Here's an example of what I mean. I was recently watching Wild On Tape, a National Geographic Channel show on TV. They were showing an amateur video taken by some American tourists in Thailand that featured an Asian elephant named Hong painting on a canvas with a paintbrush in its trunk. Now, Hong wasn't just making haphazard brush strokes. Hong was making very deliberate and careful movements. In fact the elephant drew an outline of an elephant right before my eyes! It wasn't a detailed picture, but it was undoubtedly an elephant that the elephant drew with the paint brush. And, to top it off, Hong the elephant then added an element that astounded me: it added a flower - the picture elephant was holding a flower in its trunk!
My reaction was WOW, this is amazing! Was this elephant really self aware enough to do such a thing? And, was it creative enough in its extraordinary consciousness to understand and appreciate what it had just drawn?! Yet my eyebrows were raised in suspicious unbelief. But, I had just seen the whole process with my own eyes - I was sure the elephant was real and that it did indeed paint the outline of an elephant holding a flower in its trunk.
And the voiceover guy of the NatGeo show confirmed that this elephant did indeed paint that picture just exactly as the amateur video depicted. But then the show indicated that a National Geographic team had been sent to check it out for themselves. This raised my suspicions again - there must be something that I was missing!
Indeed, the thing I was missing was the very thing this blog entry is all about - a very insidious form of assumption, an assumption that never occurred to me even as I tried to carefully critique my own evaluation of the whole thing.
The elephant had been rigorously trained to make the exact brush strokes required to draw an elephant holding a flower. It could indeed paint pictures, but every picture would be the same one as it had been trained to do. NatGeo TV also showed other elephants drawing other pictures with a paintbrush - each elephant had been trained to paint a particular picture.
Whew!!!! My sanity returned. The painting elephants weren't spontaneously painting elephants, flowers, trees, and self portraits - they were simply moving the paintbrush exactly as they were trained to do. They weren't necessarily aware of WHAT they were painting.
The assumption that made an ass of u and me? I assumed those elephants were painting of their own free will, and spontaneously displaying sophisticated creativity along with abstract expressions of their internal concept of themselves and the world around them borne of human-like consciousness and awareness.