Why Anthropomorphism Helps Us Understand Animals’ Behavior

Animal awareness: The Big Question of our time?

Is a whale conscious?” As far as I can determine as a scientist, all the evidence indicates that all vertebrates — fish, reptiles, amphibians, birds, mammals — appear almost certainly to be capable of sensory experience. In a word, they are conscious. And beyond vertebrates to squid and octopuses and bees and many other creatures, consciousness appears widespread throughout much of the animal kingdom.

Consciousness might seem like a no-brainer to most pet lovers, but I can almost hear some people say, “Not so fast.” Many researchers and science writers insist that we simply have no way to access the mental experience of animals. I understand where they’re coming from. But I think they’re mistaken. We can look at brains, we can consider evolution, and we can tap half a century of systematic observations of free-living animals.

To establish animal behavior as a science in the mid 20th Century, the pioneering behaviorists such as Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, and Karl von Frisch had to purge centuries of folklore and superstition (owls presage death, wolves are the devil’s familiars) and fables that posed animals as caricatures of human impulses (grasshoppers are lazy, tortoises persistent, foxes tricky). The new scientists had to prove that watching animals could be objective work. And they succeeded in stripping metaphorical projections that had built up on many animals like old coats of paint.

Great-horned owl, a portent of death? Credit: Carl Safina

But for a question such as, ‘What does an elephant feel when she nurses her baby?,’ there was nothing to go on. In the 1950s, no one had watched free-living animals’ real lives (Jane Goodall started observing chimpanzees in 1960). Brain science was in its infancy. So speculation about their feelings could only draw on our own feelings — leading ourselves in circles. There was no way to know how the elephant feels.

My own initiation into formal training included the classic directive: Do not attribute human thoughts or emotions to other animals. Doing so is called “anthropomorphism.” I appreciate that. We shouldn’t assume that animals (or for that matter lovers, spouses, kids, and parents) “must be” thinking and feeling just as we would if we were them. They’re not us.

But the whole subject became verboten. Description of behavioral acts — only behavioral acts — became the science of animal behavior. Wondering what feelings or thoughts might motivate behavioral acts became totally taboo. You could say, “The elephant positioned herself between her calf and the hyena.” But if you said, “The mother positioned herself to protect her baby from the hyena,” that was out of bounds; it was “anthropomorphic.”

In establishing the study of behavior as a science, it had been helpful to make “anthropomorphism” a word that raised a red flag. But as lesser intellects followed the Nobel-winning pioneers, “anthropomorphism” became a pirate flag. If the word was hoisted, an attack was imminent.

Voicing informed, logical inferences about other animals’ motivation, emotion and awareness could wreck your professional prospects. The mere question could. In the 1970s, a book humbly titled The Question of Animal Awareness caused such an uproar in academia that many behaviorists relegated its author, Donald Griffin, to the fringes of the profession. Griffin had been famous for decades as the luminary who solved the problem of how bats use sonar to navigate. So he was a bit of a genius, actually. But raising The Question was simply too much for orthodox colleagues. Suggesting that other animals can feel anything — at all — wasn’t just a conversation-stopper; it was a career killer. You wouldn’t get your work published. And in the academic realm of publish or perish, jobs were at stake. It was no joke. Seriously.

Mother and calf, or mother and baby? Credit: Carl Safina

By banning what was considered anthropomorphic, the behaviorists institutionalized the all-too-human conceit that only humans are conscious and can feel anything. Peculiarly, many behaviorists — who are biologists — ignored the core process of biology. Each newer thing is a slight tweak on something older. Everything humans do and possess came from somewhere. Before humans could be assembled, evolution needed to have most of the parts in stock, and those parts were developed for earlier models. We inherited them.

Humans have human minds. But believing that only humans have minds is like believing that because only humans have human skeletons, only humans have skeletons. Of course, we can’t see the minds of ravens or whales (or humans). But we can see their nervous system. And we see the workings of minds in the logic and limits of behaviors. From skeletons to brains, the principle is the same. And if we were to assume anything, it might be that minds, too, exist on a sliding scale.

That’s not what happened.

Professional animal behaviorists slid a hard divider between the nervous system of the entire animal kingdom and one of its species — humans. Denying the possibility that any other animals have any thoughts and feelings reinforced what we all most want to hear: We are special, better — best.

To this day, phobia of being called anthropomorphic remains widespread among behavioral scientists, science writers who parrot the outdated lingo of elder behaviorists, and students who ape their professors’ dogmatic rigidity and feel professional. They all know one thing: you should not attribute human motives or emotions to “animals.”

I think the opposite is true. I am here to say that attributing human emotions is the best first guess about what animals are experiencing. When your dog seems happy, they’re a happy dog. When a dog happily chases a cat who seems scared; that cat’s scared of the dog.
Me and dogs Jude and Chula, on the beach. Credit: Patricia Paladines

A person steeped in fear of anthropomorphism would insist that we cannot know whether a dog who is scratching the door “wants” to go out. (Meanwhile, of course, your dog is thinking, ‘Hellooo — let me out; I don’t want to pee in the house.’) Obviously, the dog wants to go out. And if you insist on ignoring the evidence, have a mop handy.

But, OK — how do I really know that other animals think and feel? I know because when my dog gets up from the rug and comes to me and rolls onto her back to expose her belly, she shows that she has anticipated the pleasure of having her belly rubbed; she knows that we are family and that I will understand her request, that I can oblige, and that it’ll feel good. She has thought, and she has felt. Simple, really, as that.

###

Carl Safina’s most recent book, Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel, is newly out in paperback.