Elephants, crazy or cunning?

Frontal Cortex, reviewing An Elephant Crackup in the Times, writes about Elephants Gone Wild:

This shouldn’t be too surprising. The neurobiology of stress is an extremely well conserved biological pathway. Our brain experiences stress in much the same way as a chimp, or an elephant, or a rat. And since Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder is now a well documented phenomenon in humans – up to 40 percent of all soldiers coming home from Iraq experience some of PTSD – we should expect that other animals also display abberant behavior in response to chronic levels of elevated stress.

What I find odd about the Times piece and Jonah’s take on it is the assumption that something must be badly tweaked in elephant society. The Times story puts more credence in the idea that elephant society has fallen apart. Why not assume that they know exactly what they’re doing?

Elephants are long-lived, and have very structured societies. Older elephants teach younger ones the ways of the world, and a lot of people point to the loss of older elephants in the ivory trade as a cause of rising elephant violence. It certainly makes a certain sense. The elephants taken were often the oldest, the matriarchs of the society.

Given that elephants are social animals capable of abstract reasoning, communication over long distances, even producing art. They see their territory occupied by outsiders, and some young males respond by attacking the invaders, even at the cost of their lives.

When young Palestinians, Iraqis and Aghans do the same thing, we don’t feel obliged to call them PTSD. We call them suicide bombers. We call them terrorists, or insurgents. When young men did the same thing 230 years ago in Boston, we didn’t call them post-traumatic.

I have no idea if elephants are coordinating attacks on farms and houses around their habitat. I don’t even know how to test that idea. I just know it isn’t necessarily sensible to assume that these elephants are irrational.


  1. #1 g bruno
    October 11, 2006

    we dont like this kind of behaviour:
    “young male elephants in Pilanesberg National Park and the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve in South Africa have been raping and killing rhinoceroses;”

    I dont know if you call it PTSD, or just very,very bad behaviour!

  2. #2 augustus brown
    October 11, 2006

    Yes, this PTSD theory is too simple and too reliant on old notions of elephants being ultra-emotional creatures – going crazy during musth, mourning their dead etc etc. Any animal that is sophisticated and cunning enough to imitate the sound of passing trucks (though no one seems to know why) is surely rational enough to run an insurgency too.

  3. #3 mark
    October 11, 2006

    It’s those elephant homos and atheists that are responsible for all bad elephant behavior!

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