6 min read
Hayley Kinsey Puffin

I recently read The Unexpected Truth About Animals by Lucy Cooke. It's a lighthearted book that paints a fascinating background to the history of anthropomorphism and the co-opting of fabrications about animal behaviour to serve social and religious messaging.

Cooke tells us the inaccurate and frankly ridiculous stories men have concocted about animal behaviour, often with little or no evidence.

I've written about anthropomorphism before, but never felt that I've properly understood why the concept irks me so much.

The idea of anthropomorphism gets under my skin, pricks tears behind my eyes, makes me feel like there's something seriously wrong. But what?

I've been grating my heart against dismissals of the brilliance of other species for years, knowing that something sinister lies in the way that we approach the natural world.

Finally, I think I've found the root of my unease. The Unexpected Truth About Animals revealed, for me, The Unexpected Truth About Anthropomorphism.

In the book's conclusion, Cooke describes anthropomorphism as "enemy number one", pointing to the prejudices shown by the early anthropomorphisers described in the book (anthropomorphisers isn't a real word, apparently, despite our preoccupation with the concept).

Cooke's conclusion is interesting because I took the message of her book an entirely different way. Prejudicial and judgemental anthropomorphism was the problem. That sense of superiority was the issue, not relating to other species.

My surprise at Cooke demonising anthropomorphism led me to realise a fundamental problem with the way we use the word.

We generally take anthropomorphism to mean the attribution of human traits, emotions and tendencies to non-human beings. We say that to do so is to disrespect or misunderstand different animal experiences.

But which traits, emotions and tendencies are human ones?

Hayley Kinsey Red Squirrel in Tree

An article in October's issue of National Geographic entitled Minds of Their Own fills a page with a photo of an orangutang, Anih, leaning over and holding out their hand to a ranger who is stuck in a ditch, up to his chest in mud. An obvious interpretation of the action is that Anih is offering help.

The caption explains that the ranger has looked after Anih for many years and that Anih watched the ranger struggle to walk in the muddy canal before reaching a hand towards him, but goes on to say that the Borneo Orangutang Survival Foundation warned against anthropomorphising animal behaviour: "they think Anih probably was asking for food".

And therein lies the problem with the idea of anthropomorphism. Why is it exclusively "human" to offer help to someone you know who is in trouble?

In the very action of classifying something as anthropomorphism we have judged certain skills and traits to be human-only, or privileged enough to be classed as "human".

When these skills and traits are apparent in other animals, we write them off as misconceptions or anomalies. We think we're better than everyone and everything else. It is baked into the very idea of anthropomorphism.

To hoard certain skills, traits, emotions and tendencies as "human" is to attempt to set ourselves apart, to reserve the "best" behaviour and intellect for ourselves. To draw a line in the sand, keep ourselves above.

But it's an assumption that Anih was offering help! It sure is. But it's also an assumption that Anih was asking for food.

Given the keeper is up to his waist in mud and not carrying any food or behaving in a way associated with usual food provision, and that Anih offered their hand after watching the ranger struggle to walk, it's arguably more likely that the orangutang was offering help, but either could be true.

So why is one anthropormorphism and one science?

Hayley Kinsey Gull

Our hang up with anthropomorphism is two-fold: inheritance of terribly prejudicial myths (and, frankly, utter lies manipulated to suit religious rhetoric) about animals from men centuries ago that still have ripple effects today, and the fact that we continue to see ourselves as superior in every way.

Anthropomorphism seeks to draw a line between human traits and experiences and animal ones. We've made that line up. Who's to say whether something is a "human-only" experience?

There are loads of examples to stimulate thinking about this. In the book, for instance, Cooke is talking to Dr Cat Hobaite about the chimpanzees Hobaiter studies.

Cooke tells us that two individuals with the same mother and same environment grew up to be two completely different chimps: one was outgoing and boisterous, the other reserved.

Hobaiter comments that she finds it fascinating "how you get such radically different survival strategies".

When two human siblings are different we don't assume they're adopting different strategies to survive, we just say they've got different personalities - they're individuals.

Individuality is not a privilege we bestow on other beings. It's reserved, on the "human" list and therefore anthropomorphism.

We assume that species that have been on this Earth a lot longer than we have are, in absolutely every element of their being and experience, hanging on to survival by the tips of their desperate fingers, one slip up away from the abyss of extinction. This isn't true, as Cooke explains in her chapter on the much-maligned sloth.

