2.05.2007

Animal Thoughts, or The Case of the Sri Lankan Elephant


I was watching Nature last night – an episode about whether or not animals can predict disasters. The 2004 Indian Ocean (and beyond) tsunami was used as a test case scenario to augment historical contemporary anecdotal accounts. It is an interesting question and I think basic prima facia evidence suggests that, like humans, animals respond to their environment yet unlike humans have varying ranges of senses through which to apprehend environmental cues. What distresses me, though, is that as a negative case they present a radio-collared Asian elephant in Yala National Park, Sri Lanka. At 9am, the transponder receives the elephant’s location near the coast. Shortly after 9am, the tsunami hits the coast and at 10am, the elephant’s position has moved but is equidistant, if not closer to the coastline.

Again, this may seem prima facia as evidence that elephants cannot detect infrasonic cues sent out from massive earth movements thousands of miles away. But – and this is the distressing part – it denies that elephant any real computational ability or decision-making capacity. In short, it denies the rhetoric of earth-organism interaction.

Margaret Syverson’s ecological theory of composition uses complexity theory to talk about writing as a system. She differentiates 3 types of systems in the literature she read: simple system such as a pendulum, complicated systems such as a motor engine, and complex systems such as a lake or population of organisms. Complicated systems are static and simply run how they are supposed to unless something monkeywrenches their operations. Complex systems can adapt. Think of blackbirds alighting en masse and how they move as a whole yet avoid a speeding car on the road. Organisms themselves can be seen as complex systems, adapting to different environments and conditions. There is a rhetorical moment in complex systems, even as that moment may be extra-discursive. There is some form of communication beyond stimulus and response. It seems that in the case of the Sri Lankan elephant, we are definitionally given an elephant that is a complicated, but not a complex system.

So, this elephant is a priori unable to think, make decisions, or even contemplate the exquisite grass she is eating and zone out from the plethora of stimuli she receives from her environment. Such scientific reasoning makes an object of animals and denies them any agency. Is this type of thought why we see the number of species in such rapid decline? Or am I being too utilitarian? No doubt Jeremy Bentham and Peter Singer would agree with me. But I don’t think I agree with them. Even those pathogens which infected my child obey some communicative patterns. DNA, when treated as information, is also a complex system and what are viruses but almost raw DNA?

So, this is how I see the process by which we slowly deny agency outside the human, limiting not only language but rhetoric and even thought itself to our own species. Diagram courtesy of http://micro.magnet.fsu.edu/cells/virus.html

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