Saturday, 25 January 2014

Anthropo...what?



Every good student of zoology learns one thing regarding animal behaviour, not to become too anthropomorphic. Anthropomorphism is the assigning of human emotions and thoughts to animals. That cat looks sad or that Dolphin is happy are good examples. I have spent much of my life trying to not fall into this trap. The reasoning behind this is that animals on the whole do not have emotions; they act on instinct and in response to specific cues determined by the needs of survival. Another way of looking at is that animals are so different to us that our terms for describing emotions, feelings or thoughts are not applicable.

The problem is I had a dog, we have always been a dog family and since ours died I still have contact with my sister’s dog. There is no doubt that when sitting with a dog you know well that there is more going on than just atavistic responses. Do animals ‘feel’ beyond those primitive urges?
Let’s return a moment to the term Anthropomorphism. The word Anthropo- has its roots in classical Greek and refers to Human. Morph references shaped. Anthropomorphic then means Human-like and this is where the thrust of my thought comes in. Where do we place Humans henceforth, Homo sapiens, in the world?

Homo sapiens are a highly adaptive post-simian species. It is dominant in nearly all habitats on the globe and has a highly developed intelligence involving tool use and complicated social interactions. Is Homo sapiens superior to all other species on Earth. It certainly dominates them but is it more adapt at swimming than say fish, fast enough to catch prey on the savannah like the Cheetah, probably not. Species evolve to fill a niche, some like Homo sapiens are able to take advantage of a wide range of niches and are highly generalist, but they are not the only species. Brown Rats are just as widespread.

The question therefore is one of placing is Homo sapiens. Is it above nature, above the biosphere of Earth or part of it? Many people and theologies place Man above all else and that it’s this right of intelligence over all other species that dictates our use of the world and how we perceive it. This is of course factually inaccurate. Homo sapiens is just an ape that has evolved to the point at which it can manipulate the world around it not just at the ecosystem level but at the biome and biosphere level.
Where does anthropomorphism come into this debate? Well if like me you view mankind as Homo sapiens just another species on planet earth then the idea behind anthropomorphism changes. Anthropomorphism is no longer necessary a bad thing but a way of describing motives, actions and feelings across the species.

Obviously our emotions and feelings relate to our cognitive development and our brain size but we are not alone on this planet in the development of a brain and it should be easy to consider that particularly in the mammalian genera that analogous if not similar emotions do not occur. I m not saying that we can say all living animals have emotions or emotional aspects but that in the case of many species the stimuli and drivers within the animals brain would be too radically different to understand. 

There is no doubt that other apes, dolphins elephants, dogs etc express emotions and I think that we shouldn’t even as scientists cut ourselves of from these believing ourselves above them. Instead use them as learning points, use them as markers to look at development and understand that the context of a situation. Make anthropomorphism truly the scientific search to identify where animals are human like and just as importantly where they are not. Let’s try and find the dividing line in Earths tree of life where the use of the brain firstly enables the development of abstract uses of emotions and where species are acting purely on the basis of the external stimuli activating a series of responses.
Lastly I challenge you to watch the clip not as a man or woman on a lap top but as a member of the Homo sapiens species and not see some kind of emotional response.