Species of Generosity

definition of generous

a: liberal in giving

b: marked by abundance or ample proportions

c: characterized by a noble or kindly spirit

The definition of generous brings a certain animal to mind—one who is “marked by ample proportions” and characterized by a “noble or kindly spirit.” That animal, if you haven’t already guessed it, is an elephant. Although it’s widely understood that elephants are highly intelligent and lead complex social lives, a lesser-known fact is how empathetic they can be. Time and time again, elephants have shown their generous and “liberal in giving” nature.

According to a report by the Greater Good Science Center, behaving generously is an evolutionary adaptation shared by many species. But why? Some theories include reciprocal altruism (I scratch your back, you scratch mine), kin selection (helping relatives who share the same genes so they can propagate them), or even group selection (improving the herd’s chance of survival). For humans, culture is also an evolutionary force for generosity, since societies that promoted altruism would have had a higher survival rate that those who didn’t.

But we are not the only species to have created cooperative social systems. A study from 2008 collected the observations of several scientists over a 35-year period to document elephant behavior that suggests they have an empathic understanding of the physical and emotional states of others. Examples from the study include elephants comforting the distressed with physical touch, babysitting calves and showing them care, and even using their trunks to remove darts from each other’s bodies.

If you love elephants for their affectionate nature, as I do, you may have even noticed instances from the news that reflect the behaviors these researchers are describing. I’ve selected a few of my favorites to share here. Collectively, they say a lot about elephants, whose kindness is so great it can even transcend species.


Acoustic biologist and founder of the Elephant Listening Project Katy Payne tells NPR’s On Being about an experience she had observing African forest elephants.

We witnessed the death of a young calf, a yearling calf, on the clearing right in front of our observation platform. This baby had come in with her mother repeatedly. She was very thin and weak, and on that day we knew she was going to die. She lay down and within a couple of hours, indeed, she had died. We were keeping a video record. It was very painful and hard for us to do so, but we did this for the rest of the day and all the next day. And during that time, more than 100 elephants, unrelated to the calf, walked past the place where the little corpse lay on the ground. Every single one of them did something that showed alarm, concern, or somehow showed they were aware of something novel that they were approaching. Some of them took a detour around. About a quarter of them tried to lift the body up with their tusks and their trunks, sometimes trying over and over again. One adolescent male attempted to lift up this little corpse 57 times and walked away from it and came back five different times. These elephants were not related.