Anthropomorphism is a term that I only recently learnt but it is something I have been practicing all my life. Anthropomorphism is; the attribution of human form or behaviour to a deity, animal, etc. In this instance we are talking specifically about humanising animals and whether this is a positive or negative thing.
Since I was born I have always had dogs in my life and am currently living with two beautiful Lassie dogs. As a child it is difficult not to humanise everything, I gave names to rocks and shells, thought the clouds were spying down on us and that everything was alive and the same as us. Looking into my dog’s eyes I would tell her everything and was convinced she could understand me, I wanted her to eat at the table with us and do everything with me because I thought she had exactly the same needs and wants as I did. While humanising animals isn’t always accurate it does make it easier for us as humans to develop empathy and love towards animals as it is what we feel we understand and are comfortable with. Empathy towards other living things is important and can help prevent horrible things like this from happening.
Anthropomorphism was used very well within the documentary ‘Blackfish‘, there are many instances where this is used but one that stood out for me was when we see the baby orcars getting captured in the wild and one of the men working on the boat compares this to kidnapping a baby from their mother. This human comparison makes it very easy for the viewer to empathise and feel sadness for the orcas which is partly what made this such a successful documentary.
However anthropomorphism does not always have positive outcomes. Since Darwin’s theory of evolution humans have been obsessed with apes and their similarities with humans, in the early 1900’s there was a great deal of scientific research put into teaching chimpanzees to talk, and as we can now imagine, this was a gigantic failure. The next step for scientists was to attempt to teach sign language, many apes were used in sign language projects but in the 1970’s one chimp named Nim became part of a much bigger experiment. While Nim was to learn sign language he was to do so while growing up in a human family.
Herb Terrace, a psychology professor at Columbia, took the two week old Nim from his mother and gave him to a family with three children in Manhattan, New York. Nim grew up exactly as the other children in the family, he wore clothes, had his own room, he was even breastfeed by his human ‘mother’ and was home schooled in sign language while the other children were out at school. This is an extreme version of anthropomorphism, Terrace was convinced that because apes are so biologically similar to humans that they must want and need the same things as us, that Nim was so close to human he should be able to grow up in the same environment as one. But as Nim grew older he became more aggressive and difficult to handle, biting his human family and teachers. He was then passed around to many different carers and eventually sold when the sign language experiment was deemed a failure and unfortunately spent the rest of his life moving around different cages. After the experiment Nim remained aggressive and had difficulty socialising with other chimps. Had it not been for the humanisation of chimps Nim may not have had as many difficulties as he had and he would have certainly had a more natural life in the wild.
Another example of science meeting anthropomorphism is the case of Peter the dolphin. In 1964 John C. Lilly saw the intelligence that dolphins had and this lead him to associating them too closely with humans. He converted a house so the interior was liveable for both a human and dolphin and thus began the two year experiment of a women living with a dolphin and attempting to teach it to speak or make “human-like sounds”. This experiment was a colossal failure in too many ways, Peter started getting sexual with his live-in trainer and this completely overshadowed anything else within the experiment, Lilly also began experimenting with Peter and LSD with very underwhelming results. But above all, the wants and needs of the dolphin were completely ignored, anthropomorphism led to thinking that a dolphin would be happy living in a house and having human companionship because that’s what us humans want. Peter was kept in a small unnatural environment and was apart of drug experiments, in today’s society this could easily be viewed as animal cruelty.
So while anthropomorphism can help us develop empathy and love towards animals it can also have negative effects on the animals if we take what are seen as human qualities too far. Nim and Peter became so humanised that it became cruel and unnatural to the animal. We need to keep in mind what is natural and healthy for the animal, not what is healthy for us humans.