The elephant, known for its gentle nature and empathetic behavior towards others, has been observed consoling distressed companions and attempting to lift up those who are ill or suffering. They even display signs of mourning for their deceased herd members and demonstrate self-awareness by recognizing themselves in mirrors. A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that these traits may be the result of elephants domesticating themselves, which would make them the only known animal, besides humans and bonobos, to do so. However, not everyone is convinced of this theory.
According to Richard Wrangham, a primatologist at Harvard University who was not involved in the study, proving that any animal, let alone elephants, has self-domesticated is a difficult task. Nevertheless, Wrangham and evolutionary anthropologist Brian Hare of Duke University have previously suggested that self-domestication may be more widespread, potentially found in various species ranging from mice to whales and elephants. Confirming this phenomenon in elephants would provide further support for this argument.
Typically, domesticated animals display characteristics such as a calmer personality and more juvenile features, while also having smaller brains than their wild counterparts. Dogs, cats, and pigs are prime examples of this.
In contrast to domesticated animals, which were selectively bred by humans to display certain traits, humans themselves may have undergone self-domestication. Over the past 80,000 years, humans have exhibited changes such as shortened faces, reduced brow ridges, and smaller brains, which accelerated after the invention of agriculture around 10,000 years ago. One theory is that cooperative males were favored, leading to the elimination of highly aggressive males. Through self-domestication, humans lengthened their childhoods, became more sociable, and developed language to share complex ideas.
Similar self-domestication has also been observed in bonobos, one of our closest relatives. Bonobos are less aggressive and have softer facial features, as well as a celebrated love of sex that researchers suggest is a sign of self-domestication. More peaceful societies may have developed as a result of natural selection and abundant food favoring milder-tempered males.
While other examples of self-domestication in the animal kingdom have been elusive, a recent study has identified elephants as exhibiting similar traits to humans and bonobos. Elephants have low levels of aggression and demonstrate prosocial behavior, protecting and comforting others. They also experience increased cortisol levels in socially difficult situations. The study documented 19 cognitive, behavioral, and physiological traits common to humans, bonobos, and elephants, but not other species.
The team delved into the genome of African elephants and found 674 genes that are rapidly evolving. They compared these genes to a set of 764 genes that have been identified as important in mammal domestication, including those involved in managing aggression and sociality. Their analysis showed that some of the 674 genes were associated with domestication.
The exact environmental pressures that might have caused elephants to develop traits associated with domestication are still unknown. Limor Raviv, the lead researcher, speculates that their large size alone might have contributed to their relaxed nature and reduced concern about possible predators.
Melinda Zeder, an archaeologist and domestication expert at the Smithsonian Institution, acknowledges the correlations between humans, bonobos, and elephants and the genetic similarities tied to the reduction of aggression, but she remains skeptical of the self-domestication idea. She argues that domestication requires both a domesticator and a domesticate.
Richard Wrangham, a biological anthropologist at Harvard University, agrees that the study shows some hints of self-domestication in elephants, but he believes that many of the behavioral traits observed may be due to the elephants' large brains rather than self-domestication. He suggests that the authors consider alternative hypotheses.
Wrangham believes that more research is necessary before scientists can include elephants in the exclusive group of self-domesticated species that currently only includes humans and bonobos. “I'm afraid we're still a long way from being able to say that elephants have self-domesticated,” he says.