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Trunk Show

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Arielle Seidman

The Story of Evolution

March 2, 2009


Trunk Show


Evolution is, as we have already discussed many times in class, only one of several stories that people all around the world tell in order to explain how the world, its species and it’s people came to be and to change over time. There are several other origin stories, both religious and folkloric, in several traditions. In this paper, I am going to examine the differences in stories of how one particular creature, the elephant, has evolved. I will put forward both the description of the evolution of an elephant’s trunk as explained by modern 21rst century scientists, and I will also give an account of a fictional account of the evolution of the elephant’s trunk by a popular author. Through this comparison I hope to discover what the differences are between the stories, and what each story emphasizes or ignores about the tale of adaptation.

In “Natural History” a magazine published by the American Museum of Natural History, Jeheskel Shoshani writes, that an elephant’s trunk is “mobile, prehensile, sensitive, and strong (Shoshani).” Shoshani proceeds to expound upon the evolutionary history of the elephant’s elongated proboscis. According to Shoshani’s article, the ancient ancestors of the elephants, over fifty million years ago, were small creatures with no trunks. As they evolved into larger animals, they developed extremely long jaws to allow them to reach their food. “The trend of long-jawed proboscideans” writes Shoshani, “continued for millions of years until the length and weight of the mandibles posed a problem in mechanical engineering. The center of gravity of the elongated head, upper and lower tusks, and short-version trunk had shifted forward, and considerable energy was required just to support the head in an upright position (Shoshani.)” It was from the necessity to develop smaller heads which were farther from the ground, and smaller jaws that put less stress on the head which caused the elephant’s nose to adapt into the trunk that we view today as the distinguishing feature of the animal.

In one of Rudyard Kipling’s quaintly titled “Just-So Stories,” called “The Elephant’s Child,” Kipling explains how it is that elephants got their trunks. According to his story, elephants once had much shorter snub noses, which were not very useful at all. His protagonist, the elephant’s child, was, as he puts it, “full of ‘satiable curiosity (Kipling),” which I take to mean “insatiable curiosity.” The elephant’s child “asked ever so many questions (Kipling),” and one day wanted to know what the crocodile liked to eat. Although all of his family members not only discouraged his questions, but spanked him repeatedly for asking them, the elephant’s child decided he wanted to go and learn the answer for himself. Setting out in search of the crocodile, he met a couple of other colorful and equally vocal characters along the way, including a python who spoke in very flowery language, and a somewhat subversive bird. Upon meeting the crocodile, the elephant’s child asks his question, the crocodile proceeds to answer him by biting on his nose and trying to pull him into the water to eat him. The elephant, with help from the python, pulls back, and although he ultimately escapes the clutches of the crocodile, his nose stretches several feet in length as a consequence. The nose never goes back to it’s original size, and although the elephant’s child is at first upset about this, the python shows him several things about how useful his newly elongated snout is. “The elephant’s child,” writes Kipling, “put out his trunk and plucked a large bundle of grass, dusted it clean against his front legs, and stuffed it into his mouth (Kipling).” The elephant learns that not only can he collect food with his trunk, but he can swat flies, scoop up mud, and ultimately beat off his slightly abusive relatives and other animals with his new appendage. The story ends with the elephant profiting from the uses of his new trunk, and therefore profiting ultimately from his curiosity.

The obvious similarity between these two stories is that in each case, the elephant is said to have used it’s trunk for practical purposes, such as gathering food or allowing better support for the head. The major difference is the way each elephant in each story seems to have developed the trunk. While in Shoshani’s tale of evolution, the elephant developed it’s trunk over millions of years, and out of biological necessity, Kipling’s elephant developed it’s trunk due to a mishap that occurred because of the elephant’s own quality of curiosity.

“God” or any sort of higher power fails to appear in either story. In Shoshani’s story, there is no design which creates the trunk, but rather the Darwinist idea of adaptation for survival. In Kipling’s story, the elephant and the crocodile force the hand of evolution through their own choices and will. Although both the story of evolution and Kipling’s Just-So stories are reasonably well known, I feel comfortable saying that most people would prefer to read Kipling’s version for fun or pleasure, rather than Shoshani’s. Why do we get more enjoyment out of Kipling’s? [1] It seems plausible to me that people prefer to hear tales where the protagonist, in this case the elephant’s child, is able to make personal choices which will ultimately yield a result. Although human beings are not elephants, the way in which Kipling personifies all of the animals in his story makes it easy for us to relate to them, and to see the curiosity of the elephant as something that we, as human beings, could easily embody. Ultimately we do, whether consciously or unconsciously prefer stories where the power rests in the individual, rather than in chance or the patterns of Darwin’s theories of un-guided change. Shoshani’s tale of evolution, though in my opinion equally fascinating and detailed, disturbs our human idea that we have the power to change the world.

Works Cited

Kipling, Rudyard. Just So Stories. Introduction by Jonathan Stroud. Puffin. 2008.

Shoshani, Jeheskel. “It’s a Nose! It’s a Hand! it’s an Elephant’s Trunk!” Natural History.

            November 1997.

[1] I do, of course, recognize that there are people who read Darwinist theory for fun, but I don’t think the grand majority of human beings do that. We’ do seem to be naturally prone to reading fiction for pleasure, and what is considered to be non-fiction for education or for course credit.


Anne Dalke's picture

just so...

Great title!

This paper actually performs a neat “turn” on your first one: there you used two of Darwin’s literary techniques—personification and over-generalization—as indices to the possibility of our looking @ him as a fictional writer. Here you pose the “sort” of writing he does—exemplified this time by the work of Natural History writer Jeheskel Shoshai—in sharp contrast to the clearly fictional work of Rudyard Kipling, in order to argue that we prefer the sorts of tales that valorize our agency as humans (even when the protagonist is an elephant!). Cute.

Two very different directions suggest themselves to me, playing out from this position. First: are you familiar w/ the use of the term “just-so story” by anthropologists, biologists and philosophers to describe an unverifiable, unfalsifiable explanation for a cultural practice or a biological trait? They use the term critically, to accentuate the essentially fictional and unprovable nature of such an explanation. What happens when you juxtapose that scientific and social-scientific critique w/ your own (humanistic?) analysis, above, of our “natural human” preference for stories that grant us choice and agency?

Second (but quite relatedly!): a couple of years ago, when I was expressing frustration @ the slow pace of change around here, Paul quoted Kipling’s poem “If” @ me, to calm me down. When I went to look @ the poem in its entireity, I was very struck by its strong urging that we use our conscious will to manage the pain of life. Not much liking the tonality of the piece—and wanting a text that was more flexible, more responsive, more open to the leadings of the unconscious, I tried my hand @ a little poetic revision. See what you think (and then tell me what happens to “just so”?):

I suppose the suggestion here is that, rather than comparing the stories of others, we might try our hand @ writing our own new versions….