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Can we accept human limitations?

av Adele Änggård

During the last fifty years many questions have been raised about our behaviour and why we react as we do socially. The neuroscientist and psychologist G.A. Bradshaw in her book Elephants on the Edge explains how we humans fail to understand the importance of mammal’s natural social groupings, as central in producing socially healthy conditions for their young. She focuses on how humans in failing to understand themselves have undermined behaviour in elephant herds in the national parks of Africa. Bradshaw’s book is one of many works during the last century, which has called for heightened humanitarianism and a better understanding of human’s mental limitations as part of the animal kingdom.
Already in 1999 Bergljot Børresen suggests in her book Den ensamma apan (The lonely Ape ) that people today have forgotten some of their most basic socialising instincts. As a veterinary scientist she describes how our closest genetic ancestors, the Bonobos chimpanzee, after a conflict, solve their differences by grooming each other and showing affection. In Zaire the Mongandu people will starve rather than hunt the Bonobos chimps for food, feeling the Bonobos are too closely related.1 The anthropologist Julia Lehmann happily discusses the chimpanzees, comparing their relationships to that of humans.2 Her colleagues Kit Opie and Camilla Power discuss kinship as found related to grandmothering and the female coalitions among chimps. They make it clear their social organisation have similarities that help us to understand humans. Opie and Power describe inter-female socialising and inter-supportive female union as central in chimp relationships. It is around this female central organisation security is formed, to promote conditions where healthy mental development is possible among baby apes.3 Bradshaw in studying the less closely related mammals – elephants, show it is the female knowhow that contributes to forming the structure of the herd. Vital social knowledge is passed on over several generations through the female example.

How animal are we?

Darwin would have been amazed by such research today, after his efforts in 1872 in The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals. He was well aware popular beliefs at the time, opposed any suggestions of an emotional likeness between humans and animal behaviour.
Today both Bradshaw and Børresen’s are evidence of essential additions to Darwin’s initial ideas. Børresen bases her work on the idea that humans have trained themselves through recent history to switch off the emotions.4 Therefore she traces the evolution of the emotions and instincts to the oldest part of the brain, as found in reptiles. She shows how this brain area is still active in mammals and humans today.
She cites the neuropsychologist Paul D. MacLean who became interested in the oldest part of the human brain, the central limbic system, which humans share with all animals, reptiles included. This is the bit of the brain connected to feelings of empathy and verbal speech.5 It is the part of the brain that makes the mother crocodile, just before her eggs hatch, gently carry each egg down to the water side and guard them until the young can take care of themselves. The limbic system MacLean discovered contains feelings and instincts, which are indispensable to the functioning of all other areas of the brain. Even when humans lose consciousness or are put under anaesthetic there is one part of the brain that remains conscious. The reptile brain is so closely bound to the body that it continues to register what happens. This knowledge will remain buried within each animal or person, influencing how they react and reason in later life.

