Humans Are Genetically Programmed To Wage War

Humans Are Genetically Programmed To Wage War

Geobacter metallireducens 

All forms of life on the earth compete for one critical resource: energy. Plants draw it from the sun and soil, most animals extract it from carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, and some species of Geobacter can both consume and excrete electrons thus living on pure energy alone. Virtually every source of energy supports some form of life that competes with other forms of life for that energy.

But competition for energy is a requisite of life, not a catalyst for war.

Researchers typically use the term war when a coordinated assemblage of one community attack members of another community of the same species. There are only two primates that wage wars: humans and Chimpanzees. No other primate engages in coordinated attacks on its own species. Researchers have uncovered a genetic predisposition for this unique primate behavior. Humans and chimps have evolved a more pronounced fight or flight response than have other primates. Technically, a particular gene (ADRA2C) suppresses the fight or flight response but that gene is itself inhibited by a molecule (NRSF) produced by humans and chimps. Our more peaceful primate cousins don’t produce the NRSF so their fight or flight responses are more moderated (Source).

Bonobos and chimps are equally closely related to humans sharing 98.4% of our DNA. But the 1.6% that is not human differs between chimps and bonobos. Bonobos are more peaceful and are not known to kill their own kind unlike chimps (although bonobos recently have been observed hunting and killing monkeys). Bonobos have lower fight or flight responses than do chimps and do not wage war. This difference is attributed to differences in access to food; Chimpanzees have spent the past couple million years competing with gorillas for food and have evolved to be more aggressive. Bonobo and gorilla habitats have remained separated by the Congo river; competition for food has taken chimps on a different evolutionary course from bonobos.

Animals other than primates do engage in something that appears to be a war but falls short of the definition used here. Ants from the P.americanus Colonies raid Temnothorax colonies killing all adults and “larva-nap” slaves that the worker “masters” will raise until they pupate (mature). The slaves take on the odor of the abductors and become servants of the queen maintaining the nest and even participate in larva raids of their own species. However, a few of the slaves rebel not only refusing to do the queen’s bidding but killing the host queen’s pupae. In one study, the rebels killed 83% of the pupae containing queens but only 3% of the pupae containing males. This behavior falls short of war as defined here on two criteria: 1) the ants don’t raid nests of their own species, and 2) researchers categorize the ants as social parasites rather than warring insects. In this case, the abductor ants (the host) provide the labor to raise the abducted ants.

Other than wars, many animals have a propensity to murder their own kind. At the top of the list is the Meerkat with nearly 20% of deaths being inflicted by members of their own species. Other murderous species include many lemurs and lions. Mammals as a whole kill about 0.3% of their own species (outside of wars) but humans have a homicide rate of roughly 2%, a rate six times that of other mammals. 

We are a warring species and likely always will be. Evidence of human warfare stretches as far back as archaeological history can reach. Of course, evolution has not ended and our efforts to live more peacefully are not wasted -- compassionate people live among us. One potential means of reducing warfare lies in the controversial prospects of genetic engineering now that technology allows us to dig deeper into, and modify our DNA. And we can hope that we evolve as a more peaceful species.

Jeff Bezos Warns: Amazon Will Someday Go Bankrupt

Jeff Bezos Warns: Amazon Will Someday Go Bankrupt

Amazon's First Headquarters

Amazon was launched in 1995 as an online bookseller headquartered in Jeff Bezos’ garage. Two company names favored  by Bezos were rejected; “Cadabra” sounded mysterious but a lawyer rejected the name as sounding too close to "cadaver," and “” sounded too sinister according to Bezos’ friends (apparently Jeff was sufficiently attached to the name to keep it for posterity -- enter the URL in a browser.). Bezos settled on the name Amazon while looking through the dictionary. The name engendered visions of an exotic place, it is the longest river in the world and begins with the first letter of the alphabet making it prominent in an alphabetical list.

Amazon has been astoundingly successful; its share price has risen 355% in the last five years and it has become the largest online retailer in the world measured by revenue. But Amazon may eventually hit a regulatory speed bump that could break up the world’s largest retailer. We have witnessed the breakup of AT&T, Microsoft, Standard Oil, even Kodak. Now Amazon, Google, Uber, and Facebook are in the regulators’ sights.

Jeff Bezos is the wealthiest person alive today. Unlike Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, or Mark Zuckerberg, Bezos, did not emerge from the ranks of high tech but made his fortune in the retail business. However, if there is trouble ahead, we can blame the Internet and its technological offspring.

Although Jeff Bezos' wealth is a modern-day record it falls well short of matching that of a historical record; that status belongs to Mansa Musa about whom I wrote a blog post three years ago. Unless you studied the Middle Ages or read my earlier blog post, you may be surprised to learn that the wealthiest man in history made his fortune in Timbuktu, the iconic name representing “the middle of nowhere”. The primary messages in my musing about Mansa Musa is, as you will soon see, related to my alert about Amazon’s prospects for uncapped growth.

The recounting of Mansa Musa’s unsurpassed accumulation of wealth was not published in my blog purely for its entertainment value, but also to  highlight two economic concepts that, when used in combination, are both used and abused to make a lot of money. Those economic concepts are “the essential facilities doctrine” and “property rights" (no worries, I won’t drag you through any economic lessons but you may learn something).

