Saturday, September 11, 2010

In praise of anthropomorphism

Animals have emotions, despite all our efforts to deny it.

Anthropomorphism has traditionally been held to be a prime scientific sin, forsaking objectivity for blubbery empathy and purple descriptions of the humanity of animals. Incidentally, the term applies to inanimate objects as well, like ascribing emotions to wind and lightning, usually as part of a theistic, or at least animistic, bout of story-telling. But animals are a different matter. They really have emotions and consciousness, and we would be better off accepting and studying them than ignoring them.

Descartes famously declared that animals have no souls, are entirely mechanistic, and thus have no emotions either. Convenient for pulling the legs off frogs, no? It was an advance of sorts, since he recognized the human body was mostly mechanistic as well, with a crowning dab of immaterial soul on top. He thus contributed to the decline of vitalism in biology over the next two centuries. But his line of thought also sanctioned casual violence toward animals.

Are emotions special to humans? That could hardly be true, considering how we regard emotions as such "base" remnants of our evolutionary inheritance. If they are so unshakable, whereas reason is so easily "lost", it hardly stands to reason that they would be absent from our animal forebears and relatives. Indeed, despite animals typically being less demonstrative and vocal about them (due mostly to our obliviousness), we should assume that they have every bit as intense emotions as we do.

Likewise, one can argue from human childhood development, which is characterized by a painfully gradual mastering of our overwhelming and demanding early emotions. Do children and infants feel less than adults? Hardly. They feel more keenly, stocking up on feelings with which they love (or hate, or resent) their relatives for a lifetime. Surely, following the thread backwards, it would be impossible to imagine that animals fail to have similar emotions. Our attachment to pets is of course another expression of this highly trafficked two-way street of emotions.

Behaviorism in the 20th century eshewed any recognition of animal emotions, figuring it could observe inputs and outputs, and not bother with any kind of inner life or complicated modeling of the black box of the mind. (Odd that this movement took place simultaneously with depth psychologies like psychoanalysis and the like. Perhaps this was some kind of intellectual mirroring.) But this soon became totally insupportable, since the most complex element in the equation is the brain, hosting an inner life largely hidden to observers. It takes careful observation of external behavior to appreciate what this main actor- the mind- is up to, as pioneered by ethologists like Nico Tinbergen, Konrad Lorentz, and Jane Goodall.

But really, one only has to look in one's back yard to be struck by animal consciousness and emotion. We have squirrels, blue jays, flocks of finches, nesting titmice in the spring, towhees, hummingbirds, cats and numerous nighttime denizens. They interact with clear emotional content, from taking painstaking care of their young and playing tag to fighting with each other in ever-shifting coalitions. To see a bird switch from solicitously feeding its young and coaxing them out of the nest, to ferociously fending off a marauding jay or squirrel is to know that they feel immediately and intensely the precariousness of their fate.

Chickadees even have a reasonably complicated language of threat levels and locations, which other birds, and now humans, understand. What really brought this to mind recently was a newspaper story in the sports section about a local fisherman who brought up a thresher shark by the tail in San Francisco Bay. A delightful fight was had by all, and the shark ended up dead, either from its exertions or drowned from being dragged backwards to the boat. The proud fisherman displayed his catch, and was congratulated profusely.

But how would he have felt being hooked on the leg and dragged through the bay to his death? We used to do that kind of thing to each other, dragging enemies to their deaths through the streets, but have more recently thought better of it. Another recent bit of media was a couple of reviews of the book "Do fish feel pain"? Obviously they do, though scientists apparently only brought themselves to consider the question in the last decade or so.

One would think the simplest application of the golden rule would imply that torture of animals would not be regarded as a "sport", but rather addressed as psychopathic behavior. Which doesn't mean that meat-eating is necessarily immoral, but that inhumane treatment of animals is. The mechanized farm system is a horror of animal mistreatment, despite some occasional amelioration (see Temple Grandin). This is where we need to raise awareness and apply our moral resources.

A further question is to ask how far back in phylogeny such feelings and consciousness go. I would say that bare emotions go back right to the beginnings of any nervous system. The only point to have such a nervous system, after all, is to search out those things that afford pleasure and avoid pain, as encoded in our emotions. They are what e-motivate us to do those things that keep us and our progeny alive, and what could be more basic than that?

  • Our conflicted relationships with animals.
  • LSD and psychotherapy.
  • Conservative economists and reason ... not related.
  • More on income inequality.
  • Fraud at the heart of Kabul. No wonder the Taliban gets some credit for better government!
  • The Rev. Hearty on the power of words.
  • Price, on Jung and blasphemy.
  • Bill Mitchell quote of the week:
"I think the best thing a non-sovereign government can do in terms of advancing the interests of its people is to move towards sovereignty as soon as possible. That might involve jettisoning a currency arrangement/peg (such as in Latvia, for example).
It might require exiting a monetary union that has taken the currency-issuing monopoly away (such as the EMU nations). In this instance, that might necessitate a formal default on all debt that was incurred in the currency that the nation is exiting (such as Greece at present).
The reality is that a sovereign government holds all the cards in this situation. Please read my blog – Why pander to financial markets – for more discussion on this point.
There would be short-term costs but by re-establishing the currency sovereignty the nation will always be able to advance the best interests of its domestic economy.
This doesn’t mean that a nation that is short of real resources etc will be able to establish a high material standard of living by moving to sovereignty. The real standard of living is always determined by the access a nation has to real resources. Fiscal policy does not create these resources but can ensure they are more fully utilised and thus more effectively deployed. A poor nation will not become rich just because it is sovereign."


  1. Burk, wonderful post. It reminds me of a line from Gibran's "The Prophet," when the main character is asked about eating:
    But since you must kill to eat, and rob the newly born of its mother's milk to quench your thirst, let it then be an act of worship.... When you kill a beast say to him in your heart: "...Your blood and my blood is naught but the sap that feeds the tree of heaven."