Anthropomorphism is one of the deadly sins of behavioral science but it’s not what you think. The word means attributing human form to another species or even to things. It’s a quote so often heard, it doesn’t mean much any more. “Oh, don’t anthropomorphize! Dogs don’t feel guilt”.
The admonishment to avoid anthropomorphizing is for behavioral science students tasked with making field observations. You know, like Jane Goodall, when she was a graduate student observing Chimpanzees. The purpose of the caution is so that students will make notes like this:
“Wolf 7 approaches Wolf 4 with ears erect and slightly forward. Wolf 4, turns head to the left (away from approaching wolf), closes eyes, and lowers shoulders”.
Instead of this:
“Wolf 7 rushes up on wolf 4 who shies away”.
This is all that is meant by “Don’t anthropomorphize” so that scientists who look at the observations later have data rather than interpretations. For some reason, lay people interpret the warning as a claim that non humans don’t have feelings and to describe them as having them is an error called “anthropomorphizing”. That’s not it.
Mammal brains from humans to mice, make similar brain chemicals in similar situations. Take a baby, her mama will hurt you. You can call it mother’s love, resource guarding, or a progesterone spike. None of those are wrong and none are anthropomorphic.
We run into to trouble when we say something like, “dogs feel guilty when we punish them”. That is anthropomorphism because morality is a human construct that’s hard to measure. It’s troublesome because observational research tells us we are wrong about dogs and guilt. It turns out, dogs act more “guilty” when they are scolded for something they have NOT done, so it’s something other than guilt, even though it may be a real feeling.
Behaviorists don’t deny that feelings exist. They just don’t know how to measure them and don’t claim to observe them. Scientists do measure brain chemicals and activity in humans who can describe their feelings to make inferences about the same chemicals and brain activity in other animals. They prefer to study what can be measured. Scientists have measured dogs producing the bonding hormone oxytocin when they look upon people who take care of them. Humans produce oxytocin when we look at our dogs, too. We also produce this hormone when we are in love, caring for a baby, or while we are in labor. So it’s not anthropomorphic to say dogs are bonded to their humans and their babies, just like us.
A better way to understand the pitfalls of anthropomorphism would be to avoid guessing at human feelings, too. Brain chemicals make us sleepy, hungry, lonely and they regulate how much we do for others. Calling human behavior bonding rituals or hunting drives is more accurate for us, as well as for non humans. However, because humans reflect on our internal states, we’ve got names for all kinds of rituals and drives. We are resource guarders (jealous), have separation anxiety (loneliness), and fight or flight reactions (panic attacks). We just don’t have to call them by their technical names in order to be understood. In some cases, we don’t know the chemical causes of our feelings. It’s important that we realize those chemicals are the part we can prove, though.
Because when we are discussing differences between man and other animals, we have it backwards. Attributing feelings to other mammals who have mammalian brains is not a mistake. Assuming feelings are the same as a human code that holds others accountable for respecting the code is completely different. And that’s the catch with animal rights. If animals have feelings, they must have rights. Not at all. They, like us, have a legal remedy when their owner fails to provide shelter, food and medical care. A remedy provided by people. Even wild animals can be avenged if hunted out of season or tortured by a person. Again, by other people. There is little redress when they torture each other.
Humans don’t actually have rights, either, unless we form a union in which we empower an elite group of officials to investigate conduct we find unfair or unwarranted. Notice, I said investigate. In no way does our mutual agreement and election of enforcers stop violations of the rules from occurring, in the first place. So, it’s not that we have a right to pursue happiness. It’s that if our government interferes with our pursuit we have a process by which we can get it to stop because “it” is us-other people. We simply agree to a process by which a person could petition the enforcers to require restitution for some transgression-for us and for other animals we care about.
Do other animals seek atonement from each other? It appears they do. The appeasement behavior described above between wolves is one example. Wolf 4 offers a request for no conflict when wolf 7 approaches. This may be the same as saying, “Sorry, Dude. Didn’t see you arrive” or “Oh, not you again. I don’t want any trouble”. We don’t know which so better not to guess–especially IF you are a graduate student working on assignment. But if you are a person living with a dog, it’s no different than assuming your wife forgot the beer because she resents your best friend coming over to BBQ. See what I mean? It’s not a good idea to put meaning you can’t measure into behavior you observe. That would be attributing characteristics of man into another being. It’s not because those attributes don’t exist, though. It’s because you might be wrong when scientists look back on the data later.