Essential facilities

In In the early 1980s when I was consulting with telephone companies about how to deal with competition, I addressed the top executives of Bell Atlantic. “Imagine a future point in time when telecommunications competition becomes a reality,” I said. “School is just letting out and Grandpa is designated to pick up his grandson, Tommy, but Grandpa has a problem. Grandpa, sitting in his chair at home, simply announces ‘Tommy, my car won’t start. Can you get a ride home with Jenny’s mom?’ Tommy walks towards Jenny and says ‘I see Jenny now. I’ll ask her.’ Tommy secures his ride home. As Tommy approaches the car he informs Grandpa Jenny's mom can take him home. There is no traditional telephone in sight.”

I then asked the executives “who in the future will carry the messages between Tommy and Grandpa? An executive answered, “unless there is a microphone connected to a pair of wires at their feet, it isn’t Bell Atlantic.” Grandpa’s day has arrived. Today Grandpa could make a phone call from his chair using Amazon’s Echo or another voice activated internet connection between Tommy's Apple watch and Grandpa.  

At the time I gave the talk, AT&T owned Bell Atlantic and all their central office switches, all the cables, all the wires in the walls of their customers’ premises, and all the telephones in their service areas; no potential competitor could compete without accessing at least some of these facilities. The federal antitrust courts forced AT&T to unbundle the essential network components and lease them to competitors at prices that would prevail in a competitive market.

Property Rights

In Mansa Musa’s day, all trade routes in Northern Africa, and reaching into the Arabian Peninsula, converged at a point where overland trails and the Niger River met. Surrounding the travel routes were the old world’s majority of gold and salt mines providing the two most important commodities at the time. Trade throughout the region was entirely dependent on access to Mansa Musa’s land and therefore it constituted an essential facility -- trade could not occur without access to the only existing transportation routes in and out of the resource-rich area. Mansa Musa had secured and maintained the property rights to the essential facility by military force. He, therefore, was able to extract taxes on all trade in the region while carefully keeping the taxes low enough to prevent competition or a hostile takeover, but high enough to get very rich. The latter tactic is analogous to predatory pricing discussed below.

Property rights to essential facilities are granted to natural monopolies if a single provider can achieve efficiencies that could not be obtained by splitting the market into two or more pieces. AT&T argued for many years that telephone service prices would increase if regulators allowed competitors to use AT&T facilities. They even argued that allowing a competitor's telephone to be plugged into the wall would require additional costs to avoid the risk of electrocuting their repair crews (no such event has occurred under competition). Regulators responded to complaints from potential competitors and investigated the question for several years before determining that competition would reduce prices rather than increase prices. 

Mansa Musa was free to exploit essential facilities to become the richest man in history. In the 20th century, AT&T used its essential facilities to make excessive profits but regulators had the legal authority to strip AT&T of their property rights and parse it into many smaller companies; the Baby Bells were born.

[Disclosure: over a ten-year period I testified as an expert witness against AT&T, and in over 100 similar legal and regulatory cases in more than 20 countries, arguing that a well-managed transition to competition would benefit consumers.]

Predatory Pricing

The primary complaint about essential facilities is that businesses can use their ability to block competition in order to profit from exorbitant prices. If a large company has an abundance of cash but lacks an essential facility, the same end can be accomplished by predatory pricing (i.e., normally but not always, pricing below cost) to drive competitors out of business or devalue competitors in order to acquire them at bargain prices. These are common practices in predatory pricing. While Mansa Musa didn’t price below cost in the traditional sense, through predatory behavior he was able to maintain his monopoly position by taxing trade at levels that made it prohibitively expensive for outsiders to challenge his control of the essential facility.

As the Internet changes the way we engage in commerce, predatory pricing becomes more ambiguous. For example, Google provides a lot of services free (a fortiori, below cost). Google makes up the loss associated with free services by selling complementary goods (e.g., advertising). Shopping malls collect rent from shops, provide event space, host museums, house theaters, and in some cases offer lodging). The portfolio of revenue sources makes the shopping mall profitable even though not every activity covers its own cost. More generally “multi-sided markets” profit from the entire platform of goods, losing money on some and making it up on others. Consumers are not necessarily harmed by such businesses and most appreciate the extra benefits. The problem is differentiating competitive multi-sided market offerings from predatory pricing of some items on the platform.

Antitrust authorities are hesitant to take action against companies that benefit consumers. Lower prices benefit consumers so it is no surprise that predatory cases are rare, and when they are successfully prosecuted, the remedies are often criticized. Amazon is being closely monitored in the U.S. and Europe for anti-competitive behavior. 

Yesterday Jeff Bezos held an all-hands meeting warning that Amazon will not last forever. He predicted that Amazon will someday be dismantled by regulators as were Microsoft, Kodak, Xerox, Standard Oil, and the divestiture of AT&T.