Two genders are required for social stability

A question that is seldom asked is why two genders were a necessary factor in animal survival, ever since reptiles? Why is the mother crocodile brain’s development a contributions to species survival? Through ice ages conditions and extremes of climatic change, why should two genders have been necessary in order to survive?
It is this critical question which Børresen and Bradshaw both handle, if a little bit differently. Børresen points out humans’ mistake is that they have totally isolated themselves from other species. While both authors suggest humans still have an innate curiosity about their earlier neighbours, meaning they display them in circuses or at zoos, in the latter form carefully locked behind bars. This leads to Bradshaw’s deep concern for the unnatural cooped up conditions in zoo cages, where the mortality rate is high. Nor do circus conditions always draw out the best in human reactions, which she explains by citing her interviews with the warder Ray Ryan, who talks of elephants as treated by humans, saying;
“It’s hard to describe, but when you eventually get control over someone who has no natural control and is so big, well, it makes you feel big. It is a real display of machismo … You could show you were a real man if you could beat down a big powerful animal”.6
Bradshaw notes ‘gender’ is a recurring theme for Ryan, he also says “men are still beating up women, still trying to run the world with domination”. He also notes most elephants in captivity are female.
What he is describing can be related to Børresen’s example of the pressures that make people ‘switching off’ their feelings. In Ryan’s example how feelings get ‘switched off’ is to conform to a macho ideal. It is extremes of stress, which cause this unnatural form of domination.
Today our society urgently needs to better understand the female contribution of empathy and nurturing in mammal communities. The mother/child empathy seems to be an active factor in retaining the social balance in the group’s internal relationships. It is this that prevents the male defence instincts – needed when attacks come from the outside – from being redirected to internal aggressive behaviour. Within the group it is this which un­balances social stability. Internal destruction within elephant groups is one of Bradshaw’s primary concerns.
Bradshaw’s book on elephants is a study that focuses on the psychological and social needs of elephants. In tracing elephant social bonding and their emotional make-up, she brings us face to face with human emotional reactions as well and what our mental limitations mean for the community as a whole.
Like many mammal groups, humans and ­elephants have close knit kinship needs, which have to be fulfilled as part of a learning process, to retain internal healthy group bonding, over generations. Like humans, when elephants are unreasonably pressurised, the result can be disorientation and fear, known as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).7 Not because elephants are ‘weak minded’ or ‘mentally inadequate’ but because like humans their basic emotional needs are out of tune with the group’s value system. When the community has come to ignore that the young have to start life in a state of security, the young are robbed of an ability to make good their empathy potential.

Admiration is not empathy

All life seems inter related and inter-dependant in a network of social group relationships, built on imitated instincts and knowledge imbibed over generations. These are the healthy mental conditions that enable the herd to minutely adapt to the tight fitting and ever changing ecological conditions, in harmony with other animals.
Bradshaw describes humans contradictory behaviour in their treatment of elephants, which is everything from life endangerment to elephant worship. All this says more about humans than it does about elephants, which is Bradshaw’s point in explaining what goes wrong.
“Perhaps by understanding humanity’s contradictory behaviour toward elephants, we can find out something about ourselves and why, on one hand we admire elephants, spending time and money to study, watch, and care for them, yet we are willing to subject them to conditions that threaten their extinction and cause undue pain”.8
Bradshaw has worked on specially created reserves, where badly treated animals can be given respite. The conditions attempt to offer an opportunity to re-find mutual empathy and the mental calm elephants impart to each other in the wild. She clarifies why this social unity for mammals is an essential part of the group’s social structure and security. By trying to control and ‘dominate the world’ on their own terms, humans have broken down this mentally stable state.

Bild:The balance of life’ by A. Änggård 2013.
Inspired by Janine Antoni and with thanks to Marija Gimbutas 1999:37 ‘The Living Goddesses’.
The figurine is from the Starcevo culture, southeastern Hungary, 5600-5300 bce.

Breaking the bond of empathy

An example of this is when Bradshaw visited Pilanesberg National Park, two hours from Johannesburg she learnt from the park personnel that dead rhinoceroses had been found curiously gored. Two young male elephants were suspected that had uncharacteristically also been seen harassing older females. Other parks show similarly disturbing results.
While seeking to conserve precious wildlife, the warders’ habit was to cull the older elephants, leaving the orphans.9 When infant elephants lose their parents an important learning process is broken, which older female elephants had naturally supplied. The adult male elephants played an equally important part, by respecting the female contribution and being a role model of non-aggression within the group. This is socially vital for internal stability.
When a baby elephant witnesses the cold blooded slaughter of it’s parents by warders, the traumatic experience cause results that threaten stability, which are not straight forward.10 Bradshaw explains –
‘It is the removal of the centre of existence from the living body without completely snapping the connection. In the presence of over-whelming life-threatening violence, the soul – the true self – flees’.11
The mental flight can be seen as what Børresen defines as the brain ‘switching off’ and which Ryan has describes as ‘male disrespect, necessary to satisfy a distorted macho need’. In Bradshaw’s words:
“The tissues of community can be damaged in much the same way as the tissues of mind and body, but even when that does not happen, traumatic wounds inflicted on individuals can combine to create a mood, an ethos – a group culture, almost – that is different from (and more than) the sum of the private wounds”.12
Culling elephant herds was a method of controlling numbers in a restricted area, not intended to break the stability of the animal’s social structure. Humans had not thought they were violating the animal culture or destroying the fundament on which the mammal social structures depend. Peop­le as ‘lonely apes’ had not credited animals with feelings. They had not viewed animal reactions as comparable to their own. They had ‘switched off’ their psychological reactions.
This was why in the African reserves the results were not recognised by the warders until it was too late. That they were manipulating the network of relationships that kept elephant communities stable and without which elephants turned violent was a foreign consideration. It lay outside their cultural heritage.

