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Last updated January 1, 2014

Classical vs. Critical Anthropomorphism

©2000 Melissa Kaplan


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 spirit(ual) forces.

Classical Anthropomorphism
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 me.
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 like me.
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 at me.
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 fetch-the-ball.

My snake is smiling at me.
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.

Ascribing maternal 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.

An 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
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.

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