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In Defense of “Anthropomorphism”

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“I think you’re anthropomorphizing,” said the vet. I had brought the cat in for a routine checkup and was describing something cute she had done. I don’t remember what it was (this was some years ago). But it wasn’t the first time he had said this to me, and I had heard the same tiresome charge from others.

The context was usually when I was speaking about what I took to be emotional displays on the cat’s part, as well as displays of affection. And I carried on “anthropomorphizing” after the cat died and I lived for a couple of years with a roommate who had a dog – a dog to whom I became (predictably) very, very attached. I have been owned by two cats in my life and three dogs, if you count the one I “roomed” with. I have shared so much of my life with animals it seems strange now not to have one around (I am hesitant to get another pet, as I want to do some travelling).

Generally speaking, I prefer the company of animals to humans. I find animals much easier to relate to, and I feel much more sympathy for them. When I meet people with children I tend to forget the kids’ names, but if they have a dog I will always remember what he was called. And in long-distance friendships I have a tendency to ask people how their pets are doing, then ask about the kids as an afterthought. I am a sucker for the innumerable cute animal videos people post on Facebook. If push came to shove, I think I could probably send millions of humans to their deaths and sleep like a baby. But I can’t bear to see an animal suffer.

Contrary to what you are probably thinking, I am not all “gooey” about animals (as Princess Anne might say). I believe, for example, that excessive babying and coddling is bad for dogs, and that they need to be well trained. Dogs, like children, are most comfortable with clear boundaries (no matter what they may say). You don’t help a frightened dog, for example, when you hug it and gush over it all in a titter and say, “Oh, poor baby!” This just confirms the dog’s sense that there is something to be afraid of. Much better to reassure with calm and firmness.

Nothing seems more obvious to me than that dogs and cats show “human” emotions. I can’t speak about other animals. I have had very little contact with horses, birds, and other domesticated creatures – although I did spend a lot of time around a friend’s wolf hybrid, of whom I was tremendously fond. (When he died I sent the family a sympathy card.) But there is an inherent problem with putting the matter as I just have – an inherent problem with speaking of animals as having “human emotions.” The problem is the implicit assertion that it is only humans who have emotions.

The real problem with “anthropomorphism” is that it effectively assumes a sharp discontinuity between humans and every other animal. We find the insistence on this discontinuity in the Western philosophical tradition, and in the Judeo-Christian tradition. We are told, for example, that only human beings have “reason,” or that only humans have “souls.” Descartes (a dualist, who believed that the mind is incorporeal and indestructible) insisted that animals were no more than fur-covered automata. Clearly, Descartes never owned a cat or a dog.

Yet most of the people telling me that I’m “anthropomorphizing” are reductive materialists who either have some training in science or imagine that they do. What modern biology teaches us, however, is that there are no sharp discontinuities in the evolutionary scale. In other words, certain organs, behaviors, and patterns of living are found prefigured in organisms that come earlier. Or, to put the matter the other way around, in later organisms we find developments of features present early on in germinal form. Thus, the accusation of “anthropomorphism,” and the assertion of a sharp discontinuity between humans and everything else, is actually incompatible with a naturalistic, evolutionary understanding of ourselves. It is a vestige of the Judeo-Christian tradition (which old Descartes was just rationalizing).

If we understand all living things, including ourselves, as part of a continuum of life, then we realize that there are no sharp breaks. Rather, creatures and their features gradually shade off into others. Given this, it would be surprising if dogs and cats didn’t exhibit “human emotions.” Actually, they just exhibit “emotions,” and no one should be surprised that they have a lot in common with ours. Ours are more complex, perhaps, and in the case of some people more refined. But they are very much the same. Animals display anger, happiness, loneliness, and grief. They also display a rudimentary sense of humor. We see this when they are playful, and when they sometimes play surprising tricks on us.

And, yes, animals feel love. Of all the reductionist pseudo-scientific anti-anthropomorphic crap I have had to endure, the worst is, “Your cat doesn’t cuddle up to you because she loves you. She’s just seeking warmth.” People who say this should be flayed alive. How do they know? You will stun your vet if you respond with such a query. They are used to their authority being accepted without question. But, truly, how do they know? You would only interpret the cat’s behavior as mechanical warmth-seeking if you began by assuming the Cartesian fur-covered-automata bit. But given the much more modern, scientific, and Darwinian “continuum model” I am proposing, it’s much more reasonable to interpret cat cuddling as stemming from an impulse not unlike the one from which comes human cuddling: in other words, real feelings of love.

Of course, not all vets and scientists are this thick. I had a long conversation about this sort of thing once with a biologist who owned several dogs. He summed things up decisively in three words: “They love us.”

The number of cute animal videos on the web is probably now into the millions, and I encounter at least one a day in my Facebook feed. I watch most of them and frequently share them with friends. Why are they so appealing? What is seldom appreciated is that aside from the obvious emotions they produce, these videos fill us with wonder. A huge number of them are billed as showing animals “being human”: such as this one for instance. Whoever posted this video tells us that it shows two huskies arguing “like human siblings.” But in fact it doesn’t show this. What it shows is two siblings arguing like siblings. (I am assuming that the dogs are, in fact, related.) And among the higher vertebrates, siblings quarrel (and display love and affection), whether they are humans or dogs.

