By: Elise Gilchrist
Anthropomorphism however, is a phrase and tendency that is often frowned upon in the scientific community. Using language that suggests animals have emotions and even intentions often lacks objectivity. Scientists who study animal behavior have been warned to rely on what one observes, without equating intentionality to the actions. For example, when a scientist watches a dog wag its tail, the scientist describes such behavior as “the dog moved its tail back and forth in rapid succession,” as opposed to “the dog wagged its tail because it was happy to be reunited with its owner.” The latter, as you can see, is clearly less objective and implies an intention that is not necessarily true.
This concept was more formally put into place with the onset of a field called behaviorism. This is an approach to psychology and animal behavior research that proclaims you should study observable behaviors of people and animals as opposed to the unobservable workings of the mind. One of the founding fathers of this field is the famous psychologist B.F. Skinner who was staunchly averse to attributing human-like emotions to any animal. Behaviorism emerged in the early twentieth century and its influences on scientific thought and research methods in psychology/animal behavior are still apparent. However, this strict behaviorist approach has started to dissipate. In recent years, fields devoted entirely to studying topics like animal personality and non-human empathy, have begun to emerge.
|Are these elephants kissing?|
So the question is: is anthropomorphism, related to the field of animal behavior and conservation, inherently bad? To discuss this I want to bring forth a person whom advocates on both sides have clashed over, Jane Goodall. Jane Goodall is one of the world’s most famous primatologists, having spent decades studying the behavior of chimpanzees in the wild. When she started her research in Africa she had no formal scientific training, and for better or worse, no pre-conceived biases about how her work should be conducted or recorded. This means that Goodall did the unthinkable, she named the individuals she was studying.
Naming your test subjects is another practice most behaviorists would frown upon. After all, giving human names to animals may bias you toward interpreting their behavior using human constructs and emotions. Jane Goodall’s work has been met with significant amounts of criticism over the years, particularly because she has never shied from attributing emotion and personality to the chimpanzees she studied. I will not argue the validity of her work, but I will present it in light of my own childhood experience. When I was young I was given a book called In the Shadow of Man, written by Jane Goodall. To this day, characters from the book like Fifi, David Greybeard and Flo, all still hold a very permanent place in my memory. The interesting thing about these characters is that none of them are human. Goodall’s best-selling books have done something no author had done before: they presented chimpanzee behavior in a way that was both memorable and relatable to most readers, regardless of their age or involvement in the scientific community.
|Is this horse feeling joyful?|
Anthropomorphism is certainly a tricky subject and there are very good reasons that scientists should be wary of it when interpreting animal behavior. However, I would argue that it could be an effective tool when used to educate and enthrall a more general public. For I know that even after my own intensive undergraduate training in animal behavior, I cannot recall much about B.F. Skinner’s experiments, but I can still recount anecdotes about the amazing intellectual capacities of chimpanzees over a decade after reading Jane Goodall’s book. So, maybe attributing human characteristics, like names and personality traits, to non-human animals does in fact hold merit, at least when communicating science and engaging the general public in important conservation initiatives.
|Is this bird comfortable in my hand?|
If any of our readers have opinions on this argument we would love to engage in a discussion. Please comment on this blog if you agree or disagree with the points I made above. It would be great to hear your take on this!
“Anthropomorphism” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 10 August 2014. Web. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthropomorphism.