Anthropomorphism, or the tendency to think of other living things in terms of our own needs, fears and desires, is a uniquely human quality. We are presumably the only species on Earth ever to construct narratives in which other animals speak with our voices, act as we do, share our moral values and sometimes even wear our clothes.
It’s a trait that can be dangerously misapplied. Lacking the ability to speak with our voices in real life, animals are unable to protest when they are mistreated. Among domestic animals, dogs are given jumpers and carried in bags. Horses, wide-ranging herd animals in their natural state, are isolated in ‘cosy’ stables. In the wild, fledgling birds in the process of learning to fly are often picked up by people who presume they are in danger. Koalas are approached by others who think they look cute, forgetting that these wild animals may not want a hug. Failure to understand that other species do not think and feel in the same ways that we do is fraught with risks on both sides.
However, there is a positive side to this tendency. As a recent study highlighted, the human capacity to care about creatures outside of our own species is unparalleled in the animal kingdom (Jensen et al 2014). We are the only species that demonstrates compassion for animals different to ourselves. Nowhere is this clearer than in the field of conservation, wherein humanity has recognised its own impact on the health of the planet and is attempting to halt its progress – by preventing extinctions, repopulating the wild and adapting our behaviour to create better outcomes for the planet’s other inhabitants.
While an anthropomorphic approach would be of little use in the practice of conservation, ideologically it is fundamental. Anthropomorphism is a means of communication, a learning tool which teaches young people the inherent value of non-human life by assigning that life human value. The books we read and the films we watched as children may have put words into the mouths of creatures who would never speak them, but they painted a true picture of animals as individuals. If, as a child, you fell in love with Simba and the other creatures of The Lion King, you are unlikely to be unmoved by the poaching crisis in Africa. Children who grew up closely with Hush and Grandma Poss of Possum Magic are saddened to learn of the decline of the Leadbeater’s Possum: a piece of magic that their children may not have the chance to share without positive action.
Anthropomorphism may not always galvanise action, but it instills a capacity for empathy which is hard to shake. In their fundraising campaign for the Bettong Bungalow, the Woodlands and Wetlands Trust have Brian Bettong welcoming readers to the website. The eastern bettong (Bettongia gaimardi) can be looked up in the IUCN Red List, where it is categorised as Near Threatened, but Brian Bettong’s explanation that ‘there’s still only 200 of us here and we really need your support’ leaves the younger reader in particular feeling more personally involved.
When Jane Goodall first began to report on her research into the chimpanzees of Gombe, she was startled by the critical response to her methodology. The editor had changed her descriptions of ‘he’ and ‘she’ to ‘it’, and ‘who’ to ‘which’. Her practice of naming the chimps she observed and interacted with on a daily basis was frowned upon, but she persisted, always emphasising the similarities between our species. Her perseverance paid off: nowadays, not only do we have a much greater understanding of the close relationship between chimpanzees and humans, but the value of ever cautiously applied anthropomorphism is appreciated as a means of relating to the animal. Presently, many scientists do name their subjects, and as long as they remain aware and unbiased, it isn’t considered an issue.
In Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, each human character has a dæmon, a companion that takes animal form and cannot be separated from their human without harm to both: in short, an expression of the person’s soul. Reading Northern Lights, a child (or indeed an adult) might begin to feel a spark of understanding at how deeply interwoven their life is with the dog curled up in the corner, or the possum on the fence outside. Anthropomorphism is a means of exploring the interconnectedness of all living creatures.
Alex Mullarky is a freelance journalist and works part-time in threatened species conservation. Her other passion is ex-racehorse rehabilitation and she is currently completing her Masters.
You can find her on Twitter at @ajmullarky
Banner image of Dr Jane Goodall and Flint is courtesy of the Jane Goodall Institute of Australia