Sunday, June 10, 2012

Is Anthropomorphism Really a Bad Thing?

I sometimes say that “anthropomorphism is the last refuge of vivisectionists.” Many people--not just scientists--use the term anthropomorphism (attributing human qualities to nonhumans) pejoratively,  as an excuse to ridicule and thus minimize the concerns of those of us who have empathy for other creatures. Many also use it to suppress their own natural empathy; to distance themselves from things they do that cause suffering to laboratory or food animals.

I believe that feelings of anthropomorphism are innate and natural.  Even small children recognize that animals have feelings. This belief is often called unscientific, yet if you believe in evolution, how can you maintain that emotions appeared full-blown in humans without first evolving from other animals? It may be sentimental to care about the feelings of animals, but I refuse to view sentiment as a bad thing.

Even the most hardened “rationalist” would agree that animals demonstrably experience fear and pain; but I believe they possess a much broader spectrum of feelings as well. I believe that the higher animals, mammals and birds, experience, in their own way, love,  joy, and wonder. It would not surprise me to learn someday that primitive versions of these feelings exist also in reptiles and fish.

All of this is by way of explaining why I will continue to write about critters in this journal from an anthropomorphic point of view, sometimes putting words in their mouths or beaks. Of course I do not believe these creatures see the world exactly as I do, and in these dialogues I’m often joking. But my joking is based on close observation of what I see the animals doing.

       mom   9 close 6-23-2009 12-18-56 PM 756x507                                                           Baby Quail 5-16-2008 9-58-26 AM 514x357

Take baby Gambel’s quail. They are among my favorites of the desert’s warm-weather creatures. They emerge from the egg ready to roll, and they follow their parents with what can only be described as enthusiasm.These little puffballs rush into new adventures evincing curiosity and excitement about everything they encounter.

Baby quail  hatch in the hottest, driest part of the summer. All the other birds move slowly in the heat, fluttering their throats (gular flutter) and holding their wings out from their bodies to cool down. No matter how hot it gets the baby quails are undaunted, cheerfully following their parents over blisteringly hot rocks in search of food. I imagine an internal dialogue something like this: “It’s so hot here I think I have been born into hell! And it is wonderful! Oh, how lucky I am to be here!”


  1. I don't call this anthropomorphism because that implies projecting what's human onto other animals. I call this observation and empathy. Nobody should have to apologize for empathy, or for understanding, via simple observation, the range of thoughts and emotions that animals feel.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Anita. In point of fact I have been criticized at the Park for speaking of the feelings of the animals we observe. I've been ACCUSED of practicing anthropomorphism. I believe that some science-minded people feel their scientific bona fides have to include the denial of empathy.

  3. And even when the Gambel's grow up, they still seem to have that childlike enthusiasm. I love watching them hop along the wall and across the yard, bobbing and pecking and scurrying away at the first sign of human movement. And they are so darned cute.

    1. Yes! Couldn't agree more. And they are very devoted to the members of their family group at least until the following breeding season. I'm not sure if the devotion lasts beyond that.

  4. I'd tell the person who accuses you of anthropomorphizing that he's hypothesizing without a shred of evidence, which is actually less "science-minded" than stating what you observed: that animals display emotion and thought.

    Assuming animals can't think or feel, without imagining one needs evidence to back up the assumption, isn't science. Assuming anything at all isn't science. Science is a method, not a belief system. Too many people treat it as if it were a dogma (Do dogmas have feelings?)

  5. What I learned when co-writing "Unlocking the Animal Mind" was that this whole argument began with Descartes, 400 years ago. He wanted to study the human body, but the Church did not want anyone messing with God's handiwork. So they worked out a compromise which ended up with the Western split we see between mind and body for both humans and animals. With animals this was carried to the ultimate ridiculous conclusion that the animal mind does not experience anything at all, that animals are basically automatons (Skinner's "black box"). Most people, including I presume most scientists, reject this idea now for humans, but many still seem to believe it is true of animals. The whole argument drives me nuts and simultaneously breaks my heart. It allows hideous experimentation to continue on helpless animals, and even leads to such actions as casually strapping a family pet to the roof of a car for a long road trip.

  6. I agree with Anita -- animal feelings are not "human-like", they're "animal-like"!
    And why shouldn't other animals be capable of having emotions as we do? Many of them have the same organs we have for producing those emotions!

  7. @Evolving66: I agree, though I do believe that animal feelings are--for the animal--as deeply felt as human feelings are for us.