It is the interpretation of nonhuman things or events in terms of human characteristics, cognitive abilities, and emotions. A typical example is when people say that the puppy looked so sad or even when people say that the Elephants were mourning over the death of a herd member.
Derived from the Greek word Anthropos (“human”) and morphe (“form”), the term was initially used to refer to the attribution of human physical or mental features to deities. Just think of all the Roman mythologies linked to the stars, planets, the Zodiac, and more. But later during the mid-19th century, it had acquired the second, broader meaning of a phenomenon occurring basically in all areas of human thought and action, including daily life, the arts, and even sciences. Humans may anthropomorphize consciously or unconsciously.
So what do scientists say about this?
Since the time of the English philosopher Francis Bacon (1561–1626), most scholars have agreed that the tendency to anthropomorphise limits the understanding of the world, but it is deep-seated and persistent in the human mind. Some also argue that animals only do things from stimuli and responses, and animal behaviour is innate and / or learned. Generally, scientists are reluctant to claim that animals are as cognitive as humans or have the same human-like emotions. This is mainly because we do not have enough neuro-science available to actually proof or disprove this. Others further state that anthropomorphism obscures a person’s objectivity.
As we advance in neuroscience, scientists are slowly starting to reason that there’s little distinction between the way animals and humans feel and behave or rather, that there are similarities and that animals also have feelings. They have consciousness. They have cognition.
Our brains are similarly structured, with the same neurotransmitters. The differences between a fish and a person’s physicality and environment account for the fact that our inner lives aren’t identical but just because a fish lives in water and doesn’t seem to grieve like you and me, doesn’t mean the fish has no mental life, self-awareness, or sense of finality.
We have no problem acknowledging that humans are emotional creatures and that our feelings often stem from knowledge. For example, when a loved one dies we grieve because we know we won’t see them again, the knowledge informs the sense of sadness. But when it comes to animals, scientists have long been reluctant to attribute depth to emotional expression, relegating everything to primal drives instead.
How does this impact us as Fieldguides?
In practice, it is very difficult to avoid anthropomorphism. For example, a guest may say that the Wild Dog puppy is crying so pitifully and that it looks so sad. How do you as a field guide deal with this now?
In my opinion, it would be best to not make any statements but to open the topic for discussion by the guests themselves. You may initiate the discussion by stating that yes, the puppy does give us the impression of being sad by that high pitched yelping but is it really that, or just a response to stimuli, or innate, or learned behaviour? Seeing that we do not have any concrete evidence to confirm or deny the emotions of animals, it is best not to make any statements in this regard but rather say that hopefully one day we will know for sure. Until then, let the guests draw their own conclusions on the matter while you are entertained by their debate.
Gerhard van Niekerk
Resources and photo credits:
Wildlife campus online