It’s wrong to attribute human characteristics to animals. Yet, it seems to me, that the opposite (of anthropomorphism) is as wrong, that is, to say that animals cannot be happy or sad because these are human emotions. It is true that we can’t prove whether an animal is happy or sad, but we can’t prove either that it can’t. As Carl Sagan wrote, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” We know nothing about one or the other. All we can see is behavior and the rest is guesswork.
The argument for anthropomorphism is valid enough: if I can’t prove (verify) something, I’d better disregard it (at least scientifically); and I can’t prove that my dog is happy, sad, or loves me.
Then again, we are not better off with our own spouses, children, friends, not to speak of strangers. What do we know of their feelings and emotions? We can’t prove either that they are happy, sad, or love us. We assume it (and often we are wrong) because we compare their behavior with our own when we are in particularly similar states of mind.
You may argue that there is a difference between comparing humans with one another, and humans with other animals, that we are after all members of the same species and that it makes sense to presume that if I am sad when I show a certain behavior, then you are also sad when you show the same (similar) behavior. You may have a point, though not a very scientific one—and yet not always. Cultural differences, as you know, play us many tricks and some expressions cover completely different emotions in different cultures.
It appears that our attributing emotions to others, like being happy or sad, is not very scientific, is more a case of empathy, or being able to set ourselves in the place of the other; and researchers have uncovered that other primates besides humans, as well as other mammals, show empathy. Recently, researchers have also found that honey-bees are capable of showing a kind of emotional response; and honey-bees, as invertebrates, account for about 95% of all species.
If it is true that the only reason why I can assume that someone feels something particular is by resemblance (by comparison), then, I fail to see why we cannot accept that animals (at least some species) also can be happy, sad, etc. Given, the comparison is more distant, but aren’t we after all sons and daughters of the same DNA?
If we can’t prove that everyone experiences the same similarly enough to allow us to categorize it under the same name, it seems to me that it makes no sense to claim that because humans know of love, happiness, and sadness, other animals (absolutely) don’t.
“A difference of degree, not of kind,” as Charles Darwin wrote, seems to me a prudent and wise approach; and to reserve further judgement until we can prove it.
Therefore, if it is a sin to attribute other animals human characteristics, it must also be a sin to say that because we do, they don’t, because we can, they can’t. The first is, as we know, called anthropomorphism; the second, I will name it anthropodimorphism.
So, if you ask me “Can my dog be happy or sad?” I will ask you back “Can you?” and if you answer “Yes, of course”, then I’ll say “In that case, probably so can your dog, albeit differently from you—a difference of degree, not of kind.”
Bottom-line: don’t assume that others feel the same as you do, not your fellow humans, not other animals. Don’t assume either that they don’t, because they might.
Life is a puzzle, enjoy it!
- Animal Minds and the Foible of Human Exceptionalism (psychologytoday.com)
- Anthropomorphism, Double-Edged Sword (responsibledog.wordpress.com)
- Animals and Love: Exclusive Excerpt From Exultant Ark (wired.com)
- Sexism– or anthropomorphism (with sexism mixed in)? (psychologytoday.com)
- On the Origin of Cooperative Species
- Chimpanzees not as Selfish as we thought
- Do Bees Have Feelings? http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=do-bees-have-feelings
Hornera, J. Devyn Cartera, Malini Suchaka, and Frans B. M. de Waal (2011). Spontaneous prosocial choice by chimpanzees Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences : 10.1073/pnas.1111088108