Another type of human

Both authors (Børresen and Bradshaw) are deeply concerned by our cultural heritage. Bradshaw likens the elephant situation to that of humans’ social difficulties, and she observes, ‘humans are producing another type of elephant’.13
In the epilogue she writes:
To save the elephants, we must let go of the very things that have protected us from being treated like them: our self-appointed dominion and privilege.14
She continues –
If we lose the elephants, we lose ourselves. Trauma refuses to stay with the victim alone.15
Here she is making an enormously important point. Trauma afflicts a perpetrator, who (like the baby elephant), seeks relief by aggression. The abused baby male elephant becomes the victim of his own emotional fear. He has been put into circumstance where he had to ‘switch off’ his emotions of fear in order to survive. Once mothering instincts had been removed his unleashed ­defensive instincts run out of control. He becomes out of sync with his instincts and reptile brain, and his behaviour is no longer logical when seen from a humanitarian angle.
In Bradshaw’s book she is making the conclusive and ominous statement about what she saw and worked to prevent on the reserves. Her point is ‘we are doing the same thing to humans’ – we are producing another type of human.16
These two books and the research they cover are well worth reading, for anyone with a moral and humanitarian interest in preventing the present upsurge of violence in human communities across the globe.


  1. Børresen (1999-16) Den ensamma apan, Stockholm: Prisma.
  2. Juliea Lehmann (2008:160) ‘Meaning and Relevance of Kinship in Great Apes’ in edit Allen et al, Early Human Kinship, U.K.: RAI and Blackwell Publishing.
  3. Kit Opie and Camilla Power (2008:169) ‘Grand-mothering and Female Coalitions’ in edit Allen et al, Early Human Kinship, U.K.: RAI and Blackwell Publishing.
  4. Børresen (1999-11)
  5. Ibid (1999-112,113)
  6. Bradshaw (2001:211) Elephants on the Edge, USA: Yale University Press.
  7. Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD, which is a state where people can need continued help to stay in balance.
  8. Bradshaw (2009:189)
  9. Ibid (2009:xvi)
  10. Trauma and PTSD in elephants is discussed all through the book as a result of social conditions. Chapter 9 is one fairly explicit example of how Bradshaw and her colleagues are thinking in trying to help the elephants.
  11. Bradshaw (2006:119) In making this comment Bradshaw likens what she describes to what Edward Tick observes in war veterans who suffer from PTSD. Edward Tick, War and the Soul, Quest books 2005.
  12. Bradshaw (2006:249) She goes on to say we are responsible for others response…This infinite responsibility entails the imperative to question ourselves constantly.
  13. Ibid . Exactly how, is dealt with at length in chapter 7 of her book. In this chapter she shows how humans have built a system that is dehumanising.
  14. Ibid (2006:249)
  15. Ibid
    16 Ibid (2006:112) Bradshaw observes “ . . an elephant who undergoes traumas from childhood through adulthood will exhibit behaviour comparable to humans who have undergone similar experiences, we learn that psychiatric diagnoses fit across the species.”