The Wauchula Woods Accord by Charles Siebert, or, Spindle Cells and TSD in Mammals
Or, Are There Autistic Whales?
Last week, I finished reading THE WAUCHULA WOODS ACCORD by Charles Siebert. It is an essay-type book that revolves around Roger, a chimp recovering from his life with Ringling Brothers at the Center for Great Apes near Wauchula, Florida. The Center is a state-of-the-art facility designed for Great Apes who have been traumatized by humans in one way or another. Siebert drops in references to many other such sojourns in Africa and other parts of the world where he has observed other animals in the same situation. He is interested in Roger because Roger prefers to live alone, unlike any of the other apes in the center, and because he seemed to recognize Siebert.
The book is interesting for many reasons, but one thing that jumped out at me is the mention of spindle neurons, which have so far been found in many kinds of whales, in elephants, great apes, dogs, cats, and other mammals. (I have tried to find a comprehensive list, but haven’t succeeded so far.)
Spindle neurons appear to be at the root of the emotional life of these animals. They (or their lack of them) have been discovered to be related to autism as well as emotional responsiveness.
Siebert brings up many interesting facts. For instance, in several parts of the world, young and adolescent elephants have witnessed the death of their parents by poachers. That is traumatic enough, but adolescent male elephants deprived of models for behavior form gangs that rampage through villages (Siebert writes about this at http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/08/magazine/08elephant.html?_r=1&ei=5070&en=c4fe2178b292ff78&ex=1166763600&pagewanted=all ) and also rape and kill rhinocerosus. A solution to this was found when mature bull elephants were introduced to the gangs; this behavior then abated.
I like learning about how we are similar to other animals. Short take: I enjoyed this book, and if you are interested in human and animal intelligence and emotions, it is illuminating.