The Virtues of Anthropomorphization

Chimpanzee from Disneynature
Chimpanzee from Disneynature

Recently, I was perusing Cracked, just randomly clicking through the linked articles at the bottom of the page, wasting time as is my wont, and I came across this:

5 Mind-Blowing Ways Animals Display Human Emotions

This reminded me of a movie review that one of my coworkers wrote last year for the Disneynature documentary Chimpanzee.

Both of these articles illustrate a near-universal attitude toward the subject of animal and human behavior and emotions: Namely, the assumption that human and animal behaviors are essentially different.

Both of these articles make me want to ask:

Just where do you think human behavior and emotions come from?

Whenever you watch nature shows and documentaries, you hear people caution against the tendency to anthropomorphize animals. When you learn how to train animals and handle pets, when you venture out into the wild where you expect to encounter truly wild animals, when you’re at the zoo – wherever people come face-to-face with animals, someone is there reminding us not to anthropomorphize them.

As a definition of anthropomorphization, I think this quote from my coworker’s movie review is as good as any:

A tendency to ascribe to wild creatures human motives and human emotions, as if animals acted out of choice rather than out of hundreds of thousands of years of evolution.

While it’s absolutely correct that we shouldn’t ever treat or understand animals as though they’re human, the above definition of anthropomorphization is wrong. It’s not wrong because of how it defines the word per se, but because of how it implicitly seeks to define human beings.

It’s this phrase, in particular: “as if animals acted out of choice rather than out of hundreds of thousands of years of evolution.”

As if humans aren’t a product of that same process of evolution?

Human beings are animals, too. And we’re not as far removed from chimpanzees as we want to think. Our functioning of mind isn’t of an entirely different nature than that of other animals.

Our motivations and feelings, and the behaviors they engender, come from the same evolutionary pressures that formed the motivations and behaviors of chimps and apes. We share something like 98% of our DNA with chimps – chimps are genetically more closely related to us than they are to any other species of ape.

The neurological wiring that allows us to act as we do – the architecture of our brains – is very similar in its foundations to the wiring of any other complex mammal. It stands to reason that the motivations, feelings, and behaviors of other complex animals will be strikingly familiar to ours on some basic levels, and vice versa.

This line of reasoning inexorably leads me to the question: If evolution can create free will and choice in us, why do we assume it wasn’t created in other animals, too? I’ve had dogs my whole life, and no one will ever convince me that they aren’t perfectly capable of making conscious decisions for themselves. I’ve know too many headstrong dogs to believe otherwise.

Yes, much of animal behavior is hard-wired and beyond choice – but that doesn’t mean all animal behavior is pre-programmed. And while human beings may be able to exercise more choice in a greater range of behaviors than many other animals, it doesn’t mean that much of our behavior isn’t hard-wired into us, too.

This is not to say that there aren’t profound and important differences between us and other animals – just as there are profound and important differences between any species of animals. While the human brain shares much of the same basic architectural structure as other apes, it does bear some important differences, too (prominence of the frontal lobe, the complexity and depth of our cortical folding, etc.)

But we are not separate from the environmental forces that shaped all animals on this planet. The foundations of our behaviors, awareness, and processes of mind come from the same evolutionary pressures. The qualitative nature of our motivations and feelings spring from the same root.

So we do share many feelings, motivations, and behaviors with other animals – not so much because they’re like us, but because we’re like them. It’s not a matter of animals displaying human behaviors and emotions – it’s a matter of humans behaving and emoting as the animals we are. We’re not as far removed from our mammalian brethren as most of us seem to want to believe.

While that thought makes many people unaccountably uncomfortable, I find it to be something worth celebrating!

The problem isn’t that we anthropomorphize other animals. The problem is that we anthropomorphize ourselves.

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