Elephant Art

In my wanderings across the fair-ways and by-ways of the internet recently, I came across the phenomenon of elephant art (www.elephantartgallery.com). This is where elephants paint pictures, using an array of paints provided by their trainers.

While I don’t pretend to be a massive art critic, I do know a little about art, and while the elephants have created some pretty smudges, I’d hardly call it magnificent work (apologies to all those elephants out there who may be reading this…). Most of the time, they’re really just smudges streaking across the canvas. The genius of the marketing (sorry if this is getting just a tad bit too cynical), though, is that these are then given fantastic titles – some red and yellow streaks are called “fire dancing”, or some yellow and green streaks are called “when I was free in the jungle”. My immediate instinct there is to say, “Wow, the elephant has really captured the angst of having lost her freedom in the forest,” before another voice in my head says, “Dude, that’s just the trainer/marketer – that’s not the elephant’s title.”

There are actually paintings made by elephants of elephants, which sounds much more exciting. But actually, these are really just shapes the elephants have been trained to paint, and they are unlikely to reflect the elephants drawing what they have seen and engaged in.

This all got me thinking, yet again, about how unique humanity actually is. We paint pictures – admittedly, some of these are just smudges, but a lot are very accurate. And many are poignant, thoughtful and thought-provoking. Of course, that’s not all we do: we also write stirring novels, magnificent poems, witty plays, heart-wrenching songs, etc, etc, etc – and nothing else on this earth does the same. You (hopefully) smiled at my apology to any offended elephants before, because you know no elephants – or any other animals – are reading this article.

This is one of the things that frustrates me about the whole evolution “debate” that some people seem to be fascinated with. To be honest, I’m rather ambivalent to the whole debate, on one level. I don’t really think it makes much difference whether the universe is 10000 years old or 10 billion. What I do think matters in the debate is the question of randomisation or design – whether all of this occurred in an entirely arbitrary manner, or whether a Higher Being orchestrated it with a purpose in mind.

In other words, the evolution or “old earth” position does not negate the possibility of a Designer. In fact, one might suggest it could enhance the evidence for a Designer. How so? Well, if life has existed on this planet for millions of years, and there have been billions of species on the earth over that time, why have none of them ever got to the point where we have? There is no archaeological or palaeontological evidence for any other species ever building a city, for example.

Now, you might point out to me that the distance in time between then and now would have destroyed all such evidence, and that “evidence of absence is not absence of evidence”, and you’d have a fair point. But even so, what about now? Out of the billions of animals in the world, none do this. The odds that we are the only group to have been so creative are astronomical, to say the least, and the fact that this seems to be the case, despite the odds, seems to suggest a flaw in the randomised position.

I suggest the more likely reason for our exclusive abilities (including the destructive ones, as well as the creative ones!) might be because we were created – 6000 years ago, or whenever – by a Designer God, Who uniquely made us to be like Him, and thus to design, to create. He has also designed us to be intelligent enough to interpret each other’s creativity, and even to take some smudges done by an elephant and read into them a creativity that they probably did not intend. We live for creativity; we are creative, in a unique sense, because we were designed to be like our creative Creator.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must dash – I have to go watch some monkeys putting together a typewriter…

Matthew Gray


7 responses to “Elephant Art

  1. Like you, I think the critical issue is randomness vs. design. However, my young earth friends have an interesting objection. If death is the “engine” of theistic evolution, how do we reconcile its existence before there were humans and before there was a fall, especially in the light of Paul’s writing that “all Creation groans in expectation” of the reconciliation between God and His Creation. I can philosophically reconcile a very old earth, but this on this theological objection I’ve not yet heard a satisfying response.

    • Hi Andy,

      Great question. I think part of the issue here is that we assume that death is evil. Prior to the Fall (however that works out), it didn’t have to be evil – it could have been perfectly healthy process. There is no Biblical discussion – as far as I’m aware – that suggests that death in its physical sense was something that couldn’t have existed prior to the Fall. When God condemns humanity in Genesis, “you will surely die”, I would suggest that means “spiritual” death, in the sense of utter estrangement from God. We forget that God’s blocking of Adam and Eve from the Tree of Life in Genesis 3 is an act of mercy, not judgement – He didn’t want us to live forever with our sin… physical death is the way out of our predicament, because that’s how Jesus atones for us, and prepares us for resurrection to healed perfection.

      With Jesus, death “loses its sting”, but that sting is not necessarily death in and of itself, but death in terms of hopeless estrangement from God through sin. Physical death may be merely a transition all of us were always meant to go through – pre-Fall as well as after – on our way to eternity; and it’s just the Fall and our sinfulness that perverted that process and made death into something evil.

      If I’m honest, the simple answer is I don’t know… but I don’t think anybody does. These are mysteries from before time was history, with answers from after time becomes eternity. I guess my simple point here is that, if we believe in theistic evolution, and we recognise physical death existed from the beginning, physical death in and of itself is not evil, but part of God’s design. As Christians, we should never think of physical death anyway as a bad thing, but a thing perverted by sin, but perfected by Christ (kinda like everything else in this universe!).

  2. “there have been billions of species on the earth over that time, why have none of them ever got to the point where we have? ”

    There has to be a first for everything. Are you saying that if there was another species to reach our level before us then there would be no god/designer, but because there wasn’t, and we are the first, there is a god/designer. I see flaws in that logic. The only conclusion that can be drawn from that statement is that we are the first.

    ‘There is no archaeological or palaeontological evidence for any other species ever building a city, for example.’

    Building cities is a product of our complexity, so is making typewriters, mankind had to evolve its complexity before it was able to do these things.

    Your insulting a monkey because he cannot assemble a typewriter, neither could we 100 years ago. Is that because there was no god/designer 100 years ago? probably not. its because we were unevolved 100 years ago in regards to typewriters and cities.
    Your thinking doesn’t make good sense to me, tell me a better reason why we didn’t have type writers 100 years ago. is it because because god hadn’t designed them yet?

    You don’t hear me saying my great grand dad had no part in my creation because he couldn’t assemble a typewriter, yet you say this about monkeys.

    They are both unevolved compared to mankind today. When man today and monkey were the same is just a lot longer ago than when man today and my great grand dad were the same. So there is bigger differences that make it hard for people to understand.

    I don’t see evolution as randomness.
    Ask yourself this, is your week or your day simply a bunch of random events.
    NO! there is a driving force behind everything we do and everything we strive for. This is a force that drives evolution. Its not randomness.
    This is how I see evolution to work anyway.

    This debate you speak of… I see the answer as a merge of the two sides of the debate, we are creative, the thing that created us was creative, we here and now are the artwork and evolution is the medium. this has both a creator and an evolution in this solution.

    When people “debate” or argue they always try to prove something wrong instead of looking at the merits of both sides.

  3. I have seen many examples of impressive and complex behaviour from other species, there is some good bbc and discovery documentaries about super smart animals.

    This chimp is featured in one of the ones i saw,

    People are so quick to judge and dismiss, this chimp shows skills that not even the people can compare with.

    See what you think, its really interesting!

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