Some of us may have had enough of the cute-animal-video phenomenon (Sean Tejaratchi of brilliantly parodies it here). But these videos and our response to them are very important. We feel wonder when animals do such “human” things because we’re automata programmed by wonder-hating, beauty-hating, love-hating flat-souled, bullet-headed, snot-nosed, resentful “expert” geeks who actually don’t know shit. We’re finding out they are wrong; that animals are much more like us than we had thought (and, for that matter, we are a lot like them).

Yes, there are big differences between human beings and animals. But the differences are more of degree than of kind. Do animals have reason? Yes, but a very rudimentary sort of reason. This too is on a continuum (watch a raven solve a puzzle here). Could the difference be that humans have self-awareness and animals don’t? Well, this too is on a continuum. Animals have to have a rudimentary sort of self-awareness, at least where their bodies are concerned, or they could not survive. For example, in order for it to respond when something touches a dog’s tail, it must have the tacit sense that, in effect “that’s my tail.” And if they did not have the tacit sense that “I am doing something wrong,” they could not change tactics multiple times in trying to solve a problem.

They love, they hate, they smile (yes, dogs really do smile), they crave companionship and affection, they feel gratitude, they get depressed, they get bossy, they talk (or try to), and they mourn the loss of one of their own, or of us. They are not robots or toys: they are feeling creatures very much like ourselves. And I strongly suspect that they know more than we think they do (just ask Rupert Sheldrake). So, when your dog greets you today, put down the groceries and greet him (or her: never “it”) in return. When you bump into the cat, say “excuse me” (it’s polite).

Friends, I sing the praises of anthropomorphism!

Except when it’s applied to blacks.


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  1. BroncoColorado
    Posted February 6, 2017 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    Did anthropomorphism exist before the advent of cartoons? I suspect Walt Disney has a lot to answer for.

    • Mark
      Posted February 6, 2017 at 7:07 pm | Permalink


      *Good God, can’t we get Disqus already at CC?

      • TG
        Posted February 8, 2017 at 1:01 am | Permalink

        *I hope not. We need all voices, of course, but not all websites need the cesspit of Disqus. May I recommend Takimag to you? Good luck.

  2. Karen T
    Posted February 6, 2017 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    Thank you not only for the insightful essay but for putting my mind at ease. “If push came to shove I think that I could probably send millions of humans to their deaths and sleep like a baby. But I can’t bear to see an animal suffer.” I’ve known this about myself for years and it has caused me to question my “humanity.” I feel much better now and feel no pangs of guilt in willing my home, accounts etc. to the SPCA .

  3. biology
    Posted February 6, 2017 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    i had a greyhound whose smile looked like a frown b/c of how it pulled her facial skin – her tail & excited demeanor always gave it away:) yep – don’t anthropomorphize all blacks – some you can – but they’re the “minority.”

  4. threestars
    Posted February 6, 2017 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    “They are used to their authority being accepted without question. But, truly, how do they know?”

    Cats are not really group animals (I know you can see them in groups but they haven’t really evolved for that) and feelings of affection outside of the parent-child relationship only exist in social animals, like humans, dogs, chimps etc. So chances are cats utterly lack the ability to “love” anything else than their kits. You can easily hard confirm this by looking at the levels of different chemicals associated with affection in a cat’s brain.

    • Posted February 6, 2017 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

      Having owned several cats during my lifetime, I can assure you that cats do feel genuine feelings for their human families. I have seen much affectionate behavior in cats that couldn’t be explained away by some sort of survival instinct.

      If you can excuse the cutesy music, this video is a good compilation of the most common forms of cat affection:

    • TG
      Posted February 8, 2017 at 1:26 am | Permalink

      Nonsense. Cats are most certainly social animals, just not in the way dogs or even humans are. There is much to admire about our feline companions and much to learn from them. Cats are predators but they are also prey, considering their small size. That is the cat’s paradox and it’s why some people want to label them as incapable of love. They are just protecting their own interests. What’s wrong with that? If you mistreat a cat it will split and find a better home. That seems eminently sensible to me. But if you show care and affection towards these not wholly domesticated (subjugated) creatures they will reward you will a lifetime of love, affection and respect for you. And it will be the real thing. A shitty cat means mostly a shitty owner.

      Besides, cats have style. Just ask the great writers!

      • threestars
        Posted February 8, 2017 at 7:36 am | Permalink

        You seem pretty delusional and emotionally attached to cats to a very unhealthy degree. Your view on them is only dictated by emotion, so it should be treated accordingly.

        • TG
          Posted February 9, 2017 at 12:56 am | Permalink

          Touché, kind sir! I bow down to your logic. You must be a hit at parties.

