Anthropomorphism - The Boogeyman of Research

Updated: Jul 29, 2020

The Accusation of Anthropomorphism

There was a time when the Accusation of Anthropomorphism was like a scarlet letter and could ruin a scientific career or line of inquiry, just by implying it. Because of the scientific revolution in animal studies over the past ten years, it is getting easier to talk about animal intelligence and even emotions. But you have to be a very brave person even to suggest that animals might be sentient beings or -- for the bravest -- conscious. It can be treacherous territory if one is to maintain one’s credibility with those who still cling to ignorance of animals’ inner lives. Claiming to have direct experience or connection with the hearts and souls of animals’ means being relegated to the domains of charlatanism, by certain people who choose to be unaware of the new data from respectable and true scientists who are providing more and more evidence to support what most dog owners and animal lovers already know.

It is inhumane to doubt their capacity to feel

Jeffrey Masson, author of "When Elephants Weep - The Emotional Lives of Animals" defines anthropomorphism as: "Ascribing human characteristics – thought, feeling, consciousness and motivation to nonhumans … Many comparative psychologists seem almost literally petrified by the notion of animal consciousness...One scientist may reduce another to silence merely by conjuring up this dreaded specter: Why are you engaging in anthropomorphism?"

At one time, the scientific status quo vehemently tried to discredit early researchers, (many of whom have now gained recognition), such as Jane Goodall, who observed complex emotional and social interactions among the gorillas. They savagely attacked her “unscientific anthropomorphic approach,” with the battle cry of “animals have no emotions.” This old-guard camp was both cruel, and at the same time unfounded in the scientific method they claimed to be defending. Many a graduate student attempting to ask questions that implied that animals have emotions, feel love, have a soul, was promptly silenced by academics in power, and all were taught that it was unscientific to ask what an animal thinks or feels. They were warned in no uncertain terms to abandon this field of inquiry.

As Masson says, “The accusation of anthropomorphism has become a rhetorical device for silencing an opponent, and a way of avoiding any genuine discussion.”

Jane Goodall entered the chimps world. She is grooming, which is a very relaxing and social thing in the chimp world.

Jane Goodall, for example, was savagely attacked for giving the wild gorillas she was studying individual names, and for referring to them as he or she. The same was true for those who spoke of animal emotions. Fortunately, there has been enough scientific support for the common sense understanding that animals have intelligence, emotions, and a profound capacity to experience higher states of consciousness such as love, joy, and compassion.

As Marc Bekoff also says in the preface of his book: “It’s bad biology to argue against the existence of animal emotions. Scientific research in evolutionary biology, cognitive ethology, and social neuroscience supports the view that numerous and diverse animals have rich and deep emotional lives.”

Animal researchers in the 1960s believed that validating intelligence was tied to language, and several experiments were attempted to create a common language mechanism with another species. Through this method, much insight was gained into the complexity of the inner life of other animals. For example, Washoe, the first chimpanzee to be taught sign language, showed a rich emotional inner life. Washoe was raised as a human child, and she would often comfort those who were sad.

Roger Fouts, who was applying for a position as a research assistant with her, and had blown the interview with one of the scientists who created the research project -- suddenly got the job when Washoe, a two-year-old at the time, ran over and leaped into Fouts’ arms and hugged him. This changed the course of his life. “I guess I wasn’t going to become a plumber,” Fouts later said of this career-changing moment.

Koko, Ndume, and Michael, the gorillas who were taught sign language by Penny Patterson and her team, and were able to communicate, expressed old memories of violent poachers they encountered as infants and grieved deeply over the death of other gorillas they witnessed. Clearly animals can experience emotional pain and trauma, just as humans can.

Koko, the gorilla, had the vocabulary of a three-year-old human child and has been the quintessential ambassador of the potential for cross-species communication, compassion, and deeper understanding of the inner life of primates. All Ball (the name for the small grey kitten without a tail) was her pet for six months, until it was run over. She was devoted to the kitten and grieved deeply when she was told of its death.

Koko was incredibly gentle with the tiny kitten

Koko revealed the rich and complex emotional life of gorillas, as she could communicate her profound mourning over the loss. The Koko website states: “Koko grieved for All Ball, signing Cry, Frown, Sad, Trouble, when she first learned what happened. For years she felt sad when she saw a photo of another kitten who reminded her of All Ball.”

While we have a strong desire to enter the emotional lives of animals, we need to be vigilant not to project our experiences onto animals and assume that we know what they are feeling or thinking, or assume that their emotions are the same as ours. It would be a mistake to do this with humans or animals. However, we need to use our combined skills of empathy, and objective observation, in order to enter their world. It takes considerable mental and spiritual discipline not to project our own desires and needs onto others.

Who doesn’t want to know what their beloved pet is really feeling or thinking? And for this reason, unfortunately, many “false readers” or pet psychics abound, ready to charge a fee to take advantage of this deep desire. Some may claim to have a psychic communication link with animals, which may be inaccurate or downright invented. There are, however, others who seem to have genuine intentions and even impressive levels of accuracy. As it is a new field with few objective credentials, anyone can declare that they are an animal communicator, which makes it difficult to evaluate the skillful from the deluded. Even with the best intentions, the issue of projection is one that needs to be well managed in human-to-human therapy as well as human-to-animal.

The Art of Human-to-Animal Communication needs to evolve and be subjected to the rigors of disciplined investigation. Any serious training in the art of animal communication tasks the learner to be highly vigilant to separate their own emotions and perceptions from those emanating from the animal.

Genie Joseph, PhD

Director: The Human-Animal Connection


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