A Two-sided Market
Multi-sided markets are called “platform markets” because they provide a platform supporting two or more interconnected businesses. Newspapers and magazines are platform companies; they sell subscriptions to printed articles and they sell advertising to businesses that want to reach the subscribers. It takes a combination of revenues from both sources to be financially viable. Amazon and eBay are platform companies, as are cable TV companies, Google, Apple, and Facebook.

Amazon sells its own products on its platform alongside competitors’ products. 40% of Amazon’s revenues derive from third-party sellers using Amazon’s platform. This tactic is successful because Amazon makes money whether you buy their product or choose to buy a competing product. Amazon’s ultimate objective is to have a platform big enough to offer anything that can be purchased online. Amazon stacks onto their platform: their own products (Echo, Kindle, its own movie exclusives, Amazon’s own TV show, and much more); companies they have acquired (Zappos,, Israeli chip maker Annapurna Labs, Amazon Robotics, Whole Foods Market, CreateSpace, Amazon Handmade, and several others); and products offered by almost 2 million third-party sellers.

Amazon is the most diverse and largest platform company in the world. For example, Amazon’s platform extends beyond selling products; it competes with UPS and FedEx and is investing $1.5 billion dollars in its own cargo airline hub in Kentucky which will dispatch 40 leased planes to deliver cargo to its warehouses.

Platform companies in general and Amazon in particular, have caught the attention of antitrust regulators around the world (Amazon operates in 12 countries). And those regulators have caught the attention of Jeff Bezos. Here’s what Bezos told his staff this week:

“Amazon is not too big to fail. In fact, I predict  Amazon will fail likely in the next ten years. If you look at large companies, their lifespans tend to be 30-plus years, not a hundred-plus year.” He told his staff to avoid looking inward and instead “obsess over customers”. “If we start to focus on ourselves, instead of focusing on our customers, that will be the beginning of the end, We have to try and delay that day for as long as possible.”

Bezos didn’t explicitly address regulatory and antitrust concerns but his employees internally express concern about being broken up in the future as Amazon nears a 50% share or all online sales in the U.S. market. To date, Trump’s administration is threatening antitrust investigations, and Japan and Europe have already opened active antitrust cases scrutinizing Amazon’s businesses. Bezos didn’t comment on the antitrust risks in his all-hands staff meeting but was quoted in a public statement saying “It's reasonable for large institutions of any kind, whether it be companies or governments, to be scrutinized.”

As an economist, I fully expect future regulatory and legal constraints to be imposed on Amazon, even to the point of forcing the divestiture of some of its businesses, but that is not on the immediate horizon. Both lawyers and economists specializing in antitrust (myself included) are conflicted about just what public harm Amazon is inflicting on consumers who appear so happy with the efficiency and convenience Amazon brings to the shopping experience. There is a stronger case to be made that disgruntled smaller businesses are harmed but counterbalancing that are the 5 million worldwide sellers who have gained a sales platform that is otherwise out of reach of the local boutiques or artisan selling handcrafted goods. Of course, time will tell…

Bias: A Human Affliction

Bias: A Human Affliction

Writing about bias, of course, requires a specific definition of what constitutes bias. Hoping to find a clear and concise definition of the term, I turned on Google’s “Advanced Search” only to find that there are 3 different types of bias, or 58 different types, or almost any number between. Experiments demonstrating bias range from agitated honey bees flying about with a negative attitude, to manipulating wine shoppers into choosing German wine over French wine by selectively playing accordion music rather than brass instruments. 

With so many “expert” definitions of bias to choose from, I eliminated all but those that motivated me to write this blog post: during my adult life I have never experienced such a hostile and emotionally charged partisan division between conservative and liberal voters so I researched the biases that likely were exploited to divide us so strongly. What inherent biases exacerbated this state of affairs?

Ingroup Bias

Our behavior towards others differs between members of the in-group and members of the out-group. There is a  camaraderie among in-group members based on familiarity, religion, ethnicity, political ideologies, geography, or other emotional bonds. Outsiders are viewed with suspicion or even hostility. Groups can be transitory (a group of spectators rooting for the same team) or long-lasting (a church congregation). Political affiliations are strongly driven by "identity politics."

One experiment randomly assigned people to two groups. Although there was no reason for forming the groups, each group rated themselves superior to the other group and worked to maintain their superiority.

More generally, people have a statistically significant preference for things that share their identity in some way: women tend to marry men who share the first letter of their maiden name; a disproportionate number of men named Louis live in St, Louis, women named Helen live in St. Helen, and so forth; and people display an affinity to numbers that equal to their birthday (e.g., people born on the third day of a month disproportionately live in Three Rivers Michigan).

The most prominent in-group conflict in our present environment is the political division between supporters of President Trump and his detractors.

Negativity Bias

Imaging studies of the human brain show that our cerebral cortex reacts more strongly to negative information than to positive information. Psychology Today reports this to be the reason negative political campaigns have much more impact than positive campaigns. Negativity bias is ingrained in our bodies. Evolution made this so; survival requires a more rapid and stronger response to potential harm than to positive experiences. For example, emotional balance in a close relationship requires five times as much time spent interacting positively (e.g. spending pleasurable time together) to balance out a negative interaction (e.g., an argument).

