Anthropomorphism: Maybe Cows Really Do Stand Upright When We’re not Looking

25 Oct

I know my dog loves me deeply.  Why else would he crap on my pillow when he doesn’t get enough attention?  At least that is my anthropocentric interpretation.

Gary Laron's Cows - from 'The Far Side'

Gary Laron's Cows - from 'The Far Side'

There are countless examples of our tendency to attribute human characteristics to animals, objects, and natural phenomena.  From storybook characters, to political satire, to hurricances, we constantly resort to human experiences and feelings to describe and explain the world around us.  Gary Larson, the acclaimed cartoonist that brought us “The Far Side”, adroitly uses anthropomorphism “to create an epistemological mirror in which we may witness, while we eat our breakfast, our own supposedly scientific knowledge, our own fears, stupidity, and lack of instinctual knowledge”, as David Lavery puts it in his essay entitled Aesop After Darwin: The Radical Anthropomorphism of “The Far Side”Lavery concludes by observing “To be human… is, quite simply, to be unnatural, sometimes ridiculous.”

It’s easy to ridicule anthropomorphism as yet another human foible, but many studies have supported the notion that animals have legitimate emotions, similar to humans.  For example, Stefan Anitei recounts in her article Human Behavior Found in Animals an observation by researchers in which a wolf limped back to its den after suffering a deep wound to its shoulder.  For several days afterward, the researchers observed another black male wolf entering the den and regurgitating large chunks of meat for the incapacitated animal, repeating this behavior until the wounded individual could rejoin the pack.  Sarah Etter, at PhysOrg.com, states that “All mammals, including dogs, have a ‘pleasure center’ in their brains that is stimulated by dopamine, the chemical that regulates feelings of happiness.”  Since this brain chemistry is the same in humans, she speculates, it is reasonable for us to assume that animals and humans share emotional similarities.  Etter goes on to quote the esteemed primatologist Jane Goodall as saying “From a behavioral perspective, it only makes sense that animals would experience emotions … Social animals must be able to read other animals in their society and must be able to maintain social bonds.”  Indeed in comparative psychology and ethology, animal behavioral studies have been used extensively to better understand human interactions (see, for example, this article at AnimalBehaviorSociety.org).

Despite this, we can sometimes go too far.  In the blog Ask.MetaFilter.com, an open forum for the public to present their queries to other visitors, one contributor questions if her excessive empathy toward inanimate objects is ‘weird’.  For example, she cried for a Christmas tree erected in a town that was criticized by the citizens as being ‘shabby’, and ‘a poor excuse for a tree’.  Respondents also contributed examples, including a person who “used to make beds for my various writing implements from tissues, lest they have to be subjected to the cold of the desk”.  At WrongPlanet.net, a support website for people and families with autism and other neurological differences, excessive empathy for animals and objects is cited as being common within this community, as shown in this forum thread.  In nearly all of the cases, though, this tendency to over empathize did not usually negatively impact their ability to function in their daily lives.

Being the fickle creatures that we are, humans seem to be selective when it comes to anthropomorphizing.  Rick Nauert, at PsychCentral.com, summarizes in his review article that “An entity is more likely to be anthropomorphized if it appears to have many traits similar to those of humans (for example, through humanlike movements or physical features such as a face).”  He also speculates that lack of social connections with other people “might motivate lonely individuals to seek out connections from nonhuman items.”  A. Horowitz, in an excerpt from the Encyclopedia of Human-Animal Interactions, theorizes that anthropomorphism is a mechanism to bring familiarity to an uncertain world.  A child, he states, “uses animism… to make sense of the sensory chaos of his environment…”  Horowitz also cites human similarities as being an important characteristics of anthropomorphizing, and uses frogs as an example of a creature with poor human similarities.  Frogs, therefore, are good candidates for the dissecting table in biology classes, due to the lack of empathy they garner from the pupils.

A curiosity is why we seem much less likely to zoomorphize, which is the opposite tendency – that is, to view an object or human being as having animal features and characteristics.  After all, we are just animals, sharing much of the same brain biology as other mammals.  Instinct, which is an accepted trait in animals, has become an unacceptable explanation for any human behavior.  Compelling examples in animals such as migration, imprinting, and body language do not seem to have corresponding analogs in the human world.  In the WikiPedia article on this subject, the psychology establishment has gone from accepting 4000 instinctual characteristics for humans at the end of the 19th century, to being superfluous in the study of human behavior during modern times.

Wilfred on FX

Wilfred on FX

In any case, I will continue to interpret my dog’s behavior as if he was a human child.  And I will continue to believe that he loves me, which some authors dispute.  In her article, Etter quotes Fred Metzger, a veterinarian and guest lecturer at Penn State, as insisting that animals do not love in the same sense as humans.  Dogs, he says, make emotional bonds with anyone that can provide them something in return.  “If we moved our dogs to our neighbor’s house,” he asserts, “and that neighbor gave the dogs as much as we gave them and in the same motivational forms, I believe our dogs would adapt to the new life and would become as loyal to the neighbor as they were to us.”  This sounds a lot like how people describe their ex-wife or ex-husband… hmmmm.

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