Canine Corner

The human-animal bond

Is Anthropomorphism a Sin?

Comparing dogs to people is sometimes useful and sensible.

I recently gave a talk to an audience of scientists and university professors during which I referred to the "personality" of dogs and the fact that dogs can experience emotions such as love and disgust. One well known animal researcher rose and accused me of excessive "anthropomorphizing." In everyday language he was suggesting that I was treating dogs as if they were simply four-footed people in fur coats. Among people who study dogs or any other animal this is considered to be a cardinal sin. The word anthropomorphism comes from comes from the Greek words anthro for human and morph for form and it is meant to refer to the habit of attributing human qualities and emotions to non-human beings. It is something that we humans do quite automatically.

This accusation of anthropomorphism on my part reminded me of a conversation that I had with Donald O. Hebb in the early 1980's. He was a brilliant psychologist whose research first gave us an understanding about how interactions with the environment actually help to change the structure of an individual's brain. Hebb had finished giving a series of lectures at the university and we were now sitting in a colleague's living room chatting. As I reconstruct his comments in my mind they started after I mentioned to Hebb that I was thinking about writing a book on the intelligence of dogs and then perhaps following it up with a book on the personality of dogs.

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He smiled and said in his gentle Nova Scotia accent, "You'll get into trouble with your scientific associates if you use words like 'personality' or 'intelligence' to describe the results of research on dogs. They'll accuse you of 'anthropomorphizing.' Most likely they will assume that you are some soft-headed thinker who believes that animals are pretty much just fur-covered humans that think and act the way people do. It'll probably do your career more harm than good." He took off his rather severe looking glasses and wiped them absentmindedly as he continued.

"Back in the 1940's I worked for two years in the Yerkes Primate Research Laboratory trying to describe the temperaments of some of the captive chimpanzees that they used for behavioral research. At the time there was official prohibition against using anthropomorphic descriptions in the scientific reports of any animal research completed there. I certainly never would have dared to use the word 'personality' in talking about a chimp. I was told that that even to say something like 'that animal was afraid' was not good practice since it hinted that the animal felt fear the way that humans do. Instead I was expected to simply describe the conditions that might have stimulated behaviors and then to describe those behaviors objectively. Like when I showed chimps a life-sized model of a human head with no body attached, I was supposed to say that the animal ran to the back of the cage and cowered down and screamed or whimpered, instead of simply saying that 'the animals were frightened by sight of certain unusual or strange objects.' To hint that the animal was 'afraid' would have been considered to be anthropomorphizing.

 "Well the truth of the matter is that when I did try to objectively describe the temperaments and behavior patterns of the animals without using the words we use to describe human emotions all that I ended up with was a giant mess. I mean all that I had created was this immense list of specific acts and specific situations. You really couldn't find any order, pattern or meaning in that kind of data. Unfortunately at the practical level, focusing attention only on specific acts and behaviors was also a bit dangerous. A couple of times I was so caught up in recording behavior descriptions that I missed the animal signalling that it was annoyed or unhappy with me, and I nearly had some fingers bitten off--or worse.

 "While I was going through all of this, I couldn't help but notice that the staff or keepers (you know the people who cared for the animals on a daily basis and who don't have advanced degrees and don't need to worry about research purity) didn't seem to have any problems. They used the same kind of intuition that we normally use when we observe the behavior of people. Because of that they could describe one animal as having a 'dominant personality,' another as being 'nervous,' another was considered to be 'a friendly beast,' still another was 'shy' and there was even one that they claimed was 'bashful.'  These were clearly anthropomorphic statements which suggested that, like people, the animals had distinct and individual personalities and that you could use their personalities to predict the animals' future behaviors.

"If I were trying to be a totally objective researcher, especially given the scientific attitudes of that time, I should have rejected their statements as speculative, anthropomorphic, nonsense, but to be truthful I didn't. You see, the words that the animal care staff used to characterize the behaviors of those animals were useful and helpful. When they described an animal in this way to a newcomer (or even to a psychologist who was not too arrogant to listen) this 'personality' information allowed that person to predict how the animal would respond and to safely interact with it.

 "Their anthropomorphic descriptions obviously suggested that each animal had certain attitudes and behavior predispositions. It also implied that each animal experienced predictable emotional changes. Whether this is so or not I can't say, but it did provide an intelligible and practical guide to the behavior of  those animals. It clearly worked with the chimps, and I think that it should work with any animal including dogs."

 If Hebb were still alive today I believe that he would be pleased with research which has accumulated in the last 20 years indicating that in some ways dogs are very much like humans-at least very young ones. Research suggests that the mind of a dog has much the same mental abilities and is roughly equivalent to the mind of a human child aged 2 to 2 ½ years of age. This means that a bit of anthropomorphizing, or thinking about dogs in the same way we think about humans actually turns out to be useful.

I am not suggesting that dogs are simply hairy little humans, but rather that thinking about the behaviors of dogs in the same way that we think about the behaviors of young humans can help us to understand and predict the behavior of dogs as long as we restrict the scope of our thinking. If we use as a starting point the fact that behaviors and abilities of dogs are apt to be similar to that of a 2 ½ year old human, then talking about basic emotions in canines, like love and fear is sensible. If we accept the fact that dogs, like toddlers, have personalities, in the sense that they also have consistent predispositions to act in certain ways, then we can use the same kind of thinking that we use with people to predict canine behaviors. This is not anthropomorphism it is simply common sense that recognizes those similarities that exist between the mind of a person and the mind of a dog.

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: Born to Bark, The Modern Dog, Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History, How Dogs Think, How To Speak Dog, Why We Love the Dogs We Do, What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs, Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies, Sleep Thieves, The Left-hander Syndrome

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission

 

Stanley Coren, Ph.D., F.R.S.C., is a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia.

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