One study reports that negativity bias supersedes rational thought in making political decisions. Contrary to the notion that political decision-making relies mainly on rational thoughts, the study provided substantive evidence indicating that negativity bias is a key dimension underlying political ideology across cultures. The right and the left are more politically divided than at any time in my lifetime. The divide has been widened by negative bias fed by social media and opinion "rants" on both ends of the political spectrum.

Misinformation Bias

In a widely referenced study, 150 subjects watched a video of an auto accident. Immediately after watching the video, 50 of the subjects (the control group) were excused. The remainder was divided into two groups and asked a series of questions. One word in one question differed between the remaining two groups. Group 1 was asked how fast the cars were going when they hit each other. Group 2 was asked how fast the cars were going when they smashed into each other.

One week after watching the video, all 150 subjects were asked “Did you see the broken glass?” The control group answered “no”, the correct answer, 88% of the time. The “hit” group gave the same answer 86% of the time. By contrast, the “smashed” group answered correctly 68 % of the time (a statistically significant difference). The “misinformation” in this study is subtle: including suggestive language in a question has a measurable effect on one’s memory. Politicians (and attorneys) often exploit this bias.

Availability Heuristic

Both human and non-human animals can thank this bias for allowing our respective species to survive. A heuristic is a “rule of thumb” that quickly comes to mind without spending the time and energy to thoroughly evaluate a situation before reacting. When we hear an unexpected loud noise, we immediately react as if we are in some sort of danger. Rarely do we experience actual danger following the loud noise; the availability heuristic causes us to overestimate the probability of an event because it comes quickly to mind. This bias can be very beneficial to a species by triggering defensive action before fully assessing a potential danger. More generally, we often more efficiently make decisions based on past experience without full information. On the other hand, this bias can cause people to be overly cautious and overprotective of others, unduly limiting one’s ability to learn new skills and broadening positive experiences. Again, politicians use this bias effectively to frighten people into compliance.

Self-serving Bias

We have a tendency to attribute success to our hard work and abilities but tend to blame outside influences for failures. Studies using fMRI imaging of normal humans have determined that the dorsal striatum and dorsal anterior cingulate control self-serving bias. The same parts of our brains are responsible for motivation. As I write this, a news headline suggests we may even plan to employ the self-serving bias before knowing the success or failure of an effort. “Trump privately ready to blame Ryan and McConnell if Republicans lose midterms”

Anchoring Bias

When we make a decision with a wide range of options, we gravitate to an “anchor”. The anchor can be an opening offer in a financial transaction, a characteristic one is fixated on (linking the value of a car to the odometer reading), or the first piece of information a person encounters. One experiment had subjects spin a wheel that had an equal chance of landing on a number between 1 and 100. After spinning the wheel, each subject was asked to adjust their number up or down to estimate the number of African countries in the UN. Those who spun higher numbers gave higher estimates than those who spun lower numbers. In each case, the guess was anchored by the spin of the wheel.

Status-Quo Bias

We tend to have an emotional affinity towards the status quo. Consider two scenarios.

1, Imagine that the ultimate virtual reality machine is perfected; once connected to the machine, one cannot tell the difference between real life and the simulation of real life. If you could make an irreversible decision to permanently abandon your current life and live a life of your choosing in the machine for the remainder of your natural life, or continue in your present life, what would you decide? 

2. Now change the scenario. Imagine you are told that you have been a subject in an experiment that began the day you were born. Your life to date has been a simulation in a virtual reality machine but the experiment is over and you have a choice to finish the simulated life or disconnect and live in the outside world with your current memories intact except for this conversation and subsequent decision. However, be aware that life on the outside will not be controlled by the script of your simulated life. What would you choose?

Attentional Bias

In today’s environment, attentional bias coupled together with confirmation bias (a subject covered in an earlier blog post) is most noticeable in our choice of social and broadcast media. Most people focus on either conservative or liberal content; it is a rare individual who objectively considers the political positions on both ends of the political spectrum. By focusing only on a portion of the available information, we reinforce our attentional biases. Rather than considering all relevant possibilities before choosing a course of action, we tend to restrict our attention to the information that is consistent with prior convictions. 

Similar thought experiments suggest that most people would choose not to live the virtual reality machine in Scenario 1 above. However, the majority would choose not to disconnect from the virtual reality machine in Scenario 2. Apparently, we are not attached to the “reality” of the life we live but are more attached to the familiarity of our life. We appear to be inherently risk-averse.

During a financial transaction, experienced buyers or sellers often are the first to announce a starting price knowing that attention will be directed to that number and the final price will not stray far from that starting point.

More generally, we don’t consider all possibilities while making a decision, we consider the possibilities within the range of our attention. If you have not previously seen this video, take the challenge and count the number of times a person dressed in white throws a ball. 

Exploiting Our Biases

During my early exposure to news in the form of “newsreels” shown in movie theaters, I viewed the news as simply factual reporting. Only slowly over the years to follow did I realize that more and more opinion was being interjected into both the world and the national news. Research confirms this trend has reached a peak during the present political environment.

Market Watch, one of the least biased publications available today, summarizes in the headline below how far we, and the media, have migrated to political extremes.

