an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

on anthropomorphism and human specialness

with 3 comments

Chimps gather to mourn the death of an elder

Recently I got into a bit of a barney with a friend who mocked the Great God David Attenborough for talking, in one of his whispered jungle monologues beside some exotic creatures or other, of the ‘mummy’ creature doing this and the ‘daddy’ creature doing that. My friend was slightly pissed off at this ‘anthropomorphism’. What followed is best dismissed as the insidious effects of too much jungle juice and jungle-jangle jazz, but the issue strikes me as an important one, so I’ll examine it further here.

There was a time when ethologists – those who study the behaviour of non-human animals – considered anthropomorphism a giant no-no. To describe an organism as he or she was (or seemed) to ascribe personhood to it, and clearly only humans can be persons. This was unscientific, and kind of soft. After all, ‘animals’ are driven by instinct, whereas humans make conscious decisions. They deliberate, they confer, they worry, they grieve, they organise, they invent, and they have a highly developed prefrontal cortex lacking in other species. And because they have a sophisticated Theory of Mind, they have fun attributing such mental attributes to their pets – ‘my dog Peaches understands every word I say/loves playing with my iPad/always helps me with the gardening’. Scientists of course eschewed such fluffiness in their research, while recognising that anthropomorphism will always be with us, as a type of human failing.

When Jane Goodall began publishing pioneering papers on chimp behaviour in Tanzania in the 1960s, she was quickly accused of anthropomorphism, ‘the cardinal sin of ethology’, but the impact of her work, together with that of other women in the field such as Diane Fossey on gorillas and Birutė Galdikas on orang-utans, was so transformative that it not only changed attitudes toward anthropomorphism but helped overturn the dominant paradigm in ethology and human psychology – behaviourism. And I don’t think the fact that these were all women was coincidental.

What Goodall et al were describing was complex social and family behaviour, driven by feelings – anger, fear, lust, shame and grief, to name a few. It was, in fact, nothing new. Darwin himself wrote The Expression of the Emotion in Man and Animals, in which he regularly used anthropomorphic terminology. However, the fact that it has now become more standard is due as much to neurological research as to field ethology. I’ve written elsewhere about bird brains, and the transformative and ongoing research into them. Research has also found that many bird species have extended family relationships. How do they recognise sisters and aunties when they all look the same? Maybe humans all look the same to a parrot (actually plenty of evidence says that they don’t). Neurological research into humans and non-human species is growing exponentially, and is quickly eroding the sense of our neurological specialness, which is a good thing. For example, in the bad old days, non-human primates were a regular subject of human research – or much more than they are now. It’s much easier to, say, remove part of a marmoset’s brain – sans anaesthetic – and observe its reactions if you’ve always referred to the creature as ‘it’ rather than ‘her’ or ‘him’, let alone as someone’s mother or daughter. But that’s exactly what they are. And they know it.

So why are some people still resistant to anthropomorphic terminology? It may be a religious hangover – most of the major religions make a sharp distinction between humans and brute beasts, and our language is full of these ‘human specialness’ distinctions, which we rarely notice. The term, ‘animal’ for example, standardly excludes the human animal. Since most of us can’t distinguish between a male and female bird of most species, we use the general term ‘it’, but if we’re presented with a new-born human animal we’re likely to inquire its gender so as not to use the insulting term I’ve just used.

Returning to the argument mentioned at the top of this post, the issue seemed to be that we shouldn’t use ‘mummy or ‘daddy’ etc to refer to non-human animals, that these terms are used for human relations, and should be used exclusively for that purpose. I can see no logic to this argument. Of course, birds don’t think of their parents as ‘mummy’ or ‘daddy’, but neither do they think of themselves as ‘birds’ or ‘oiseaux’ or ‘tori’ (Japanese). So if we refer to their relationships as ‘male parent’, ‘female parent’, and ‘offspring’, instead of mum, dad and the kids, that is just as much an imposition on them – a deliberately distancing imposition, emphasising our superiority – as the anthropomorphic terms.

One of the parties to this recent contretemps suggested we calm down, ‘it’s just a nomenclature issue’. Of course this is true, it’s all about nomenclature. And nomenclature can be really important – it can be racist, classist, as well as speciesist. The terms we use for other creatures can help to determine whether we see them as our friends or our dinner. In the meantime, continued neurological and ethological research will, I believe contribute further to the dissolution of the old rule against anthropomorphism, and the Great God Attenborough’s whispering tones will resonate through the firmament, as surely as mummy chimps mourn the loss of their babies.

Elephants live in multi-family groups over 70 years and develop strong, intimate bonds


Written by stewart henderson

February 5, 2019 at 9:29 am

3 Responses

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  1. What a great article to read… I share a similar perspective… Its about living with myself and being okay about everything. Ethics, and Morality come to mind, and keeping that mind open! Having many times observed close up, the most amazing care and recognition shared between so many different kinds of animals, over a variety of orders…What I’ve personally observed People also doing the same behaviors.. We be animals too, and no better or more important ecologically. There is nothing wrong or “Sinning against” in “Anthropomorphism” . There is so much more to consciousness than “Humanity” has come to know and understand to this point. Mammals especially share so much of the same basic instincts; to survive individually first of all. Similar senses and neural chemistry tend to produce similar behaviors across the spectrum of living beings that share them, be they primates or whatever.

    hconeil1957

    February 5, 2019 at 1:53 pm

    • Thanks for your comment – we’re clearly on the same page, and it’s a good page to be on. The more we examine other creatures the more complexity we find – funny that!

      stewart henderson

      February 7, 2019 at 10:18 am

  2. […] via on anthropomorphism and human specialness — an autodidact meets a dilettante… […]


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