Tuesday, November 13, 2018

3076. Anthropomorphism and the Need for Respectful Engagement

By Alice Oven, Alice Oven Blog, November 11, 2018

Many of you will have been as disgusted as I was by the recent news story in which American TV presenter Larysa Switlyk, dressed in camouflage, shot and killed a wild goat in Scotland. Posing next to the dead animal with a beaming smile, Switlyk posted on social media “Beautiful wild goat here on the Island of Islay in Scotland. Such a fun hunt!!” Glorifying hunting in this way is obviously far more problematic than simply being “very unBritish”, as the Scottish Country Sports Tourism Group put it on BBC Radio 4’s Points of View. However, the listener’s comment that really got my goat was that we were all getting too ‘worked up’ because “people have a habit of humanising animals; they forget they’re just a food source”. Wild animals like these goats are not “just” a food source; they are sentient, autonomous beings with emotional ties, the capacity to feel pain and joy, and families that are left behind when their lives are pointlessly taken from them by idiots like Switlyk.
Why are we so terrified of humanising animals? ‘Anthropomorphise’, from the Greek for ‘human form’,  was originally used to describe ‘human-like’ actions of the ancient gods and later extended to talk about human-like animal actions. Psychological or emotional anthropomorphism means ascribing a human-like mind and emotions to animals, and has long been controversial. In his brilliant bookMousy Cats and Sheepish Coyotes John Shivik describes how anthropomorphising in animal science in the eighties was a cardinal sin: “under the thinking of the gatekeepers of my field, admitting that animals have human characteristics was the gateway drug to the opiate of subjectivity and scientific ruin”[1]. Yet humans, after all, are also animals. We share a huge amount in common with other species, especially other mammals: we make family bonds, we raise and nurture infants. We take pleasure in food, sex, exercise, social connections, play. We feel pain, boredom, frustration, anger, even jealousy. There are going to be shared experiences; as Fredrik Karlsson points out, “Even if human beings constitute a unique species, each specific trait may be shared with some or all other animals”[2]. We now know that animals suffer, but to understand that reaction in an animal we must make an analogy from our own experiences of suffering.
Recently, one of my editors told me “When referring to animals I encourage authors to use ‘animals who’ rather than ‘animals that’ – attention to language is important for a book about ethics”. It’s important everywhere, because discussing animals as if they are objects rather than individuals  somethings rather than somebodies — allows humans to treat them in ways that would be inconceivable to treat another human animal. We fall into the trap, like the BBC Radio 4 caller, of seeing animals as ‘just’ a food source, as tools or resources put on this earth for us, to use how we like. We call cows, pigs, chickens ‘food’ or ‘farm animals’, as if being raised for food is part of their inherent nature; not so: they are ‘farmed animals’. Farming is something we do to them. Being farmed is not part of the animal’s natural behaviour or characteristics, and the use of terminology like ‘farm’ or ‘food’ animals is a symptom of “the kind of society that treats animals as disposable and that views our implicit commitments to them as revocable for convenience”[3].
On the flipside, the very human idea of ‘loving’ animals can be equally problematic, the word love tied to our own stake in the relationship with the animal. Switlyk might “love” beautiful goats, but she has zero respect for them or for their right to live out their lives without her interference. Similarly, how many self-proclaimed animal lovers do you know who eat cheap meat and use cosmetics tested on mice and rabbits? A much more valuable ideal is to ‘respect’ animals.  Acknowledging our responsibilities to animals, rather than redefining them according to their relationship to us, is essential if we are to view animal welfare as important outside of how it affects humans.
Humans are very confused when it comes to how we relate to other animals. We see this in the age-old dilemma around animal testing: in asserting that ‘animal models’ (another limiting and possessive term) are appropriate to reliably validate drugs and procedures intended to be used on humans, we are obviously humanising the animals used. But at the same time, we’re morally dehumanising and devaluing them, as it would be ethically unacceptable to conduct invasive tests on fellow human beings. The irony is that the closer the animal to a human (monkeys, for instance), the more useful the results but the more ethically problematic the research. Animal research sets up a situation where the animal is equated to a human in physiological and biological functioning but dehumanised in all the ways that matter: most obviously, his or her basic right not to suffer or be killed.