How biased is your news source? If you don’t agree with this chart, examine your biases.

“In the past, national evening news programs, local evening news programs, and the front pages of print newspapers were dominated by fact-reporting stories,” says the chart’s creator, patent attorney Vanessa Otero. “Now, however, many if not most sources people consider to be ‘news sources’ are actually dominated by analysis and opinion pieces.”

How Did The Elephants Know?

How Did The Elephants Know?

I received from a friend an extract from this article describing elephants traveling an estimated 12 hours to pay respects to Lawrence Anthony, an elephant rescuer. Although the elephants had not visited the man’s home in over a year, the article claimed that they somehow knew he had just died. Elephants are known to pay such respects to members of their herd but I was not convinced they would do so for a human somehow knowing when and where Lawrence died. As is my usual practice when I encounter surprising claims, I fact-checked the story. Two fact-checking sites listed the story as “undetermined” and a third listed it as “true”. True or not, I wondered if elephants have abilities that could explain the remarkable story.


An elephant has a brain containing three times more neurons than a human. So why are humans so much smarter than elephants? The answer lies in the distribution of neurons and the functions they perform. It is hypothesized that humans are smarter because we have three times more neurons than elephants in our cerebral cortex even though the mass of the elephant cerebral cortex is much greater than is ours. In addition, elephants devote a lot more brain power to managing their muscles compared to humans. For example, humans have about 700 muscles to control throughout the body; elephants have 40,000 muscles divided into 150,000 units in their trunk alone. Elephants have much more sensitive senses of smell and hearing than we. Nevertheless, elephants are on the list of the smartest mammals on earth.

Scientists have demonstrated that elephants have approximately the intelligence of a two-year-old human, similar to Kanzi, a bonobo I wrote about in an earlier blog post. Four intelligence tests illustrate their ability to solve diverse problems.

Elephants solve problems normally beyond a human under two years of age. For example, elephants were trained to pick up and pass a stick to a handler. When the stick was attached to a mat so the elephant had to step on the mat to pick up the stick but step off the mat to complete the task. The elephants solved the problem 87% of the time. Only 6% of the time did a control group of elephants step off the mat when it was not attached to the mat. Children under two years of age typically did not pass the test.

A number of animals have been documented to recognize themselves in the mirror. To verify self-recognition, a mark that can only be seen in the mirror is surreptitiously placed on the subject. If the subject explores, touches or tries to remove the mark,, self-recognition is presumed to be confirmed. 65% of humans between 20 and 24 months pass the mark test. Watch this five minute video. Near the end an elephant passes the mark test.

Cooperative Problem Solving
Elephants cooperate with each other to perform tasks. In one experiment a rope was loosely looped around a sliding table. If one end of the rope was pulled, it was simply pulled loose from the table. If two elephants cooperated to simultaneously pull each end of the rope, the table would move to allow the pair to reach a food treat. As the testing progressed, the researchers were surprised when two elephants solved the problem in a way that was not anticipated. One elephant simply stood on one end of the rope and let its partner do all the work. Watch both strategies in this video.

This enterprising elephant seemed to immediately see how a tire would allow it to enjoy food that was just beyond reach. This short video captures an insightful strategy. The same behavior has been observed by elephants using balls and even stacking blocks for the same purpose.

Elephants make and use tools. They fabricate fly swatters out of the foliage, They carefully select sticks to scratch themselves, and they have been seen chewing bark to form a ball to prevent evaporation from a watering hole by plugging it.


Elephants use their finely tuned senses to communicate in ways far beyond human capabilities. Elephants communicate among the members of their herd in their own language using smell, sound, body language, and touch.

Humans can hear frequencies as low as 20 Hz. Elephants hear infrasonic frequencies down to 5 Hz (I personally can't hear sounds below 120 Hz); try using headphones with this hearing test and see how low you can go.  Low frequencies are not reflected or absorbed as easily as higher frequencies, thus elephants can communicate over long distances. Elephants’ ears capture vibrations in the air.

Seismic Communication

But unlike humans, elephants' noses (trunks) also have sound vibration receptors. At the tip of their trunk Meissner’s corpuscles pick up very low frequencies and Pacinian corpuscles detect slightly higher frequencies. Surprisingly, elephants’ feet also have Pacinian corpuscles that are tuned to detect seismic vibrations. Seismic vibrations from stomping a human foot travel about ⅔ of a mile. An elephant stomp can send seismic vibrations about 20 miles. Researchers observe elephants placing their trunks flat on the ground when the herd has become still to detect unusual or unexpected activity. They speculate that the trunk is being used as an ear to the ground but much research remains to fully understand the behavior. Using the above hearing test, put your fingertips near the speaker or on the keypad to feel the vibrations much the way elephants feel seismic sound (though elephants would feel it at astoundingly low frequencies, well below those a human can detect).

Trumpeting Elephants
Elephants communicate with 70 distinct vocal sounds and an estimated 160 non-vocal gestures, expressions, and other signals. They use their unique language to alert members of the herd to danger, to coordinate movements in search of food and water, to seduce members of the opposite sex, to organize defensive group activities, and other socially useful behaviors. A trumpeting elephant is a sign of distress in an adult or a temper tantrum in an infant. One elephant can identify as many as 100 individuals from the distinct sound of their individual voices.

