Wednesday, July 06, 2011


This post is dedicated to my friend Q who noticed I hadn't posted since February.  You can't put anything past her.

A few days back I referred to an animal as "someone" in conversation.  The fellow I was talking to called me out for anthropomorphizing. It got me thinking; why is it I refuse to refer to animals as "it?"

My partner recently took issue with my attributing feelings to a dog.  I immediately launched into a lecture about how all mammals have feelings- it's a characteristic of being a mammal because since mammals need to nurture their young after birth, they need to be attached to them. (Wikipedia says: "Emotions arise in the mammalian brain, or the limbic system, which human beings share in common with other mammals as well as many other species".)  Okay, I oversimplified to make a point, but nevertheless...'s my point.  The word anthropomorphizing refers to "attribution of human characteristics (or characteristics assumed to belong only to humans) to non-human animals." I believe it is over used.  Just because we do something (like feel pain) doesn't mean that non-human animals don't.  I mean, don't I have more in common with my dog than I do with a rock?  Why should I assume that every living being who is not a human is some kind of sophisticated robot- responding without thinking or feeling to stimulae?

Okay, when I accuse my dog of holding a grudge when I take her to the vet- that is anthropomorphizing.  I am projecting my own way of thinking and being onto someone whose brain and lived experience are substantially different than my own. (Here's a link to an awesome Radiolab that helps keep us anthropomorphizers honest).

But I believe there is an even bigger and more dangerous error- that of assuming that only humans can think and feel and want and share. There needs to be a word for this as well.  It-morphize? Thing-morphize? which could mean "attribution of non-living characteristics (or characteristics assumed to belong only to objects) to non-human animals."

1 comment:

Lynn Ungar said...

Just finished a book on the subject. As you say, it's silly to imagine that animals don't have feelings when they have the same brain function as we do when it comes to emotions. (But not when it comes to analyzing emotions, which would imply to me that they are likely to experience emotions all the more intensely without the ability to rationalize them away.)