“People must have renounced, it seems to me, all natural intelligence to dare to advance that animals are but animated machines….It appears to me, besides, that [such people] can never have observed with attention the character of animals, not to have distinguished among them the different voices of need, of suffering, of joy, of pain, of love, of anger, and of all their affections.
It would be very strange that they should express so well what they could not feel.”
~ Voltaire, Trate sur la tolerance ~
There’s been a protracted effort, (and by this I mean its gone on for hundreds of years), by a too-large swath of of individuals we’ll agree to largely collect under the umbrella of “scientific authorities”, to obfuscate or otherwise conflate the meanings of anthropopathism and anthropomorphism.
I say this because many individuals in the fields of biology, anthropology, and even psychology, possess a collective ‘involuntary twitch’ around the concept of assigning such things as names to individual animals in study-groups. Too humanizing, you see…
In fact, if you’re lucky, you might even witness a display verging on berserker foam-flecked fury if the emotionality of non-human beings is in any way posited to such individuals…
You’ll typically hear opinions such as this, aired by Dr. Patricia Ganea, an Associate Professor of Applied Psychology at U of T:
“Anthropomorphism can lead to an inaccurate understanding of biological processes in the natural world. It can also lead to inappropriate behaviors towards wild animals, such as trying to adopt a wild animal as a ‘pet’ or misinterpreting the actions of a wild animal.”
Dr. Ganea arrived at this conclusion after studying 3 – 5yr old children who were first given factual information about animals, then provided with fantastical “anthropomorphized”, (her word, not mine), concepts about those same animals. Dr. Ganea’s findings were as follows:
…the children were likely to attribute human characteristics to other animals and were less likely to retain factual information about them when told they lived their lives as furry humans. (2)
First, let us set out on a grand quest to define what anthropomorphism actually means.
Webster’s dictionary defines ‘anthropomorphism’ as follows:
“An interpretation of what is not human or personal in terms of human or personal characteristics.”
Now, let’s look at the definition of ‘anthropopathism’ (provided by The Oxford English Dictionary):
“The ascription of human passions or feelings to a being or beings not human, usually a deity.”
There, that wasn’t so difficult…was it?
In the clearest possible terms, Dr. Ganea is engaged in assuming youngsters will engage in anthropopathism if someone not in possession of frontal lobes, presumably a parent…or some facsimile thereof…fails to disabuse said youngsters of the perception “the doe and fawn we drove past last weekend was Bambi and his mum”.
Scientific researchers commit a gross dereliction of due-diligence when they deliberately misuse language to communicate concepts to the wider world.
The misuse of the word “anthropomorphism” by Dr. Ganea, (and others in similar positions of attributed authority), accomplishes nothing less than the confusion of intermediary knowledge-purveyors (such as teachers, physicians, zookeepers, etc) as to what, precisely, “research” of this kind means, and ultimately misleads – and further confuses – the end-consumer of this information.
Namely, you and I.
I’m going to go one step further here, and state for the record that observing children only slightly older than toddlers – in a laboratory – then applying broad-brush conclusions as to what those observations might mean within the fluid context of the wider population is, I’ve no doubt, a truly fascinating way to spend valuable research dollars…if its a choice between this and watching paint dry…
Its also an endeavour almost entirely lacking in real-world value in terms of the application of those conclusions – derived from such a natural setting as they were, to actual human/non-human interactions, and the many and various subtleties therein.
So what’s say we venture further down the rabbit hole of using language in a clear, un-muddied manner, (when discussing the human/non-human dynamic), and look at some further definitions of innocuous-seeming – and wholly misunderstood words, in common parlance.
Perhaps we’ll dissect what ‘interpretation’ and ‘ascription’ mean.
The Oxford Living Dictionary states the meaning of ‘interpretation’ as:
“The action of explaining the meaning of something.”
vocabulary.com puts forth the straight forward explanation of ‘ascription’ meaning
“Assigning some quality of character to a person or thing.”
Finally, let us make ourselves familiar with the meaning of the word ‘instinct’, (…it’ll become clear why its necessary for us to understand what this word means in a few minutes):
“(1) A natural tendency for people and animals to behave in a particular way using the knowledge and abilities they were born with, rather than [those informed-by conscious] thought.
Or “(2) The tendency by an organism to make complex and specific responses to environmental stimuli without involving reason.”
Or “(3) Behaviour mediated by reactions below the conscious level.”
I can hear you drumming your fingers, you know.