          • threestars
            Posted February 9, 2017 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

            Considering you haven’t provided any argument or rationale for why we should believe cats can develop emotion-based relationships with us (and no, your whimsical take on their position on the food change does not amount to that), you have no grounds whatsoever to reproach my attitude. There simply wasn’t anything to rationally argue against in your reply.

        • TG
          Posted February 10, 2017 at 2:23 am | Permalink

          Kind sir, I have already ceded the argument to you. After living a life with our lovely four-legged companions, cats and dogs in equal amounts, and all animals in-between, you have now pointed out the folly of my ways on the food “change”. I really do appreciate it. Our companion animals, I now see, are just using us. Even after thousands of years. I now also realise that us humans and other social creatures are the only animals capable of love outside of the human-child relationship. As your scientific points proved. You are correct, humans and social animals always and absolutely have affection for outside groups. And social/human parents or children never screw over their own kind. You seem like a good man, but you are taking this far too seriously. Hopefully in the future we can agree on some things. You do realise this whole article has a strong ironic bent?

      • Santoculto
        Posted February 12, 2017 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

        Cats are less domesticated than dogs so more of them are not exactly in love with their owners. Many dogs are too much domesticated. Now they need to be eugenized= more freedom for them. Yes dogs are not things but humans have treated them as they are.

        I don’t understand your use of “anthropomorphism” or I’m confusing with anthropocentrism.

        I like more animals than humans because I’m like more as them. I’m little bit feral, savage.

        I’m too much human because I feel the human conscious way and too much intense but I’m too direct as almost non human animals.

  5. Posted February 6, 2017 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

    “If push came to shove, I think I could probably send millions of humans to their deaths and sleep like a baby. But I can’t bear to see an animal suffer.”

    I can relate to that.

    • Will Windsor
      Posted February 6, 2017 at 10:29 pm | Permalink

      My grandpa had a sign on the kitchen wall that said “the more people I meet, the more I like my dog.” Gramps sure was right

  6. Alex Forbes
    Posted February 6, 2017 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

    Excellent article. As a right-wing vegan, people think I am some sort of paradox. But the right to life is the most basic right one should be afforded and that shouldn’t be violated without just cause (and no eating them isn’t a good enough reason).

    • Leon
      Posted February 8, 2017 at 10:40 am | Permalink

      Personally, I don’t believe in any sort of ‘rights’ (in a universal, natural right sense), but I do believe in compassion towards animals as a value and a marker of a humane and noble society.

    • VeganInBudapest
      Posted February 8, 2017 at 11:03 am | Permalink


  7. Posted February 7, 2017 at 1:26 am | Permalink

    If Dogs, for instance, didn’t love us, then how could they explain this behavior?:

    Are the fur-covered automata playing “follow my leader?” – such an answer would be absurd

  8. Riki
    Posted February 7, 2017 at 3:01 am | Permalink

    “If push came to shove I think that I could probably send millions of humans to their deaths and sleep like a baby. But I can’t bear to see an animal suffer.”

    I can relate to that too. Didn’t they use that words on Hitler too, though with negative connotations? Now I feel much better, more justified and emboldened to hold similar thoughts myself, knowing myself being in the same philosophical camp wit not only the great White leader himself, but other kind, talented and convinced White Nationalists.

    Incidentally, I like both cats and dogs, with a little partiality toward the former.

  9. Peter Quint
    Posted February 7, 2017 at 6:55 am | Permalink

    I take it that the underlying theme is this article is that we (whites, humans) are anthropomorphizing blacks?

  10. P.T. O'Talryn
    Posted February 7, 2017 at 8:54 am | Permalink

    I love cats and arthropods and agree many higher animals share many emotions with us. Even ants appear to have heart. Many animals’ neuroanatomy is very similar to ours for the emotion parts of the brain, so it would be strange if like form didn’t yield like function.

    The difference is likely in the prefrontal cortex. That is, to get Christian, they’re not made in the image of God. They aren’t creatures of principle, but of training. In practical terms, this means they don’t cook their food (even the ones with hands, even when given lighters). They aren’t masters of fire or rocket ships (though termites have mastered infrastructure). They won’t conquer the Universe, though hopefully they will come with us when we do.

    Animals are precious, worthy of respect, and have dignity, but, they’re not sacred.

  11. Norman
    Posted February 7, 2017 at 11:01 pm | Permalink

    René Descartes experienced three visions of divine nature (he believed), just prior to formulating analytical geometry. His greatest hits were then to follow. It seems almost a cliché now, but the veterinary world would never be the same again.

  12. John Baum III
    Posted February 8, 2017 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    I love my dogs, so I relate to your article just fine.

    But it was the last paragraph that really delivered. Well played.

  13. Leon
    Posted February 8, 2017 at 1:35 pm | Permalink
  14. fnn
    Posted February 11, 2017 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    John Keegan, in his book The Face of Battle, wrote that after the battle of Agincourt soldiers were often more moved by the suffering of the wounded horses than that of their fellow men.

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