrifice themselves for their hive, or intelligence that drive soldier ants to bite onto your leg when you step into their workers' way. This type of complex cooperation is driven by kin selection (the need to protect your kin, which in eusocial insects are 3/4 like you (i.e., you share 75% of your genes with them) - a fraction that is higher than the 1/2 proportion by which human parents are related to their siblings or their children), and this genetic, evolutionary mechanism, not calculated thought, explains the complexity. This, of course, doesn't mean that the complexity of human cooperation within family groups is not driven by some important cognitive mechanism (like empathy), or a calculation of "you scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours"...but it does mean that not all cooperation in the animal kingdom evolved the same way or uses the same cognition, even if behaviorally, it may look the same.
The fact is, behavior can be described simply by observing it, but understanding the difference in how different animals think through the same behavior is much more difficult. If a pair of elephants help a baby out of a mud pit, are they thinking the same way as a pride of lions taking down a gazelle together, or ants working together to attack an intruder? Probably not.
So what drives elephant cooperation, and is it simple cognition or remarkable intelligence that drives the behavior elephants are so well known for? And, if it's the latter, how does that help better inform conservation practice with wild elephants? Stay tuned for Part II.....
Josh Plotnik, Ph.D.