Understanding Animals – Anthropomorphism Is Not A Dirty Word

July 26, 2016  

The “Accusation” of Anthropomorphism – Detrimental to Understanding Animals

I noticed when watching a zoo programme on television last week, that staff repeatedly felt the need keep saying that they were not being ‘anthropomorphic’ whenever they dared to suggest one of the animals in their care was showing an emotion or feeling. As anthropomorphic is not a word that crops up often in everyday language their repeated use of it did stick out rather like a sore thumb.

Anthropomorphism is a term the dictionary initially defines as being the projection of human characteristics onto God. Subsequently it refers to the projection of human like qualities onto other animals.

As an Anthro-zoologist (human/animal interactions) I whole-heartedly agree it would be wrong to make assumptions that non-human animals are necessarily experiencing feelings and emotions in the same way we might. In other words, projecting our human desires, emotions and priorities onto them. To make an assumption that our pet dog is happy simply because she is experiencing something that makes us happy is anthropomorphic – we are assuming our human experience and its relative feeling/emotion is the same for her.

But here’s the rub; to project your feelings onto me (one human to another) is also assumption that my experience of say a day out is the same as yours. What makes you happy and sad is not necessarily the same experience for me. But the only way you have of understanding me is through your own experience of being a human. In much the same way the only way you have understanding another animal is through your own experiences as a human and your previous experiences of that particular species.

Dogs are often referred to as being highly successful in their relationships with humans. This is often believed to be due to their skill in deciphering and reacting appropriately to human emotions. Yet we don’t accuse them of anthropomorphism do we? We don’t suggest they’re projecting their doggy selves onto us. What they are doing is using their empathic skills, their own self awareness and their experiences of humans to create understanding of our physical, mental and emotional cues. So, by the same token a self aware, empathic human with experience of engaging with a particular species, and individuals within that species (for example a zoo keeper who engages personally with an individual elephant) should not be “accused” of anthropomorphism when she/he talks about that individual elephants feelings, experiences and so forth. As, with the underlying empathy, attentiveness, experience of and understanding of the individual, the keeper is simply describing what she/he has understood of that individual. This is not projection but understanding – there is a difference.

As humans we can only use words we have created to describe particular emotions, feelings and behaviour. We have to ascribe those words, with all their underlying subjective meanings, to our understanding of not only other species, but also of one another.

To create fear by wielding the ‘accusation’ of anthropomorphism leaves people who are making genuine, meaningful, empathic connections with other species terrified to suggest that the animal in their care is capable of displaying emotion or feelings. In doing so, we are in danger of re-creating a sense that animals are clockwork, mechanical beings devoid of the depth of emotion and feelings as experienced by humans. Other animals may not experience emotion and feelings in precisely the same way as humans – but then I won’t experience emotion and feelings in the same way as you either (one human to another). BUT they do experience.

The semantics of this situation are creating fear – fear within professional circles leaving people terrified to talk honestly about their experiences of animal emotion. As is often recognised this sense of fear of being anthropomorphic is also a distancing device, a way of creating and maintaining the barrier between humans and other species. It is this very distancing that continues to create a world where it is possible to turn a blind eye to animal neglect, abuse, vivisection, the goings on in slaughterhouses and so forth. If you want to read more about this Kay Milton and Mary Midgley write extensively – links on my not-for-profit website detailed below.

True anthropomorphism would the suggestion that all dolphins are ‘happy’ because their mouths appear to be in a smile!