Elephants Painting?

I’ve had a few emails recently asking about this clip that has been doing the rounds on youtube.

I’m pretty dubious that it represents an elephant truly drawing an abstract image of itself as some sort of therapy. None-the-less it remains fascinating.

Certainly elephants are a lot more interesting than previously had been thought. We need to find out more about the conditions under which the elephant painted, My money is on heavy degree of enculturation and (given the way it seems to be performed for tourists) some solid Skinnerian conditioning. If it were spontaneous and genuine it would pretty much rewrite a lot of what we know about animal cognition. Not even Kanzi can paint like that. The giveaway is the fact that the animal paints like a human would, in profile, with a cute flower in its trunk.

However, to be a bit less cynical for a while, the picture is an awful lot like cave paintings in style, with the use of obvious lines to delineate natural edges. It has been suggested that cave paintings look like this because these are the clearest factors understood by human cognition. Lots of studies of art under impaired cognition, experiments at recognizing degenerated images of animals, examining Autistic art or artwork from people with cognitive disorders, has found that this is the most straightforward way for the human mind to represent the essential kinesthetic information. (I haven’t got the references to hand, I’ll try to add them later). I don’t really think this is likely to be what is happening with the elephants, though. The influence of humans is a far more parsimonious explanation.


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April 2008
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