Communicating With Touch
Elephants communicate by touching one another. Members of a herd are in constant touch with one another showing affection, consoling, greeting, They lightly touch one another with their trunks as they pass in the wild. Social bonds are strengthened by tactile communications. Ears, tusks, tails and the whole body are used for special communications. Body language plays an important role in communication. A swishing tail indicates happiness or a calm state; a stiff tail indicates anxiety or aggression. Tails coupled with eyes are important cues to elephant handlers; one can relax if an elephant swishes its tail with lazy eyes, but beware if the elephant has a stiff tail and wide open adrenaline-fueled eyes.


There is little scientific research focused on elephant emotions; most of the information is anecdotal and therefore invites accusations of anthropomorphism. Having explored what I could find in general and scholarly literature, I hold the personal view that elephants indeed do have deeper and more diverse emotions than most (or all) other social non-human animals. What is known that may partially explain why elephants have more emotional capacity than other non-human animals is they have a more developed hippocampus which is responsible for both emotion and memory.

Elephants are well known to rescue and console other elephants (especially the young) but they are documented to occasionally rescue members of other species including dogs, Kudu, buffalo, humans, and a baby rhinoceros stuck in the mud.

Elephants seem to have empathy and compassion not unlike humans. For example, groups of elephants are observed walking unnaturally slow to accommodate an injured member of the herd and to accommodate a mother elephant carrying her dead calf.

Rescuing a Calf
Elephants cooperate and employ their exceptional intelligence to protect calves. ABC news recorded a calf overcome by swiftly moving water which was rescued by a group of adult members of the herd blocking the current to allow the calf to reach the shore.

Recent research associates temporal gland secretions (TGS) flowing from between African elephant’s ears and eyes appear to be psychological markers, particularly the emotion of joy in females and hyper-sexuality in males. For example, a group of reuniting females will excitedly run towards each other displaying streams of TGS which has been anecdotally associated with joy.

Most people are familiar with the displays of love and protection mother elephants lavish on their calves, and mourning over deceased elephants. One researcher noted a family of African elephants surrounding a dying matriarch. The family stood around her and tried to get her up with their tusks and put food in her mouth. When the rest of the herd finally moved on, one female and one calf stayed with her, touching her with their feet.

Rage, stress and terror are unmistakable emotions seen in both adult and young elephants. Elephant calves show clear signs of PTSD after witnessing a member of the herd experience severe trauma.


Elephants’ memories are legendary. They recognize friends after being separated for decades. This seven-minute video shows Jenny and Shirley as they meet after being apart for 20 years. The matriarch of a herd can lead others to water holes separated by long times and distances. A female elephant has been documented to remember up to 30 other females by their urine scent even after being apart for years (urine trails act as markers to help a lagging elephant know exactly where another member of the herd has traveled). And they remember where a relative died long ago and will gently touch their tusks and bones as if remembering the deceased individual.

Elephants’ memories are finely tuned to matters that ensure their survival which can extend up to 70 years. They remember and avoid the scent of a poacher they may have witnessed in the past, and they remember the compassion of humans like Lawrence Anthony. They remember where and when certain foods can be found. The seismic sound of a thunderstorm 100 miles away is thought to be sensed by their feet and they can plot a path, often from memory, to the promised water. In one experiment two men from different Kenyan ethnic groups, one Maasai and one Kamba were recorded saying in a calm voice using their respective languages “look over there, a group of elephants is coming”. The Maasai will kill elephants competing for water or cattle grazing space while the Kamba do not. When the recordings were played within earshot of Kenyan elephants, they organized in tight defensive positions in response to the Maasai language but remained calmer when they heard the Kamba language. Interestingly, the difference in the elephants' responses to the Maasai and Kamba was more pronounced when women's voices were played compared to men.

Olfactory and Tactile Abilities

In addition to hearing and infrasonic detection through the trunk and feet, (discussed above in “Communication), elephants have exceptional senses of touch and smell.

Elephant "Fingers"
Fine Motor Control
Elephants’ trunks are equipped for heavy lifting; they can lift more than 700 pounds. Yet the African elephant has two “fingers” on the tip of its trunk that are sensitive enough to detect a gap between slats separated by 1/64 of an inch. These fingers can pick up a single blade of grass and hold a brush to paint pictures.

An elephant’s sense of smell can be as much as four times that of a bloodhound (keep in mind that a bloodhound can smell a human scent trail 130 miles long and nearly two weeks old). Elephants have 2000 genes dedicated to smell alone, compared to 400 genes in humans, and can smell water 12 miles away. As described above, elephants avoid people of the tribe of Maasai people in Africa who are hostile to elephants. Scientists questioned whether the Masai were detected by the sight of their characteristic red garments (elephants cannot see red), or by smell. They were immediately repelled by red cloth freshly worn by Masai but lingered near the same cloth freshly laundered. This and other experiments suggest that smell may be the most an elephant's most important sense.