In a less disturbing but equally extreme way, look at the way we treat our pet dogs. On the one hand, we dress them up in human outfits, feed them ‘Pawsecco’ and discuss their canine “girlfriends” (just me?) but on the other we insist that they are still fierce, carnivorous ‘mini wolves’, a stereotype as inaccurate as the idea that they’re human babies.  Dogs were domesticated and tamed over 15,000 years ago; their genetics have evolved so that they can adapt easily to human companionship and even digest the starches in a plant-based diet. Dogs are no longer aggressive predators and nor are they tiny humans. They are dogs and we need to make it our job to understand what that means, rather than projecting our own ideal onto them.
In this way, a real danger in humanising animals is undervaluing or misrepresenting their nonhuman qualities and thus undermining their autonomy. There have been instances where anthropomorphism has been used strategically to encourage the public engage with an animal’s plight: the death of Cecil the lion led to public outrage partly because he was “a majestic, well-studied animal with an English nickname”[4]. By using anthropomorphism to emphasise animals’ personalities, scientists can bridge the ‘otherness’ dividing them from humans, essential to convince people to care about animals. But when anthropomorphism is ‘anthropocentric’, it risks misrepresenting animals and their cognitive abilities and then it can be hugely limiting. Switlyk calls her hunting target “beautiful”, but she is ascribing a value based on qualities that she esteems rather than anything to do with the goat’s essential nature. Being “beautiful” was utterly meaningless to that goat: Switlyk was simply referring to how he would look, dead, in her photo.
When we use inaccurate human terminology to describe animals, we do them a disservice: it’s only by recognising and valuing what philosopher Bernie Rollin famously describes as the animal’s telos that we can truly respect him or her. Telosrefers to the essential biological and psychological nature of an animal: the specific behaviours, characteristics and instincts that are natural to him or her (the ‘pigness’ of a pig, or the ‘cowness’ of a cow). They don’t experience human joy, they experience pig joy, or cow joy. I love this line by Karlsson: “A peculiar fact about the way we speak about animals is that we often have specific terms for their feet, but not for their happiness or anger… why would we believe that equine happiness would not also contain particular content that would merit a specific term?”[5] We often assume animals experience the world exactly as we do and when we humanise them in this way, we don’t attempt to understand them better or we do them an injustice by not meeting their needs. Animals might be stuck on a planet dominated by humans, but they each perceive and build their own worlds.
In her book Seeing Species: Re-presentations of Animals in Media & Popular Culture, Debra Merskin shows how we are constantly making one-dimensional judgements about other animals, such as all wolves are evil; polar bears are cuddly; all pit bull dogs are vicious; and these reductionist portrayals dangerously impact both animal lives and ours. This sort of communication, she says, usually has nothing to do with real animals but is entirely about humans. ‘Aggression’ is an example: when a protective dog owner pulls their animal away from a supposedly ‘aggressive’ dog, they might be depriving the dogs of a valuable play or learning opportunity. Labelling a dog ‘aggressive’ can also justify poor welfare, from electric shock collars to abandonment and euthanasia.
Lucy Cooke, in The Unexpected Truth About Animals, shows how we ‘reduce’ wild animals too: pandas, for instance, are not cute and hapless but tough, sexually potent survivors in a diminishing habitat. Cooke points out that “The image of the pathetic panda—a benign, bungling creature who needs human help to survive—is a very modern myth, conjured more from human desires than from biological facts.”[6] The captive panda population has more than doubled since 2005 and zoos have created ‘cartoon’ pandas which justify their removal from the wild into ‘protective’ cages. Their big foreheads, low set eyes and humanlike way of sitting and eating trigger our nurturing instinct and we treat them like human babies. In doing so, we do them a huge disservice. It’s the powerful muscles in the panda’s cheeks that give him a “lovable big round head”, the strength of their bite somewhere between that of a lion and a jaguar. Also, because of the problems in breeding pandas in captivity, people assume that they are impotent, sexless creatures; but a dominant male in the wild can have sex over 40 times in a single afternoon. The semen of the giant panda contains 10 to 100 times more sperm than a human male. By ‘humanising’ and infantilising these powerful, virile animals, we’re perpetuating a myth that the only way they can survive is in human captivity – actually, we’d be better off letting them get on with their own lives by protecting their natural habitats.
