“To endow animals with human emotions has long been a scientific taboo. But if we do not, we risk missing something fundamental, about both animals and us.” (Frans de Waal)

Views on anthropomorphism run the gamut, and three recent pieces do a good job of highlighting the terrain of this discourse: 1) Barbara Ehrenreich’s review of recent human-animal studies books in the Los Angeles Review of Books, 2) Michael Sims’ piece on anthropomorphism and E.B. White in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and 3) Marlene Zuk’s analysis of ‘animal cams’ in the LA Times. (And see here for an orthogonal post on animal symbols, Pieter Hugo, and Beyonce.)

Sims’ article on E.B. White captures the tension at the core of the debate over anthropomorphism: “Paul Theroux complained in Smithsonian about White’s anthropomorphism. “White’s is not just a grumpy partiality toward animals,” he wrote; “rather, his frequent lapses into anthropomorphism produce a deficiency of observation. And this sets my teeth on edge, not for merely being cute in the tradition of children’s books, but (also in the tradition of children’s books) for being against nature.” White would probably be as surprised to find himself described as “against nature”…It’s true that “this boy,” as White wrote of himself in childhood, “felt for animals a kinship he never felt for people.” But after spending a couple of years immersed in his writing, I disagree that his anthropomorphism resulted in a deficiency of observation. I think that, contrary to Theroux’s indictment, for White personification was a form of empathy—his way of bridging the gap between self and other—that made him more aware of other creatures’ reality, not less.”

Zuk’s piece on animal cams raises a similar point to Theroux’s: that the eagles, etc. on live cams are “just like us” leads us to biased and thus erroneous views of animal behavior. Ehrenreich’s review is more broad-ranging, but her concluding paragraph is of particular value here: “Are we in danger, then, of a widespread, coordinated, animal revolt? Given the rate at which humans continue to exterminate, enslave and gobble up the habitats of other animals, the answer is probably no. Nor, I should reassure anxious readers, is there any evidence yet of cross-species coordination against human hegemony. But we should definitely relinquish two cherished human views of animals: both the Cartesian idea that they are simple biological automatons, devoid of consciousness, and the more recent animal-liberationist notion that they are gentle, innocent victims of human greed and cruelty. They are different from us — each species, perhaps each individual, alien in its own way. But they are capable of premeditation, reasoning and moral outrage. And, it should never be forgotten, some of them are our ancient antagonists, the carnivores who once ruled the world.”

Ehrenreich is right to caution us against both the Cartesian ‘animal machine’ model and the Liberationist-left ‘exploited and innocent victim’ model, but we should also keep in mind that these are both caricatures. In light of a quarter century-plus of work in neuroscience and ethology, the view that all forms of emotion are necessarily anthropomorphic (i.e., human) is absurd–some of our characteristics are indeed uniquely human, but many others are primate, mammalian, and so forth. To say that an otter plays or a chimp mourns isn’t anthropomorphic, it’s merely descriptive.

On the other side of this coin, we should be wary of painting the nonhuman animal world a Marxian red with the brush of hegemony, hierarchy, and oppression–in other words, of adopting the left-social scientific vocabulary in which all relationships are hierarchical and exploitative. To ascribe revolutionary consciousness to other animals clouds our vision of their realities.

To return for a bit to Sims’ and Zuk’s pieces, I think a middle ground can be found between Theroux/Zuk’s view of anthromorphism as subjective and thus problematic and Sims’ embrace of the power of empathy–using the vehicle of anthropomorphism–to reveal moral truths. To say that this is a difficult circle to square, though, is putting it mildly.


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