The word anthropomorphism
from the Greek anthropos = man + morph = form. In philosophy, theology
and biology, anthropomorphism is the assigning of human feelings, emotions
and responses to non-humans, including animals, inanimate objects, and
Classical anthropomorphism is the assumption that all non-human animals
have the same feelings, psychosocial needs, reactions to events, etc.,
that humans do. This not only discounts the fact that every human does
not share the exact same feelings and responses, nor have they the same
needs, as every other human, but also ignores the fact that non-human
animals are very different, including in the biology and anatomy of their
brain. While all animals share some things in common, such as the need
for an environment that meets their physiological needs for shelter, food,
water, temperature, fluid, scotophase and photoperiod, reproducing themselves,
and the drive to protect the resources that enables them to fulfill those
needs, how each species goes about doing so is often radically different
than how a human would respond to the lack of or threat to those resources.
Examples of classical
anthropomorphism include the following:
The rock attacked
The rock may have been thrown, or fallen from a height, and struck the
person, but the rock did not of its own volition launch itself into
the air with the intent to hit the person.
My computer doesn't
The computer doesn't care about you one way or the other. It either
has a mechanical or software problem that prevents it from functioning
according to expected norms.
My dog is smiling
The baring of teeth is a social response found in many vertebrates.
Taken in context with the rest of the body's posture and motion, it
is either a sign of non-aggression or aggression. We have learned that
when a dog opens its mouth so that the upper and lower jaws are clearly
separated, pulls back the skin of its upper and lower jaw so that the
teeth are partially exposed, and its tail is up or extended and wagging,
it is a sign of its anticipating something good (a treat, a walk, playing
My snake is smiling
While one might be able to understand the misunderstanding leading to
someone thinking their dog is smiling at them, it is harder when dealing
with reptiles as they do not have the muscles that allow them to pull
back the skin of what we tend to refer to as their "lips"
to form the upward-pointed folds of skin we associate as being a "smile".
Gaping (the mouth held in an open position, ranging from a slight gap
to fully opened) is done when there is a problem breathing, in response
to a threat to a perceived predator or someone (person or animal) who
is annoying or scaring them, or in expectation that something to eat
or when thinking about delivering a bite.
As a culture, some
of us humans have institutionalized the anthropomorphism of boats and
ships (they are always referred to as "she"), and talk about
programs that "teach" computers "understand" and "solve
problems". Until recently, tropical storms and hurricanes were all
called by female names, as if only human females were capable of such
wild and destructive forces. On television, we see Energizer Bunnies and
talking tires, dancing food and household appliances, and raccoons breaking
into homes to use the reclining furniture and flip through the cable TV
offerings. Some of this anthropomorphizing is harmless in that it does
not demean the inanimate object nor cause it to be improperly cared for
by depriving it of certain basic needs, as can classical anthropomorphism
when applied to animals in our care or in institutions. In the latter
case, the harm comes in when the assignment of human values, reactions,
and needs to animals prevents us from seeing them as they really are:
as biological organisms whose needs and responses are in reality very
different from us Homo sapiens.
The harm done varies
depending on the type of anthropomorphizing that is done:
Those who work swing
and graveyard shifts who force their diurnal animals onto their own
reverse schedules, despite the fact that this causes severe stress which
ultimately shortens the life of the animal, if not actually causing
other health problems.
needs and instincts to species who have no such needs or instincts.
This is particularly true with most reptile, amphibian, fish, and invertebrate
species. Most of them lay their eggs and leave, never tending the nest
or eggs, nor being around when the eggs hatch. Few of the species who
bear live young actually care for their young in the way we tend to
think of neonatal care: they don't feed or even acquire food for their
young, nor keep them warm, nor teach them to hunt or forage for food.
At most, post-partum care for species such as crocodilians and some
pythons and vipers involves just being around to fend off predators
for a couple of weeks while the young learn to navigate their environment,
find food and water, hide, and thermoregulate themselves on their own.
We have seen it for
years, people who believe that their cat or dog "has" to have
a litter to be fulfilled before they spay her or neuter him, without
regard to the fact that being in season is no more of an expressed need
to mate than a human female's monthly menstruation is an expression
of a need to mate, or a chicken's daily laying of eggs an expression
of such a "need." It is simply a biological function, gene
and hormone driven, designed to get an organism to reproduce itself.
Most species are
polygamous - that is, males and females mate with more than one individual
during the course of their breeding season. In some cases, males require
the presence of other males in order to trigger the hormonal changes
necessary to trigger the onset of the season, or to improve copulation
success rate. Some species are harem based, that is, males strive to
keep a group of females in his territory with whom he has exclusive
breeding access rights (though not all females may accept his advances
during the course of the season). Failure to understand the mating and
reproductive rites of your pet species can lead to more psychosocial
stress - and ultimately illness - than letting them live in naturally
occurring species-specific social aggregations and controlling offspring
by not incubating eggs.
Once you cross the
line into classical anthropomorphism, with talk of "husbands"
and "wives" and ascribing your own emotions onto your animals,
you run the risk of missing important clues to your pet's well-being,
and too often end up not providing the necessary physical and psychosocial
environments they need to stay healthy and develop properly.
interesting note... Vets are very leery of clients who come in talking
about their 'babies' to the point where it is clear that the client
is over the edge into full-blown "Bambi-ism". As a rule, they've
learned the hard way that such clients are clueless about the species
biology and natural behavior, are lousy at observing signs of ill health
and stress, and know that pretty much what they way will go in one ear
and out the other when it comes to instructing the client in proper
general care and any after-care necessitated by procedures performed
in the vet's office.
Critical anthropomorphism is based on science, not emotion, folklore,
or acculturation. It is, in effect, practical ethology (the study and
classification of animal behaviors). Critical anthropomorphizing includes
what is already known about the species' behaviors, about the behaviors
in related species, and taking a careful look at the environmental variables,
health, age, social status, etc., of the individual being assessed. Critical
anthropomorphizing is used every day in research and animal care settings,
from zoos to biologists reviewing tapes of wild or captive animals, to
observing and recording data in the field, to assessing the status of
animals used in laboratory research. As such, it is actually a very useful
tool in assessing behavior of nonverbal species and preverbal humans.
The Scientific Basis
for Critical Anthropomorphism
To care for animals properly in captivity - as well as to be able to try
to assess the impact on species as a result of environmental or habitat
changes - one needs to learn about their ecology: how the individual lives
in its environment, how it interacts with others of its own species and
with other species, and the effects of changes on the population and the
individual. To learn more about this and its use in caring for captive
animals, see Ethology, Ecology and Critical Anthropomorphism.