Have you heard the term anthropomorphism? It refers to ascribing human-like traits to non-human entities. Most biologists discourage the application of anthropomorphism, like your cat is plotting to kill you when you won’t let it outside, or that the racoon you’re feeding thinks of you as a friend. Chances are your cat isn’t actually plotting your demise and you’re safe. However, in the case of feeding that raccoon, it may not have mauled you… yet. But a raccoon is wildlife and hence likely unpredictable—though you might think it “likes” you, that might not be the reality for the raccoon.
An animal may have a behaviour that seems similar to ours—the action may well be something we would do. I think it’s one of the motivations behind why we find inter-species friendships so intriguing. Do you remember the unlikely friendship between Siberian tiger, Amur, and it’s goat friend, Timur? It was compelling and so unbelievable cute… But don’t you believe it. That friendship ended much the same way you’d expect; with the goat’s mauling.
But even though an animal may show the same action, does that mean that they may have a similar motivation behind that action as humans do? That’s at the heart of objections to anthropomorphism. Do you think your pupper is sorry he pooped on your shoes? That “sorry” look on your dog’s face is apparently actually a sign that he’s scared, not sorry. So at least in this case, we’re misinterpreting the outward expression on the dog. Which is shocking given how long we’ve been living with dogs. I would think we’d understand them through and through after over 30,000 years together.
But perhaps anthropomorphism arises naturally out of two other common traits found in humans. Firstly, we have mirror neurons. Those mirror neurons allow us to feel empathy—for example, we cringe when someone breaks a leg, we are motivated to solve the distress of a crying baby (not just because crying babies are loud, but because we can empathize with their discomfort). Many people like to think that humans are the only species with empathy, but other animals (like primates and songbirds) also have mirror neurons, and we can see they also react to distress in a similar way to us. As an example, the western lowland gorilla at the Brookefield Zoo who rescued a 3-year old boy that fell into her enclosure, carrying him to the enclosure door for help.
The second trait is pareidolia. It is our ability to see patterns—like faces—in otherwise random things. From constellations to coat hook octopi, pareidolia affects how we interpret the things around us. So if we can extrapolate a pattern onto a coat hook that gives it meaning, perhaps we can also extrapolate a pattern onto behaviour that we share with animals. That certainly sounds like anthropomorphism to me.
And apparently this isn’t a new phenomenon in the age of mass media—humans have been anthropomorphizing weather, gods, and more since at least the Upper Paleolithic as evidenced with artwork like the Lion Man (from 35,000-40,000 years old). So you can’t blame Disney for your wish that mice will come a hem your dress for you. Well, maybe you can, but maybe we also come by it honestly.
LOL! I found your article to be most interesting as well as informative and amusing. Thanks!
Glad you enjoyed it Tom!
My neighbor hand feeds this pesky raccoon. Yeah, the same one that has been seen raiding my animal feed from time to time.
*** My guess is that he (my neighbor) doesn’t feed him (the raccoon) enough.
The thing is huge AND isn’t afraid of my dogs.