ONE ROLE of science, history suggests, is to wipe that smug grin off humanity’s face. It has moved Earth from the centre of the universe and relocated it in an astronomical backwater. It has downgraded Homo sapiens from being the pinnacle of God’s creation to just another species shaped by Darwinian evolution. And it has constantly chipped away at the uniqueness of the intelligence and communication skills by which many people mark their difference from other beasts.

The latest example of this erosion, described this week by Michael Pardo and his colleagues in a paper in Nature Ecology and Evolution, concerns elephants. These creatures, they reckon, use something equivalent to the arbitrary names human beings invent for each other. Though bottlenose dolphins, which have individual “signature” whistles that they use to identify themselves, may copy others’ whistles when communicating with them, and orange-fronted parakeets likewise echo others’ squawks, elephants are not, according to Dr Pardo, simply adopting as identifiers sounds routinely made by the animal being addressed.