Should We View Animals As Humanlike?

Sometimes it is a mistake; sometimes it enables compassion.

Posted Feb 13, 2013

Face in smoke

Some say they could see the devil's face in the smoke.

Human beings are intensely social creatures, so we have evolved to be particularly interested in the goings-on of other people: where they are, what they want, what they believe, who they like. We are so sensitive to these things as to be oversensitive. We routinely project human-like properties onto non-human entities. 

If you've ever yelled at your computer you know what I'm talking about.

This over-active sensitivity to people and their affairs comes in two forms. 


The first is when we perceive people where there are none. This happens when we mistake a loon's call for a human voice, or see a face in the pattern of leaves of a tree. We have specialized parts of our brains for seeing faces, and this is why we might see a face in the side of a mountain, but rarely do we look at a human face and think we see the side of a mountain. 

Stuart Guthrie wrote a whole book about this (1993), and he calls it "anthropomorphism." 

Over-active Theory of Mind

Our "theory of mind" is the skill we use to figure out what's going on in other people's heads. Basically, it's a "theory" of the workings of of other people's "minds." We are so used to using it that we tend to attribute human-like mental states to non-human entities. This is the second form. This happens when we get the feeling that traffic lights are turning red just to thwart us, or when people used to think that thunderstorms were the actions of angry gods. 

Jesse Bering wrote a whole book about this (2012), and he calls it the "over-active theory of mind." Michael Shermer (2011) calls it "agenticity."

These scholars use these concepts to explain some of society's religious beliefs. 

Do Animals Think and Feel?

It's easy to use your theory of mind on animals, and sometimes it's inappropriate. I know people who are convinced that their dog walks differently after getting groomed because "she knows she looks pretty." It's more likely that the dog's walk just looks slightly different because of the haircut. Likewise, scientists have criticized Dian Fossey's gorilla observations as making gorilla psychology out to be too human-like. In the name of science, in the name of evidence, many biologists will not believe that creatures like gorillas are conscious. 

Sounds good, doesn't it? If there's no evidence of something, you shouldn't believe it, right? That's what having a hard-nosed scientific view of the world is all about.

Unfortunately, having the normal scientific approach to believing gets you into dangerous moral waters  when it comes to pain and consciousness. If an animal is not conscious, or feels no pain, then there is, in many people's minds, no reason to consider them worthy of moral consideration. To some, an unconscious entitiy is not a moral patient. If it can't feel, then rip it's skin off, separate it from its offspring, cut chunks off of it while it's still alive. Do whatever you want. It won't--can't--feel a thing.

The philosopher Rene Decartes didn't believe animals could feel pain, and he would cut living animals alive as a part of a show so that everyone could marvel at how much the creatures acted like they were in pain, even though they weren't. This story, for most of us, is horrific, because we are anthropomorphizing. 

But with so much at stake, is that such a bad thing?

Sure, we can't get into the head of a chicken and know if it's feeling pain, or to what extent it is conscious. But we can't get into other people's heads either, and we have no trouble attributing consciousness to them. 

When horrible suffering might be happening, it's better to err a bit on the side of caution. 


Bering, J. (2012). The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life. W. W. Norton.

Guthrie, S. E. (1993). Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion. Oxford University Press.

Shermer, M. (2011). The Believing Brain. Times Books, Henry Holt and Company, LLC.

Pictured: Smoke from the attacked World Trade Center that is seen as a face because of anthropomorphism.

Some of the ideas in this post are from my forthcoming book Riveted: A Unified Theory of Compellingness