diana_reiss's picture
Professor, Department of Psychology Hunter College; Author, The Dolphin in the Mirror

Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human characteristicsqualities, motivations, thoughts, emotions, and intentions to non-human beings and even non-living objects. Writers and poets have freely used anthropomorphism in fictional and non-fictional narratives and, although this attribution has been a powerful and effective artistic device, in science it has been largely abandoned.  

The successes of the reductionist approach in physics and chemistry motivated similar methodologies in biology and psychology. Anthropomorphism was considered an error in the context of scientific reductionism. However, it has remained curiously effective in certain areas of biology and psychology despite being controversial. For example, the very inspiration for this year’s Edge Question, Richard Dawkins introduction of the selfish gene meme, was a brilliant use of anthropomorphism (selfishness) to introduce a crucial concept in evolutionary theory.   

Thus the view that the tendency to anthropomorphize is a source of error needs to be reconsidered.  In his 1872 book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and AnimalsCharles Darwin proposed evolutionary continuity in the animal world that extended beyond that of morphology into the realms of behavior and the expression of emotion and argued that emotions evolved via natural selection in other animals as well and may be a substrate of their behavioral experiences.  

Darwin’s colleague, George Romanesa Canadian-English evolutionary biologist and physiologist who is considered the father of the field of comparative psychology, expressed similar views. Darwin and Romanes views about animal behavior and emotions were criticized as being anthropomorphic and anecdotal and resulted in a scientific backlash that gave way to the rise of Behaviorism.  Although not denying the existence of cognitive processes in humans and other animals, behaviorist epistemology denied the ability to study them, focusing instead on studying observable behavior. But behaviorism ultimately failed to account for the complexity and richness observed in both human and animal behavior, and by the mid 1950’s the birth of the cognitive revolution was underway—leading to increased research on animal cognitive and emotional processes and their underpinnings 

In 1976, a small book entitled the Question of Animal Awareness by Rockefeller University zoologist Donald Griffin was publishedIn his book, Griffin compares human brain processes with those of other animals. “Other vertebrate animals also have very complicated brains, and in some cases brains which appear to be physically very much like our own; this suggests that what goes on in animal brains has a good deal in common with what goes on in human brains; laboratory experiments on animal behavior provide some measure of support for this suggestion.”  

Griffin’s small book seeded a new field of cognitive ethology, the marriage of cognitive science and ethology in which scientists asked questions about the mental states of animals based on their interactions with their environment.  

It is refreshing to see the reawakening of the use of anthropomorphic language as a tool towards understanding the cognitive life of other animals in the context of systematic studies of social behavior and our knowledge of the structure and complexities of the brains of other species.  And we shouldn’t fear or be fooled by the “ism” at the end of the term “anthropomorphism” as it is not a school of thought or an ideology.  

Rather, anthropomorphism provides an alternative “model” to help us to interpret behavior. In the spirit of George Box’s famous dictum about all models being wrong, but some being useful, so anthropomorphism remains surprisingly useful in animal cognition studies.  And it is useful because it allows us to understand and widen our appreciation of the similarities between other animals and ourselves.  

Anthropomorphism provides of view of continuity between the mental life of humans and other species in contrast with often touted discontinuities – those traits that divide us from the rest of the animal world.  

Frans de Waal has suggested:  "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. An epistemology that allows scientists to use anthropomorphism as a tool to investigate and interpret behavior can enable us to see what English anthropologist, systems thinker and linguist, Gregory Bateson, states as, seeing the patterns that connect us”. He suggests an anthropomorphic approach to understanding other species by posing the question “What is the pattern which connects all the living creatures? This question can be asked at the morphological, behavioral and emotional level. By anthropomorphizing we may see evolutionary patterns that connect us to the rest of the animal world. And of course, the opposite of anthropomorphism is dehumanizationand we all know where that can lead us.