After reading Cooke’s book, I couldn’t stop seeing examples of people reducing other animals using our specifically human terminology, normally for an agenda that has no benefit for those animals. The article below is from the April 2018 newsletter from respected science publication The New Scientist, yet the language used anthropomorphises raccoons (so-called ‘pest animals’) in a way that is designed to engender fear: the raccoons walk zombie-like on their hind legs and “to make matters worse” they aren’t afraid of humans. These raccoons are simply sick, the article goes on to say, but we shouldn’t worry because the disease can’t be spread to humans. There is a notable lack of sympathy for the raccoons plight here, with humans and their companion animals being the main cause of concern. There is no suggestion that we should try to help, or even pity, these suffering animals, who have been transformed into a very human horror story.
So what’s the solution? Is there a ‘good’ way to humanise animals that helps us better understand them, as opposed to projecting our own misconceptions onto them? This is where critical anthropomorphism comes in, coined by Gordon Burghardt in the eighties. Critical anthropomorphism takes into account the animal’s species-specific characteristics and behaviour: his or her telos. When a human observer ‘critically’ humanises an nonhuman animal, she bases her inferences about that animal on her scientific knowledge of the species, the physical context they’re both in, and the animal’s ecological and evolutionary history. As Jonathan Balcombe states, anthropomorphizing is not a sin “so long as we make reasonable assumptions backed by good science”[7].
Humanising is to some extent unavoidable when talking about animals; we only have human language after all, and we’re always coming from a human perspective. Laurel Braitman, who has been studying animal mental illness, points out that “It’s not like you can take your human brain out of your head, and out it in a jar, and then use it to think about another animal thinking. We will always be one animal wondering about the emotional experience of another animal”[8]. But our aim should always be to go beyond humanising our nonhuman cousins by learning as much as we can about the unique ways animals think and act. Biologist George Schaller shows how we undermine our own learning when we refuse to attempt to engage with animals on their own level:
“You’re dealing with individual beings who have their own feelings, desires and fears. To understand them is very difficult and you cannot do it unless you try to have some emotional contact and intuition. Some scientists will say they are wholly objective, but I think that’s impossible. Laboratory scientists wasted years putting rats in mazes to show they were learning. They never got close enough to a rat to realise that they were not going by sight and learning, they were following the scent trails of previous rats. By overlooking this simple fact they wasted years of science”[9]
The Dalai Lama famously stated that “Perhaps the most important point is to ensure that science never becomes divorced from the basic human feeling of empathy with our fellow beings”. Obviously empathy is important (and it might have helped those sick raccoons) but it can also be limiting, shutting off those sensations and needs that animals do not share with us. Instead we must stay vigilant in remembering that animals have their own agenda outside of our human concerns and that agenda must be respected. As Paul Waldau put it so succinctly at the Vienna Summit on Animal Welfare this year: “The aim is towards respectful engagement with animals on their terms.”[10] Animals are not failed or substandard humans; they are their own selves and this does not make them better or worse than us. Certainly in Switlyk’s victorious photograph, the question of which individual is the ‘substandard’ moral entity is up for debate.
[1] Shivik, J. (2017). Mousy Cats and Sheepish Coyotes: The Science of Animal Personalities, Beacon Press: 9.
[2] Karlsson, F. (2012). Critical anthropomorphism and animal ethics. Journal of Agricultural & Environmental Ethics, 25, 707-720.
[3] Rollin, B. (2014). The “unwanted horse”— a modest proposal. The Canadian Veterinary Journal, 55, 1234.
[4] Kerr, M. (2018). Can storytelling save wildlife? National Geographic [Online]. Available from: https://blog.nationalgeographic.org/2018/04/04/can-storytelling-save-wildlife/
[5] Karlsson, F. (2012). As above.
[6] Cooke, L. (2018). The un-cuddly truth about pandas. The Wall Street Journal.
[7] Balcombe, J. (2009). Animal pleasure and its moral significance. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 118, 208-216.
[8] Braitman, L. (2014). Depressed dogs, cats with OCD: what animal madness means for us humans. TED Talk [Online]. Available from: https://www.ted.com/talks/laurel_braitman_depressed_dogs_cats_with_ocd_what_animal_madness_means_for_us_humans
[9] Schaller, G. (2007). Feral and free. In: Bond, M. (ed.) New Scientist.
[10] Waldau, P. (2018) Humans and other animals – an essential connection? Making the case for a holistic approach.  International Animal Welfare Summit IAWS 2018, April 24, Vienna, Austria.

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