What I’m about to point out here will be, I hope, clear to you in the context of the following quote from the same article:
“It’s almost like the internet was built for anthropomorphizing animals. Humans aren’t the only animals capable of forming strong bonds, but to say that the kangaroo even knew the other kangaroo was dying is beyond anything we know. No one has shown that animals understand dying or where babies come from. We can’t say they think that abstractly.” (1)
This little gem originates with one Dr. Holly Dunsworth of the University of Rhode Island. You’ll be interested to know Dr. Dunsworth asserts the following on her university bio-page:
“…I teach with new and original approaches aimed at overturning evolutionary misconceptions and outdated evolutionary dogma…”
I’m not kidding around. She put those exact words in the exact order you just read. Here’s the link to the full thing: https://web.uri.edu/soc-anth/meet/holly-dunsworth/
To be clear, anthropologists study dead people’s bones. Long, long dead people. As in, thousands and thousands of years dead. As in not even necessarily anatomically modern. As in, often not modern – at all.
The Guardian article clearly demonstrates there is nothing “new” in Dr. Dunsworth’s hallowed opinion about what non-humans, (that is to say, members of the animal kingdom), do or do not know or think.
In point of fact, hers is the brand of commonplace dogma – and naked academic hubris – which speaks to “towing the proverbial party line” when wondering what to expect from Dr. Dunsworth’s course syllabus.
By now you’ll understand in employing “anthropomorphizing” in her statement, Dr. Dunsworth has also demonstrated ignorance as to what the word itself means.
For those of you unfamiliar with the kangaroo Dr. Dunsworth is referring to, here is the relevant article – which also appeared in the Guardian.
I put it to you the Internet was as much made for pundits and self-aggrandizing ‘authorities’ to seize their own “15 minutes of fame” as it was for members of the wider populace to jump to admittedly well-intentioned, but likewise misinformed, conclusions.
The truth is – as the photographer who captured the images acknowledged – he did not witness what, exactly, happened to the female kangaroo.
Its unfortunately true, across many species, that in pursuit of a receptive female, her male counterpart can actually badly injure, maim, or even inadvertently kill the object of his desire. This has been observed in many species of wild ducks, otters, dolphins, and others, including kangaroos. It is worth pointing out, this occurs all-too-often in humans too.
No one witnessed what happened to the mother kangaroo in question, so while it is true some male kangaroos have killed females they were attempting to mate with, we do not know if this male kangaroo did any such thing.
He could as easily have been responsible for driving away the male who had mortally injured her – if that is, in fact, what occurred.
The male in the photos could – actually – have been feeling a set of emotions we would interpret as grief, or regret, (were we experiencing them). We don’t know if this ‘Roo was feeling such emotions, so we cannot use oxygen to make the pronouncement he was not feeling such emotions.
Asserting animals cannot and/or do not feel emotions is baseless, and grounded in the infirm soil of human-centric hubris. Period.
Let’s get back to our original ‘person of interest’, Dr. Ganea.
Now…I don’t know what life in your home looked like when you were a child, but neither I nor my siblings lived under the delusion Wile E. Coyote could fall thousands of feet from a cliffside, then rise like a canid-accordion Lazarus, and walk away from such a “transformative” experience to chase the Road-Runner again another day.
In fact, on one particular occasion which saw myself and my aforementioned siblings laughing uproariously at Wile E’s little placard with “Mother” written on it, (just before many tons of boulder-shaped rock squashed him flat for the umpteenth time), my own mother entered the room and stated:
“I don’t know if I like you three watching this – its too violent.”
We turned in unison (couldn’t have choreographed it better if we’d tried), and gawked at her like she was mental. Its my recollection I then clarified the situation for dear mummy with the following:
“Its a cartoon, mum – its not for real.”
She responded by muttering something under her breath, then disappeared into the kitchen.
I’d never seen a live coyote, though I did know it was something like a dog from the nature-shows we’d been encouraged to watch on CBC, and elsewhere.
I also had the presence of mind at the tender age of seven to know animals couldn’t survive falls from thousands of feet up, regardless of whether they were related to Lazarus, or not.
For the record, (and without being able to articulate why at the time), I knew the staged footage of hundreds of lemmings running off cliffs was bogus, even before the vile facts of the matter came out decades later. Shame on Disney for promoting this lie, shame on those responsible for creating the circumstances caught on film, and shame on every elementary school in North America for exposing youngsters to such BS.
So, as has been earlier noted, while its all quite fascinating to observe the goings-on in a sterile, “in no way connected to the living, breathing world outside” laboratory, it is inappropriate – dare I say, irresponsible, to assume findings derived therefrom – in defiance of all logic, speak of anything relevant to the human/non-human experience.
Unless and until Dr. Ganea takes a similar group of children into an environment where they’re able to observe animals living in a near-wild state, (such as those found at a reserve, or even a well-run wildlife park), and makes inquiry of these children as to whether the observed animals seem to be acting like Barney the dinosaur, or Babar the elephant, she cannot say anything important about her laboratory observations. Nothing. Zip.
