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The Real Problem with Anthropomorphism

There’s a knothole in the fence near our front door, right about Collie-eye level. When we come home, our Border Collie, Genghis, is invariably at the knothole, trying to anticipate who’s arriving. (That part’s not surprising— anticipation is what BCs do, after all.) But it’s not his eye to the knothole—it’s his nose.
Scientists have long warned against the imprecision and misimpressions of anthropomorphizing animal subjects—of ascribing human qualities to them. The stated enemy is the assumption that their cognitive processes mirror our own complicated mental analyses, instead of the preferred notion that lower species are purer examples of stimulus/response behaviors. If we were to assume that they’re like us in that regard, objective scientific findings might be muddled by dreaded subjectivity.
Having witnessed a few of the routine indignities visited on animals by scientific research, however, my own (subjective) suspicion is that, as far as science is concerned, the real enemy is the human instinct to care. Whether labeled “sentimentality” or the less pejorative “humanity,” it gets in the way of research. Caring complicates experimental processes with issues like routine maintenance that respects the animals’ nature, and the ultimate fate of the subjects upon conclusion of their work for us. In other words, it costs money. The fact that vet schools have been slow (and late) to even consider ethics curricula suggests to me that anthropomorphism is also a technical term for “inertia.”
That’s bad enough. But there’s another, broader problem that interferes with the relationships all animal keepers have with their companion animals: economists call it “opportunity cost.” That term is related to the implications of the road not taken, or the conclusion drawn too quickly.
Anthropomorphizing leads us off the scent (and over a perceptual cliff) in understanding canine behaviors by imposing the assumption that they perceive the world as we do—that their sensory inputs are limited to the capacities of our dull, sight-oriented biology. Every species probably has its own misguided conceits, and this one robs us of a richer understanding of our canine brethren.
Collies are not the scent champs of the canine world—far from it. But think of what it would mean to have noses 100 times more capable (if objective science is to be believed) than our own! Sight is obviously useful in our Darwinian niche, but it’s also transitory. Scent, by contrast, allows a look back in time at not just what’s happening now, but at what occurred a day, a week or much longer ago. And think how sensual and rich the smell of soup is when each ingredient can be perceived.
Medical researchers are lately beginning to comprehend this factoid in the context of cancer-sniffing dogs, whose noses far outstrip the capabilities of other diagnostic tools. Predictably, they are also sparing no effort to try to improve their mechanical devices to better mimic the canine nostrils’ remarkable sensitivity. Gosh—if only there were a cheap source of canines who might be trained and devoted to that humanitarian task for a decade or more, with few repairs and only low-cost maintenance required.
I listened to a call-in show recently, hosted by a supposed animal expert. A caller inquired about his dog, who sometimes raised his hackles for no apparent reason when they were out for a walk. The expert called it “idiopathic,” a fancy term for irrational, random or unexplainable. Allow me to suggest an alternative explanation: the dog was responding to clear messages from the environment that we lack the wits to comprehend.
We don’t know how Lassie knew that Timmy had fallen down the well at the old Johnson place. But we ought to be grateful, and not dismiss canine behaviors as random or silly. We need to appreciate that anthropomorphism sells them way short—they’re much better than we are at most sensations. We have a lot to learn from dogs, if we only will.

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 68: Jan/Feb 2012
Tom Cushing works to place stray animals and lawyers into new situations where they may prosper. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Photo courtesy of Tom Cushing

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