Now here’s a provoking notion: PTSD in elephants .In an arresting article in Seed, Gay Bradshaw, a professor at Oregon State University, describes the implications of several studies of elephant groups in which wayward youngsters went a-wilding, essentially, murdering rhinos and creating mayhem. The young male elephants were from social groups that had been fragmented and lost the social structure that most elephants grow up in. She speculates that the loss of that social structure gave the rogue elephants what amounts to post-traumatic stress syndrome.
This offers plenty of interest on its face. It also suggests some intriguing philosophical implications. As Bradshaw puts it,
Until a few years ago, making such inference and diagnosing elephants with PTSD would have been dismissed as anthropomorphism. But no longer. Elephant psychopathology, chimpanzee infanticide and other un-animal-like behaviors are part of a growing body of research that suggests science is building toward a radical paradigm shift. Streams of new data and theories, critically from neuroscience, are converging into a new, trans-species model of the psyche. Humans are being reinstated back into the species continuum that Darwin articulated, a continuum that includes laughing rats, octopuses with personalities, sheep who read emotions from the faces of their family members and tool-wielding crows.
In other words, perhaps our complex psychology isn’t so unique after all. Not a new notion (as her reference to Darwin suggests) — but these disruptions of stable, “normal” behavior in chimps and elephants, and the way they are rooted in neurophysiology held in common, carries the message in a particularly provocative way.
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