Clever Dumbo?

The Language Evolution blog posts this interesting youtube video showing an elephant painting a picture of an elephant:

I’ve vocalized often that as much as there is a debate about whether animals can or do have language (they don’t), we know of no animals that draw. By drawing, I mean that they employ tool use to graphically achieve conceptual expression (that is usually iconic).

While it is pretty amazing to watch, I am highly dubious of it as a reflection of elephant cognition or that they really can “draw” to the definition above.

I imagine that the elephant has it remembered as a specific sequential routine of actions, rather than the execution of a set of patterns stored in the head for representing a concept of “elephant” (or “me”). That is, it doesn’t have a mapping of action/graphics to concept. Remembering such a sequence of fine grained actions is still pretty impressive, but very different than being conceptually expressive.

This is likely a trick the elephants have been taught to show tourists like the ones who took the video. Note that in the beginning of the video there are multiple easels, perhaps for multiple elephants? Do they all draw the same patterns? Do they have any capability to recognize what they’re drawing? Do they do this spontaneously without an audience?

Before conceding that elephants truly can draw, I’d like to know enough to rule this out as a “Clever Dumbo”.


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