Anthropomorphism, an Obsolete Word

This word is obsolete. It means assigning human characteristics to animals, but the fact is, there is no human characteristic that is not also found in animals. We just happen to be a good bit smarter in some ways, that’s all, not unique in any particular way.

When I was an undergraduate in the 1960s, the common belief among scientists—although it seems preposterous today, and seemed preposterous to me then—was that animals had no feelings or emotions. Human behavior was deemed essentially different from animal behavior. Simply inspecting animal brains would have shown this to be wrong, because we have most of the same brain structures. Somehow, this eluded us.

Eventually we learned that everything we thought about animals was wrong. We were judging animals by the “rubber ruler”. Animals couldn’t count. Except we discovered that all sorts of animals can count. Asian fishing cormorants, for example, are rewarded for helping to fish by being given every eighth fish. You bet they know when they are supposed to get their fish.

Each time we realized we were wrong we stretched the rubber ruler, so that we could explain that our own behavior was unique. But we kept finding that we had to stretch the ruler again.


Alex, solving an intellectual puzzle.

Parrots and other “talking” birds can’t really talk. They can only imitate, and don’t know what they are saying. Except that Alex the African gray calculated and reasoned, and like Charlie, the sulfur-crested cockateel, had a large vocabulary, knew exactly what he was talking about, and could remember human friends by name he had not seen in years.

Then there’s Snowball, Frostie, and several other cockatoos who really get down and boogie to music they like. And their sense of rhythm is better than many people. And there’s the German shepherd who bobs his ears in perfect time to the music, as well as a street dog in Brazil who stops to bop with the beat of music from a car, and another shepherd who matches pitches flawlessly on a “doggie keyboard”. These we have seen. On Facebook, where else?

All animals grieve. Here is a grieving gorilla who has lost his mom, being comforted by a ranger at a gorilla sanctuary.


A grieving gorilla is comforted by a ranger.

Back in the earlier 20th century, a visitor to Conrad Lorentz’ animal study facility, just an ordinary person, not a scientist, remarked to him that a certain goose looked like she’d been through the mill, and was very sad. Indeed, she had lost two spouses to violence, which had changed her personality, and her appearance.

Playfulness? How about the blackbird tobogganing down the garage roof on a jar top. The monkeys swinging from a vine into the water below. The sled dog romping in the big pile of leaves. Cooperation? Seen this one of the weasel riding a woodpecker, or any of the others of birds riding on larger birds, or two monkeys getting a rip-roaring ride on a boar?

chipmunk riding bird

One of many examples of joy rides.

In fact, sheer intellectual power seems to be the only way we differ from the animals, and that’s just a matter of degree. All animals think, to one degree or another.

That’s why anthropomorphism isn’t really meaningful, since animals have all the characteristics that we have, and the only thing that distinguishes us is that we’re smarter in some ways. We’re also dumber in some ways.

What all this enlightenment has done is to show us that, smarter though we are, we are still part of the natural world. It is our duty to respect the lives of animals, because they are not so different from us. Most of us have learned to do that, but some abuse animals just like they abuse the people in their lives. Some groups of people abuse other groups of people. Nations make war with other nations. Maybe if we all learned to love and care for animals as children we could learn to get along with our fellow humans.

The double helix had just been discovered when I was in high school. Now we are in the thick of great new genetic findings, and among them are that we share at least a third of our DNA with the yeast that makes beer (yeast!), and something like 98% of our DNA with chimpanzees.

We really are part of the world, related to every living thing on Earth. It’s a lesson like none other, and it tells us how we should behave.


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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] Anthropomorphism, an Obsolete Word […]


  2. I like what you have to say. As a retired public school teacher, I remember studying animal psychology to better understand individual and group behaviors of my students. Much of our so called cultural learning is seemingly hardwired.
    In my blog I posted a similar piece from The Week magazine about a wolf with better personal characteristics than many humans:

    Liked by 1 person

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