The Evolution of Animals Being Dicks: Play and Aggression Minus Murder

We call it trolling when a panda deliberately lays the smackdown on its companion. Nature just calls it playtime.

Everyone saw the “Penguin Slap.” Penguin 1 waddles up behind Penguin 2, who’s gazing serenely into the Antarctic distance. The scene is chill — both penguins are minding their own business — then, suddenly, Penguin 2 claps the back of his pal’s head in one effortless stroke, smacking him face-first into the frigid water. Penguin 2 doesn’t even flinch. That’s just how it is.

The internet is filled with videos and GIFs of pandas tackling each other and kangaroos wobbling their balls at their neighbors. We love sites like because they offer cuter, less vitriolic versions of our own personal trolling campaigns, cutting out the dark psychological bullying that characterizes the worst human trolls. They force us to ask ourselves what trolling really is, and why any creature — ourselves included — trolls in the first place.

Consider meerkat pups, gnawing each others’ ears and wrestling each other from behind. Or an elephant calf pinning its sibling to the ground. Or perhaps the bouncing baby goat Buttermilk, using her friend as a trampoline. These animals all appear vaguely violent and somewhat rude but, because they remain benign, still come across as funny — much like the best human trolls. But, of course, these animals aren’t being jerks for the sheer psychological fun of it. They’re not being jerks at all. What we see as trolling is really just playing.

Play, of course, is a nebulous concept. In animals, how do you tell the difference between literal horseplay — which we’d probably consider trolling — and actual self-defense? The line is a blurry one, but animal play expert and evolutionary biologist Gordon Burghardt, Ph.D. has attempted to define “play” in scientific terms in his search for its evolutionary origins. As he explained in National Geographic:

“… play must be repeated, pleasurable behavior done for its own sake that’s similar, but not identical to, other behaviors in which the animal regularly engages. It also must be seen when the animal is healthy and not under stress.”

Two key phrases here: pleasurable and not under stress. We can characterize the behavior of the above-mentioned meerkats, elephants, and baby goat as “play” because they’re doing it for pleasure, as far as we can tell. Their situations don’t appear to call for self-defense or aggressive behaviors.

The large majority of animal trolling clips on the internet are actually just examples of different species actually fighting or defending their territory in ways that we think are hilarious. For instance, the parakeet in the GIF below does not take pleasure in the deeply satisfying psychological humor underlying bridled masochism. It’s just stressed out about the damn reptile encroaching on its space.

The legitimate examples of trolling exist in the animal kingdom prompt us to ask: Why do animals play in the first place? Why does playful behavior sometimes look straight-up mean? Unsatisfied with the simplest explanation — it’s fun, brah! — evolutionary psychologists have suggested that animal play-fighting is preparation for the hunting and self-defensive burdens they’ll be tasked with in adulthood. Others have suggested that playful behavior is a way for young animals to practice their motor skills. Especially aggro behavior is, perhaps, a ploy for attention.

There’s simply not enough data to say.

The fact that animal troll compilations exist does not shed much light on the nature of animal play, but certainly says a lot about what it is to be an animal. Though the rude, undeniable intentionality of human trolling may or may not be similar, the impulse to screw with a member of one’s own species just to see what they’ll do in response approaches universal. In a sense, it’s proof that curiosity is an evolutionary adaptation and, in a different sense, it’s just the opening gambit of play. The fact that it remains difficult to tell the difference between play and antagonism within species may point to a bigger idea: There isn’t a huge amount of difference between those two things. What we perceive as a violent impulse toward our enemies may actually be much milder than we fear. Maybe we just want to push them into cold water.

That said, observing trolling in animals is an act of projection and frequently a glimpse into our own sense of play/humor. We find low-key, evolutionarily determined survival-of-the-fittest behaviors hilarious. Animals may or may not be jerks. We definitely are.

Related Tags