Rethinking Anthropomorphism


It’s long been thought that to anthropomorphize non-human animals—that is, to impute human characteristics to them—was to indulge in sloppy thinking or maudlin sentimentality.  “Since the early nineteenth century,” observe Lorraine Daston and Gregg Mittman in Thinking with Animals: New Perspectives on Anthropomorphism, “historians, philosophers, and anthropologists have repeatedly linked the rise of modern science with the waning of anthropomorphic attitudes toward the natural world.”

Today, that association remains as strong as ever. Writing in a 2004 Nature article, Clive D. L. Wynne, a psychologist at the University of Florida, demeans anthropomorphism as “nothing more than informal folk psychology.”

More often than not, the approbation itself– “you’re just anthropomorphizing”–is delivered without much consideration of its underlying value as a functional concept. It’s simply assumed to be a flawed, even childish, way of thinking. But understanding the deeper nature of the anthropomorphic impulse is critical to understanding our relationship with non-human animals in general and, more specifically, the responsibilities that hinge on that relationship.      

This is obviously an enormous question.  But my intention here is only to suggest why anthropomorphism might be a perfectly legitimate way to think about non-human animals, rather than a pejorative term dismissing the emotional response humans frequently have when interacting with a non-human animal.

The power of anthropomorphic thinking becomes especially evident when you consider what it took for humans to domesticate wild animals over 8000 years ago. Before any actions were taken to tame a species, certain observations about those animals had to be borne out.

Animals with the potential to be tamed had to possess a certain set of characteristics. Among other things, they had to be socially attuned, accustomed to hierarchical relations, capable of interacting with other herds of the same species, and moderately docile.

The only conceivable way that humans could have recognized these qualities would have been to evaluate animals in anthropomorphic terms, thereby assessing animal behavior in explicitly human terms.  Call it “informal folk psychology” if you like, but clearly that folk psychology had some value for humans trying to domesticate animals.

A related point to keep in mind regarding anthropomorphism is that, for many scientists today who work with animals, removing anthropomorphic perspectives and descriptions destroys the most effective avenue of human connection to the animals under study. On this point the experiences of psychologist D. O. Hebb is instructive.

As recounted in Tom Regan’s The Case for Animal Rights, when Hebb attempted to evaluate the primates he was studying without resorting to “anthropomorphic descriptions in the study of the temperament,” he ended up with useless data. “All that resulted,” he explained, “was an almost endless series of specific acts in which no order or meaning could be found.” 

By contrast, when the primates were then evaluated with anthropomorphic descriptions, “one could quickly and easily describe the peculiarities of the individual animals, and with this information a newcomer to the staff could handle the animals as he could not safely otherwise.”

The implications of the utility of anthropomorphism should not be underplayed. The pervasive influence of speciesism systematically prevents us from acknowledging, and appreciating, the mental similarities we share with non-human animals–similarities that we implicitly acknowledge by being anthropomorphic, and similarities that are essential to our ability to connect with animals, to feel love for them, and to sense their suffering.

If we can better understand the non-human animal world when we conceptualize it anthropomorphically–and so much of our common experience with non-human animals confirms that doing so does lead to a deeper understanding–aren’t we obligated to wonder if perhaps we’re not anthropomorphizing at all?

Could it be, instead, that in appearing to anthropomorphize non-human animals we are, more accurately, simply experiencing a genuine emotional connection with creatures that are far more similar to us than our speciesist-infused society will acknowledge?

What’s so sloppy about that?




About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

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