Hayley Kinsey Fledgling

When Cooke concludes that anthropomorphism is enemy number one, she says arrogance is a close runner up.

My view is that anthropomorphism, as a concept and a label, is arrogance. The very idea that there is a batch of traits, skills and emotions that "belong" to humans is arrogance.

It slows the progress of science, our understanding, and our reconnection with the natural world.

I've been reading books about animal intelligence since I was a kid, and the behaviours that we are - tentatively, still - now admitting might be indicative of other species having far richer inner and outer lives than we have ever conceived have in many cases been known about for a long time but desperately explained away so as to preserve the glass case of "human" traits.

Anthropomorphism may have been used to undesirable ends in the past but the demonisation of it in the present day serves equally undesirable ends, severing our intuitive connection with the natural world, shattering our prism of understanding.

I don't think all beings experience the world in the same way we do. There is an incredible variety of life on Earth and it's one of the most wonderful things about this planet.

I don't think we should automatically assume that another being experiences something in the same way we do, or does something for exactly the same reasons we would - but I also don't think we should automatically assume that they don't.

An assumption that a being has done something for reason X is no more credible than an assumption that they have done something for reason Y merely because of the arbitrary and arrogant categorisation of Y as a "human thing".

If the given answer to this argument is that we think it's more likely that a being could be, say, asking for food than offering help because we don't have any direct evidence that this species would offer help, we need to unpack that.

And if it isn't the history of anthropomorphism back to haunt us again! Modern day demonisers of anthropomorphism probably owe their hatred of it, in part, to the arrogant falsehoods of men writing hundreds of years ago, but the irony is that adopting zero as the starting point for other species and refusing to believe that they can possess a trait or skill until it is irrefutably, and in the face of their refusal to consider "human" traits in animals, proven beyond doubt is not an effective way to rid ourselves of the hangover from those earlier manipulations. Rather a high bar, wouldn't you say?

Where did we get that starting point from? Where does that huge sea wall we've installed that cuts through our acceptance and understanding - the belief that other species have no human-reserved traits - come from, if not speciesism?

Hayley Kinsey Greylag Goose

I've said before that Western science's hatred of anthropomorphism is species superiority dressed up as scientific impartiality. On further reflection, I believe the very concept of anthropomorphism is species superiority.

If you still feel uncomfortable viewing other species' lives through a "human lens" (whatever that means), consider that we should remain open and admit what we don't know.

A common refrain is saying we couldn't possibly attribute behaviour to a skill or emotion when we don't know for sure, and then nevertheless proceeding to fill in blanks that we don't know!

Like, "we can't know why the monkey did this, so we can't say it was because they knew their sister was scared, but they were probably just acting instinctively to protect their genes."

This assumes that wanting to protect your family because you care for them is "human" and therefore suggests an "animal" or "survival" reason for the behaviour instead (because how could a mere monkey display the traits we have reserved for ourselves?).

We insist on asserting 'probable' explanations when we've based that 'probability' on how likely we think it is that another being would display one of the skills or emotions we have reserved for ourselves. Unsurprisingly, we decide it's more probable that another being is displaying similar behaviour to us for reasons we view as inferior - this is because we think we're superior.

We default to the shallowest or most disparaging interpretation of the behaviour as the 'probable' explanation. We only - reluctantly - admit that other beings share traits and emotions with us when there is no credible alternative explanation, like when a mother orca carries a dead calf for 17 days.

Hayley Kinsey Giraffe

If your problem is not knowing the answer then consider not making suggestions.

If you don't know why the monkey protected their sister, just leave it there. Say "this monkey protected their sister and we don't know why."

Don't fill in the gaps with an explanation that you feel comfortable giving because it pins the monkey on a lower emotional rung on the imaginary ladder than humans.

The monkey might have acted to protect their genes, or they might have acted because they care. We will likely never know, so let's stop biasing our guesses towards thinking less of other species.

Cooke's book focuses on the harms caused by deliberate misinterpretation or falsification of animal behaviour by Westerners to support moral sermonising. Other books could be written (and no doubt have been) exploring the even murkier history of Western rejection of indigenous relationships with other species, this time rooted in superiority over not only other species but other peoples and cultures.

The superiority and moral sermonising associated with the way that we used to relate to animal behaviour shouldn't lead us to reject anthropomorphism now. If we do, it shows we haven't really learnt anything. We need to reject the very idea of anthropomorphism and look at other species head-on, not as if from on high.

If you enjoyed this post, you might be interested to read about the imaginary dividing line humans have created between our species and others.

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