As for Dr. Dunsworth, the purchasing of a copy of the New Shorter Oxford Dictionary might well be in order. To say nothing of the fact she’d clearly benefit from attending some propositional logic lectures.
The fact a male lion successful in taking over a pride will systematically slaughter any cubs he can get his teeth into is a clear demonstration he understands – at some level – they are not his offspring. This top predator wants his appropriated lionesses to be raising his scions, not those of the vanquished or murdered male he defeated.
He wants his genetics to succeed. Not those of his predecessor.
Animals don’t know where babies come from…?!
Look into the eyes of a mother gorilla, and you’ll observe an expression universally accepted as the inexplicable love most human mothers feel at the first sight of their newborn. The warmth and softness in the eyes of both mothers is the same, the tenderness, the care of the helpless infant is the same.
This is not projection – this is observation. It is the acknowledgement of what is before us in terms we understand. It has nothing to do with putting thoughts in the gorilla-mother’s head.
It bears noting their grief at the loss of an infant is also the same. Ask Dr. Jane Goodall about those observations.
Incidentally, Jane Goodall’s mentor was Dr. Lewis Leakey – a true revolutionary in the field of paleoanthropology. A scientist who was truly determined to overturn “outdated evolutionary dogma”.
The University of Washington’s “Conservation” magazine notes:
“Leakey, although himself a Cambridge PhD, was also skeptical of formal education in the field of animal behaviour, finding it all theory and no fact.” (4)
Er…you were saying, Dr. Ganea…? Dr. Dunsworth…?
The assertion non-human species are incapable of feelings, or thought, that is, the assertion non-human species are strictly instinctual, (thus not informed-by, or even incapable of thought), is a fiction.
It is the lie which opens the door to the razing of Indonesian jungles to the ground by soulless corporations who want to grow palm oil for your Nutella.
Its how much of humanity can remain blissfully ignorant of the consequences of plastics choking our rivers and oceans – and everything living there – into extinction.
Its the foundation upon which many of us ignore, or flat out will not acquaint ourselves with what factory farming actually is, and more to the point, the devastating degradation factory-farm animals are subjected to.
The list goes on, and sadly, on…
Words matter. When our educators misuse or twist words, or do not – themselves – even know the meanings of words, they are at a minimum complicit in the promotion of faulty thinking.
Such “faulty thinking” is the fertile ground of ignorance, be it deliberate, innocent, or otherwise.
And ignorance, founded in faulty thinking, kills. Deliberately, or otherwise.
We share this Earth with other beings. It is not ours, nor are non-human beings “ours”. They are as much sovereigns of themselves as we, and they have as much right to be, as we.
For those of us who work intimately with non-human beings, its up to us to become competent – at a minimum, in understanding non-human body language, (which is incidentally more than 90% of what constitutes human communication), and its also up to us to discover ways to make others at least aware of what an elk means when he’s lifting his chin at a clued-out photographer.
(I actually witnessed this example…a woman visiting Jasper with her husband from a Pacific Rim country nearly got herself stompled by a young male Elk because her loving husband was waving at her to get closer to the magnificent creature – for a photo, as the rest of us waved at her to stay away from him and his little harem. There’re too many ‘artistically un-satisfying’ encounters between humans in a fugue-state, and ticked-off non-humans who were not, to name here.)
What you don’t know about members of the animal kingdom will kill them. Its time we all took up a side-hustle of sensitivity training where this is concerned, and gave up our obtuse high opinion of our position in the food-chain for Lent.
Why, you ask? Because especially in this day and age of readily accessible information, there is literally no excuse for ignoring the opportunity to expand one’s understanding of where a given species’ natural habitat is, what kind of food they typically eat, the role they play in the larger web of life, and so on. To deliberately avoid acquainting one’s self with such basic information ahead of say, going on a safari, or a whale-watching excursion, or a birding adventure in a new country, or even just a camping trip to the beach for the weekend, you are increasing the possibility – dare I say, the probability, of materially causing injury to yourself, or the non-human beings you’ll be in proximity with.
A charging lion or elephant can find itself on the receiving end of a large, life-ending bullet because of your ignorance. A young animal could wind up being rejected by a guardian parent if you manhandle it because you’re wanting that “all important” selfie.
You could get mauled because you didn’t make your presence known in the back-country…and yet another animal will be hunted down and destroyed by ‘yahoos in uniforms’ (aka: “Conservation” officers). All because it wasn’t important enough to you to protect yourself, and said non-human being, with some easily accessible knowledge.
Our world – devoid of non-humankind – will be a breathlessly stale, cold, and empty place. A world not worth living in.
We do not have the right to reduce the Earth to a dead stone in space. We are not entitled to our ignorance.
We’re going to sum up, then move forward, in the next post. Stay tuned…