Just Like Us: Is There Value in Anthropomorphism?

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.

Dr Jane Goodall and Freud at Gombe.  Image: Michael Neugebauer / J ane Goodall Institute of Australia

Dr Jane Goodall and Freud at Gombe. Image: Michael Neugebauer / Jane Goodall Institute of Australia

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.

Every character in Phillip Pullman's  His Dark Materials  series has their own personal, animal daemon.

Every character in Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials series has their own personal, animal daemon.

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

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

Fantasy, Rabbits & Conservation: Watership Down & the Importance of Environmental Fiction

Yes, it’s a story about rabbits - and Australia hates rabbits. What possible relevance could a book written in 1970s England, set in the British countryside, and explicating the plight of a few lost bunnies have to Australia’s present day environmental predicaments (to put habitat destruction, climate change and species endangerment extremely lightly)?

Well the answer is, more than you’d think. Considered one of the most famous environmental allegories in the history of English Literature, Richard Adams’ Watership Down may only have begun as a simple fantasy story told to his own children. However, it has since transformed into a symbol of pro-conservation and environmentalism, capturing the empathetic hearts and minds of readers through the story of a group of rabbits whose burrow is destroyed by humans.

The amazing potential of many fantasy and science fiction writers to seemingly ‘predict the future’, especially in terms of environmental effects and technological advancement, has become more and more evident in contemporary writing. It is now difficult for many writers to discuss global issues through fiction without humans’ destruction of nature and its species coming into play. Now at the forefront of so much scientific attention, it should be difficult for just about anyone, let alone writers, to ignore such issues.

The destruction of the rabbits’ home too clearly represents what occurs, and has occurred, in Australia and more locally Victoria for over 200 years. The devastation of so many natural habitats in Melbourne and surrounding areas means that, although not rabbits, Australia’s native animals are being forced to seek alternative habitats or otherwise survive in the ones that humans have altered.

All of this might seem blaringly obvious to some, but it is clear that more action needs to be taken to prevent further habitat destruction and species endangerment, or to relieve the damage that has already been done. Although millions of dollars have so far been spent to protect threatened species, federal government action has only resulted in one animal being removed from Australia’s threatened species list – the saltwater crocodile (a patch of clear blue in the midst of a dismally rainy day).

Many governmental and private sustainability organisations are indeed working towards protecting species and lessening the effects of habitat destruction, but it is clear that a broader input from the public is vital for action to be effective. Although on the odd occasion publicity regarding native animals and habitat devastation appears, the amount of times such stories actually surface does not correlate with the real significance of the problem. In other words, one story on a new native animal at the zoo does not correspond to the many hundreds of issues surrounding the plight of Victoria’s natural environments.

At this point in time, many adults are probably more likely to read or watch fictional stories, if just with their children, than will actively seek out scientific information on environmental issues. More people will better understand and even relate to the plight of animals whose homes have been destroyed if it is described in such a way that anthropomorphises them. Although perhaps a sad reality, many elements of literature provide effective ways of encouraging empathy towards animals other than humans. A recent study showed that reading literary fiction can actually enhance a person’s understanding of another’s mental state (Kidd & Castano 2013), suggesting that fiction is much more capable of influencing human social relationships than has been assumed. Perhaps it also has the power to increase our understanding of other elements of human life. It has been said that fiction can reveal the truth that reality obscures. I think environmentalist fiction can do this, if at least for those currently unable to see the truth in an already blatant reality.

Reading is definitely not for everyone though, and it is true that many non-environmentalists are probably not very likely to read literature that is known for its positive take on conservation. However, simply by writing and publicising such stories, authors and journalists may slowly be able to turn around at least a few inquisitive minds that previously found it difficult to empathise with native fauna.  

As well as personifying the rabbits, Adams makes sure to emphasise the downfall of those few creatures that become too alike to humans. When leader Hazel and the other traveling rabbits come across a burrow that reluctantly takes them in, it isn’t long before they realise that something about this unusual new home isn’t quite right. It is eventually discovered that the pessimistic attitude of this newly found colony of rabbits is due to their acceptance that some must be sacrificed to the rabbit traps placed around their burrow by the local farmer. This human intrusion has caused them to become ‘different from other rabbits’; more human in themselves and more sacrificial of other creatures in order to survive. Although death and survival are of course natural parts of any animal’s life, the development of a morally based choice to sacrifice the newcomers to the traps is distinctly human.

Just as in Orwell’s Animal Farm, it is strange how frightening it can be to envision a world where other animals have taken on a human persona, mirroring in particular the characteristics of humanity that most of us like to pretend we don’t possess - greed, betrayal, selfishness and xenophobia, to name but a few. Although in terms of survival many of these traits are evident in certain other animals, humanity’s ‘speciesist’ decision to forsake the lives of what have been deemed lesser beings for the expansion of the human population is one that is made in the light of intelligence and responsibility – a responsibility to protect those animals that cannot combat the effects of environmental destruction on their own. As Adams explains, ‘Animals don’t behave like men…If they have to fight, they fight; and if they have to kill, they kill. But they don’t sit down and set their wits to work to devise ways of spoiling other creatures’ lives and hurting them.’

Much like E.M. Forster predicts the popular use of video communication in 'The Machine Stops', and similarly to H.G. Wells and 'The Time Machine' describing the possible consequences of industrialisation, Adams comments on (and somewhat foretells) the worldwide issue of mass species extinction and the destruction of nature. Expanding on this, many contemporary novels also seem careful to focus on environmental catastrophe when it comes to the end of the world. Once it was the plague, more recently nuclear war, but climate change has now stolen the spotlight for the apocalyptic fear of the 21st Century, and with good reason. So the next time you’re looking for a book to read, pick up Watership Down. It is not only an entertaining, sometimes humorous, and heartfelt story about some of nature’s creatures, but is also a novel that inspires both empathy and fear – empathy for those animals whose lives are so dangerously affected by humans, and fear for what we as humans may destroy if changes are not made. 

Already read and enjoyed Watership Down? Check out the booklist below for similar fiction and non-fiction titles.  



Children’s Fiction

The Lorax – Dr Seuss

The Animals of Farthing Wood – Colin Damn

The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame

Red Wall – Brian Jacques

Mrs Frisby and the Rats of Nimh – Robert C. O’Brien

The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents – Terry Pratchett

General Fiction

Animal Farm – George Orwell

Oryx and Crake – Margaret Atwood

The Machine Stops – E.M. Forster



The End of Nature – Bill McKibben

The Weather Makers – Tim Flannery

After the Future: Australia’s New Extinction Crisis – Tim Flannery

Walking – Henry David Thoreau