Tuesday, July 09, 2024

Elephant names and Pliny's Elephantology

Pliny was right.

The big story about AI (when it wasn't AI but some pattern recognition computing mechanism) sorting through elephant rumblings and finding that special phonic composites are used among elephants - that they have "names" - is being touted as an ultra 21st century discovery. 

Elephant rumbles can be difficult for the human ear to differentiate, so the researchers used machine learning analysis: Essentially, they relied on A.I. to break down different elephant calls.

Individual elephants seemed to respond to certain rumbles from other elephants, and the researchers fed those sounds into their A.I. tool. “If the calls have something like a name, you should be able to figure out who the call is addressed to just from the acoustic structure of that call alone,” Dr. Pardo said.

So far, the scientists are not sure precisely which part of a vocalization might be the elephant’s “name.” But they found that their A.I. tool’s ability to identify the intended recipient of a rumble far exceeded what random chance would dictate."

Pliny the Elder finished his Natural History in 77 A.D.  Or rather, his Natural History, in terms of the volcano Vesuvius, finished with him. Here's how Pliny begins his elephantime topic:

"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.1 It is said by some authors, that, at the first appearance of the new moon, herds of these animals come down from the forests of Mauritania to a river, the name of which is Amilos;2 and that they there purify themselves in solemn form by sprinkling their bodies with water; after which, having thus saluted the heavenly body, they return to the woods, carrying before them3 the young ones which are fatigued. They are supposed to have a notion, too, of the differences of religion;4 and when about to cross the sea, they cannot be prevailed upon to go on board the ship, until their keeper has promised upon oath that they shall return home again. They have been seen, too, when worn out by disease, (for even these vast masses are liable to disease,) lying on their back, and throwing the grass up into the air, as if deputing the earth to intercede for them with its prayers.5 As a proof of their extreme docility, they pay homage to the king, fall upon their knees, and offer him the crown. Those of smaller growth, which the Indians call bastards,6 are employed by them in ploughing."

Pliny remains within the old Wild West tradition of measuring all intelligence by human intelligence, against the manifest fact that intelligence is adapted to species form. What the grasshopper can do, humans cannot do - be a grasshopper. Note, however, that Elephants, vide Pliny, are religious beasts - which is evidently a matter of study far outside what scientists can imagine. They can test for names, but not beliefs. 

Pliny, you old soul, our elephantology is slowly catching up to you. 

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