Anthropomorphism: how much humans and animals share is still contested

Cute internet videos and animals in childrens entertainment with human-like intentions can be useful, harmful or both depending on whom you ask

Humans have long attempted to portray the natural world as reflections of us, from giving storms names such as Desmond or Katrina to putting tasteful blue clothing on Donald Duck and Peter the Rabbit. But the science of how much humans actually share with other animals is still keenly contested.

The widely shared image of a male kangaroo cradling the head of a dying female, in front of her joey, was immediately cast as a touching display of marsupial grief, before several scientists pointed out that the kangaroos interests were probably a little more carnal than first thought.

This kind of anthropomorphism isnt new of course some of the oldest known deities combine human and beast but it has only been since Charles Darwins description of joy and love among animals that the debate has evolved on whether humans hold exclusivity over certain traits.

A male eastern grey kangaroo holds the head of a dead female kangaroo in River Heads, Queensland. Photograph: Evan Switzer

Animals such as apes and crows have been seen using tools previously thought a human preserve. A 44-year-old gorilla called Koko has the vocabulary of a three-year-old child after learning 1,000 words of American sign language. She has called herself Queen – evidence, her head caretaker claims, that she understands her celebrity status.

But many scientists are still keen to draw stark lines of difference between humans and other animals. Some warn that anthropomorphism, now regularly demonstrated through the online sharing of videos of pandas having tantrums or orangutans having a laugh, can be harmful.

Its almost like internet was built for anthropomorphizing animals, said Holly Dunsworth, an anthropologist at the University of Rhode Island. Humans arent 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 cant say they think that abstractly.

While Kokos grasp of language is astonishing, it lacks the nuance and complexity of the way humans communicate with each other. Theres a key difference between signals and understanding and expanding upon ideas and abstract concepts, Dunsworth said.

Other animals are more complex than purely being driven by instinct, but Im very comfortable with the explanation that they dont need abstract reasoning to do these complex behaviors, she said. We can explain behavior separate from the way humans think.

An unconscious belief that bears, horses and dolphins possess human desires and thoughts wrapped up in odd costumes can be detrimental for children, some psychologists have argued.

Last year, Patricia Ganea, a psychologist at Toronto University, ran a series of experiments on three to five-year-olds where they were given information about animals in straight factual form and then in a more fantastical anthropomorphized way.

She found that 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.


Anthropomorphism can lead to an inaccurate understanding of biological processes Photograph: AP

Ganea said attributing human-like intentions and beliefs is a very natural way to explain certain animal behaviors and can be useful in generating empathy for mistreated animals. But she adds there is a downside.

Anthropomorphism can lead to an inaccurate understanding of biological processes in the natural world, she said. 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.

Common depictions of animals in childrens entertainment is likely to amplify this message, Ganea said.

Jiminy Cricket is the voice of conscience and not an accurate description of what insects behave like, she said. But, yes, the human-like animal representations in the media are likely to increase the tendency to anthropomorphize the natural world.

But its clear from multiple experiments that some animals are closer to being human than others. In tests, monkeys have given up the chance of food so that older or weaker members of the clan can eat. A chimpanzee named Santino has shown a remarkable ability to plan ahead and hold grudges by calmly gathering and hiding piles of stones ready to hurl at visitors who gawp at him in his zoo enclosure in Sweden.


Santino the stone-throwing chimp, is watched by a group of visitors at Furuvik Zoo in Sweden. Photograph: Neurology/AP

Its not just primates. Scientists have gathered evidence that elephants sacrifice their wellbeing for the good of the group and grieve their dead. Young elephants that have lost parents to poachers have suffered a type of post traumatic stress disorder, trumpeting loudly and unusually at night and showing other signs of agitation. Mapping of the brains of several different species shows that they share similar neurons to humans that process social information and empathy.

Its categorically wrong to say that animals dont have thoughts and emotions, just like its wrong to say they are completely the same as us, said Carl Safina, a biologist and author of a book called Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, which argues that sneering at anthropomorphism risks eroding our empathy with species we are helping wipe out at a rate unseen since the time of the dinosaurs.

Great apes have large brains and complex social lives, wolves live in structured families. But herrings dont have social structures. So we cant say all animals are the same.

But humans are an extreme example of everything. We are simultaneously the most compassionate and the cruelest animal, the friendliest and most destructive, we experience the most grief and cause the most grief. We are a complicated case.

The idea that a kangaroo would hold anothers head to say farewell as they die is overdone, Safina said, but its inaccurate to dismiss any notion of understanding or even loss.

Its fair to say many animals have richer social lives and a richer palette of strategic abilities than we give them credit for, he said. We should get better acquainted with the animals we share the world with. If only because they are so beautiful and so interesting.



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