Elephants Reinforcing Bonds
In addition to using touch to communicate, touch is a very important sense that binds a herd of elephants. They purposefully touch one another using their trunk, ears, tusks, feet, tail, and even their entire body. They caress each other with their trunks, guide calves by holding their tails, reassure each other by pressing their bodies together. An orphan calf requires frequent touching to eat and otherwise remain healthy.

Extrasensory Perception

This blog post was motivated by the article describing two herds of elephants reportedly paying their respects to the deceased Lawrence Anthony so it is natural to question if elephants are capable of extrasensory perception (ESP). I distinguish between infra-sensory perception (information gained through the senses outside the range of human abilities) and extrasensory perception, information not gained through the use of the senses.

New discoveries of infra-sensory perception have explained much of what once was assumed to be ESP. Birds find their way through storms over distances of thousands of miles by detecting the magnetic fields of the earth; similarly, marine mammals use magnetic fields in addition to sonar to navigate. For decades, new technologies have helped us uncover the detectable causes of what we once attributed to ESP. No combination of the extraordinary capabilities of elephants discussed here explains why herds of elephants appeared at Lawrence Anthony’s house shortly after his death.

Science Uncovering Elephants' Secrets
Without sanctioning ESP, my personal belief is that the appearance of two separate herds of elephants (assuming story is true) was due to undocumented sensory perceptions by the elephants visiting Lawrence Anthony’s house, or by undiscovered events that the elephants could sense. I suspect that someday we will learn why as we understand more about the extraordinary capabilities of these majestic creatures.

Postscript on Elephant Conservation

The African elephant population has decreased from 1,300,000  in 1979 to 400,000 today. Asia has only about 50,000 elephants spanning 13 countries. Poaching, loss of natural habitat, and competition with humans for land and food sources are the primary causes of the declining population. In addition to the ivory trade, Myanmar, and possibly Cambodia and Thailand, are experiencing an increase in skin poaching; elephant skin is used in Chinese medicine and beaded into wearable ornaments that are worn by people who believe they have magical properties beneficial to the skin.

Paradoxically, elephant populations in isolated areas of Africa are growing too quickly. For example, the Madikwe reserve, founded in 1991 with a population of 200 elephants, has experienced a population explosion reaching 1,200 today. Rather than incur the enormous expense of relocating elephants to reduce stress on resources, organizations like the African branch of Humane Society International are successfully experimenting with birth control.

Public support and awareness of the plight of elephants give me hope that we can manage to ensure their survival. If conservation measures are successful, we will learn much more about the astounding abilities of these magnificent creatures. I have no doubt that elephants have many more secrets to be discovered.

Can An Economic War Transfom Into A Military War: Is WW III Brewing?

Can An Economic War Transform Into A Military War: Is WW III Brewing?

My introduction to economic warfare began in the early 1970s shortly after I launched my first business, a private non-profit economics consulting firm affiliated with UCSD where I taught economics. The CIA funded one of our early projects with the goal of simulating the likely outcomes of economic warfare between the world’s largest economies. Fast forward to today; a real trade war is actually hatching. How might it end?


Normally tariffs require the approval of congress, the independent branch of government that was created to check the power of the other two branches of government: the judicial and executive branches.

However, there are exceptions that allow the president to act quickly and forcefully to protect our national security and sovereignty. The president can bypass congress under the authority of several trade acts.  Two of Trump's signature personality traits preordained the course of events: 1) carrots don't work, big sticks do if you hit hard where it hurts; and 2) losers play by the rules and look to the past for guidance, winners make their own rules and sabotage anything that gets in the way.

Trump launched the biggest trade war in history against China and other countries triggering a series of retaliations, and threats of more to come. At the moment all participating economies are losing ground and the negative effects of tariffs are spilling over into non-participating countries. The reactions reflect defiance and anger. Heads of state are confused by Trump's departure from traditional diplomacy and withdrawal from international alliances.

Despite Trump's disregard for rules and norms, there are limits on the president’s ability to unilaterally
impose tariffs. For example, Trump must withdraw from NAFTA to impose tariffs in excess of 35% on Mexico (yesterday, Trump announced he would be terminating NAFTA and replacing it with a new agreement). Limits also constrain the tit-for-tat response of China to the escalating tariffs imposed by the US; tariffs can only be imposed on the value of goods a country imports. China imports $130 billion in goods from the U.S. while the US imports $500 billion from China. Trump has threatened to place tariffs on all Chinese imports. China cannot respond in kind once the $130 billion limits are exceeded.

 Weapons Of Economic War

But there are economic weapons beyond tariffs that can be even more effective, some have recently been deployed. Sanctions are potentially more damaging than tariffs. For example, Trump had initially threatened to severely sanction any country that buys oil from Iran. He has since backed off limiting oil exports from Iran to one million barrels a day.

Other countries could make it difficult or impossible for US companies to operate on their soil. China, for example, has nearly 300 "cybersecurity" standards recommended for digital technology used by companies. However, China can make burdensome standards mandatory for foreign firms. The standards could obstruct US  businesses operating inside the country forcing them to close or move elsewhere. In addition, many countries have tentative plans to shut down US businesses; Russia has considered, but so far rejected, shutting down MacDonald's along with other US companies. Likewise, China has a playbook mapping how to shut down Apple and other high tech companies with operations in their territory.

Last week Iran threatened to hit US and Israeli targets if either country "goes beyond economic sanctions" (the US has sanctioned Iranian cars, trade in gold, purchases of US dollars). Additional sanctions on banking and threats to punish any country buying oil from Iran are pending in November. Tensions with Iran dramatically escalated in May when Trump unilaterally withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal.

The US currently has a weapon not available to our adversaries: the US dollar is the "global currency". A global currency is accepted for trade throughout the world and is held by the world's central banks as foreign exchange reserves. 65% of all foreign exchange reserves are in US dollars. By comparison, the second most widely held global currency is the euro which accounts for 20% of foreign exchange reserves. The US dollar holds its supreme position because of the strength of its economy, the stability of its value, and 85% of foreign currency trading involves the US dollar. Fears of a currency war, in which the US has by far the most powerful weapons, has already disrupted international money markets (for example, India's rupee has declined 7% against the dollar based on the prospect of a currency war).

The primary currency war likely will be between the US and China with Russia intervening on behalf of China. Ten years ago, Russia and China began to pressure the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to establish a new international currency to replace the US dollar. That effort has not persuaded the US-controlled IMF to abandon the dollar but China and Russia have joined forces to create alternatives. In particular, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Sergei Ryabkov, just announced:

"With the US unveiling a new set of sanctions against Russia on Friday, Moscow said it would definitely respond to Washington’s latest sanctions and, in particular, it is accelerating efforts to abandon the American currency in trade transactions."

Even our European allies are beginning to protect themselves against the increasingly unpredictable financial and diplomatic behavior of the US. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas proposed "a new international payments system independent of the dollar sphere, a new interbank transfer system, and a European Monetary Fund, to “protect European businesses from [American] sanctions. 

Can An Economic War Transform Into A Military War: Is WW III Brewing?

The US recently imposed new financial and arms sale sanctions on Russia in response to a nerve agent attack in Britain; Russia responded aggressively. Last week, Russia threatened to draw its own "red lines" if the US imposes harsh sanctions on Moscow for crossing our own "red lines" drawn by the White House and Congress. The Kremlin threatened to deploy tactical nukes in Syria and "other countries" if the US imposes additional harsh sanctions on Russia. A headline from the Express in the UK reads:
"World War 3 fears: Russia threaten NUCLEAR WEAPONS to Syria in response to US sanctions"

Missile Crisis 1962
In 1962 the Soviet Union and the US came frighteningly close to a nuclear war.
Nikita Krushchev had deployed 90 nuclear missiles in Cuba aimed at the US. President Kennedy enforced an embargo on further shipments of missiles and demanded that the Soviet Union remove all nuclear weapons be removed from Cuba. It first appeared that the strength of the US resolve caused Krushchev to retreat. However, it was not the stick the US wielded but the wise use of a carrot that prevented war; Kennedy had intelligence information that Krushchev was pressured by soviet hawks and needed to appease them. Kennedy made a secret deal to quickly and quietly remove US missiles from Turkey (he knew the Republicans in congress would not have approved his action).

There are important lessons learned from this incident. Good intelligence, from both domestic and through our allies, is essential to anticipate and prevent global disasters. A president must know how and when to use the carrot in place of the stick. And a wise president is an indispensable asset in troubled times.

Russian Ships in the Mediterranean Sea Yesterday
The current situation is dangerously close to the edge of military war. 1) China and Russia joined forces to defend against the aggressive US tariffs and sanctions. 2) Russia is placing nukes in Syria aimed at Europe and America stating, “We must respond to the emergence of components of the US missile defense systems near our borders.” 3) Today, NATO announced, “The Russian Navy has dispatched substantial naval forces to the Mediterranean, including several ships equipped with modern cruise missiles.” 4) Russia and China have agreed to join military forces to stage the biggest war games since the fall of the Soviet Union

To be more precise about the danger of escalating conflicts, I think there is a better than 10% chance that there will be a major international military conflict, perhaps not called a world war, in the next two years. I say that not because major powers will attack each other but because “small seeds grow big weeds:” Both WWI and WWII were seeded by a shuffling of alliances between countries. It is not the military blustering or tariff disputes that I see directly starting a war, it is the resulting shift in alliances.

WW1 officially started with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie of Austria by a Bosnian Serb, but the stage was set earlier. A realignment of alliances, one between Germany and Austria-Hungary and another between Russia and France ensured that France would stand with Russia in the event of a balkan war, and Germany would side with Austria-Hungary. Eventually, Germany invaded Belgium and Britain declared war on Germany. The rest is history.

WW2 officially started September 1, 1939 when Germany invaded Poland but the seeds were planted before that date when Germany, Czechoslovakia, Austria , and Rhineland bickered about territory and two major European powers, France and Britain, pressed for a stronger Germany hoping that would prevent the growth of communism. Alliances between countries began to shuffle and the rest is history.
So is a military war brewing? Yes, it is brewing, but let's not let it go from fermentation to maturity.