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The Pros and Cons of Anthropomorphism

Without it, relationships with pets would be meaningless, author argues—but it has made companion animals more vulnerable.

Without it, relationships with pets would be meaningless, author argues—but it has made companion animals more vulnerable.

Most doting pet guardians have been accused—at least once—of treating their animals like little humans. Whether it’s as obvious as putting clothes on their cats or as subtle as believing that their dog is “happy,” pet people tend to develop ideas about their animals’ moods, thoughts, and personalities that, some would say, attribute human qualities to something that is not human.

Those who claim that animals have no emotions would certainly be disdainful of such behaviors. And even those of us who adore our pets draw the line in different places (some would say that birthday parties are a little much). But the question remains: On the whole, has anthropomorphism had a positive or negative effect on the animals themselves?

A recent article in the journal Society & Animals (Vol. 11, No.1) posited some intriguing theories. Author James A. Serpell explored how anthropomorphic thinking has shaped human relationships with pets, allowing pets to serve as social support for humans and creating an evolutionary selection which, while beneficial to the proliferation of cat and dog species, has less positive consequences for individual pets. “Indeed, anthropomorphic selection probably is responsible for some of the more severe welfare problems currently found in companion animals,” Serpell writes.

Anthropomorphism has its roots in human “reflective consciousness,” a term that describes the way people use their understanding of what it’s like to be alive to interpret what life is like for other creatures—and to understand and anticipate those creatures’ behaviors accordingly.

Just when we started applying that reflective consciousness to other species isn’t clear, but it was a major step in human thought. If an earlier researcher is correct, Serpell writes, “Neanderthals and their predecessors ... viewed animals and the workings of nature as objects or phenomena of great practical interest, but ... they were entirely incapable of using self-knowledge to infer comparable mental states in other species ... ”

Our development of anthropomorphic thinking occurred, according to earlier researchers, because it had huge survival value: The species Homo sapiens was able to become a super-predator because his brain was capable of anticipating the behavior of prey. In addition, anthropomorphic thinking allowed “our ancestors to attribute human thoughts, feelings, motivations, and beliefs to other species,” thus encouraging these early people to bring animals into their own sphere as pets.

The Big Shift

Before that happened, our ancestors were not capable of conceiving of animals as at all similar to themselves. We, on the other hand, “seem to have great difficulty thinking about animals except in anthropomorphic terms,” Serpell writes. “From earliest childhood, it seems, we instinctively ... imbue them with human-like intelligence, desires, beliefs, and intuitions.”

However, Serpell notes, the fact that anthropomorphic thinking instigated the first instances of pet ownership does not explain—from an evolutionary standpoint—why the practice has continued for thousands of years. One hypothesis is that pets are simply “social parasites who have perfected the art of releasing and exploiting our innate parental instincts”—and Serpell notes that the “superficially infantile appearance” of some small dogs lends credence to this notion.

Another theory is that pet owners are much like users of pornography: Incapable of forming “normal” relationships with people, they use the pet as a substitute for relationships in much the same way pornography addicts use sexual materials. “Accepting this notion, however, would require us to believe that more than half of all American householders ... are either severely misanthropic or socially handicapped,” Serpell writes.

Fortunately, there is another theory: that people keep animals for companionship “for essentially the same reasons that people wear overcoats to keep out the cold: because by doing so, they enhance their own health and quality of life.” Serpell goes on to cite the lowered risks for cardiovascular disease, increased survival rates after heart attacks, and increased resistance to stress that pet owners seem to enjoy. It seems that the more strongly attached pet owners are to their animals, the more health and psychological benefits of pet ownership they receive—and this may show that pets are serving as a form of social support.

Man’s Best Friend

Serpell goes on to look for evidence that pets are actually filling this role, discussing studies that consider owners’ perceptions about the behavior of their pets. In a New Zealand study, pet owners who perceived a high degree of compatibility between their own behavior and that of their pets were more attached to their pets, experienced better overall mental health, enhanced feelings of well-being, less anxiety, and fewer symptoms of ill health than those with less compatible pets.

Another study examined the differences between human-to-human and human-to-animal relationships. While human relationships scored higher overall and in categories that depended on cognitive thinking abilities, relationships with pet dogs scored higher in categories such as “nurturance” and “companionship,” writes Serpell. Cats ranked lower but still rivaled humans in a few categories.

Essentially, Serpell argues, it is anthropomorphism that enables people to reap the social, emotional, and physical benefits from their relationships with pets. Most pet owners believe their animals love them, miss them when they’re not home, feel happy when they return, and get jealous when they show affection to others. “One could, of course, argue that these people are simply deluding themselves and that the feelings and emotions they impute to their animals are entirely fictitious,” Serpell writes. “Be that as it may. The fact remains that without such beliefs, relationships with pets would be essentially meaningless.”

If evolutionary success is measured solely in terms of numbers, it’s certainly benefited the animals in question as well, Serpell writes. Pet species vastly outnumber their wild ancestors. “From an animal welfare perspective, however, the effects of anthropomorphism are far less benign,” Serpell writes. “Anthropomorphic selection—that is, selection in favor of physical and behavioral traits that facilitate the attribution of human mental states to nonhumans—imposes unusual and unique pressures on the objects of its attentions ... ”

Serpell compares it to the way certain bird species have developed luxurious plumes, crests, combs, and wattles to scare off sexual rivals and impress females; while attractive, these adornments can be heavy (exhausting the animals’ energy) and can attract the attention of predators as well as potential mates.

“Similarly, many companion animal breeds effectively have become handicapped by selection for traits that appeal to our anthropomorphic perceptions,” the author writes. The most extreme example of this, he says, can be found in the breed history of the English Bulldog, “once a powerful, athletic animal, and now recently described as the canine equivalent of a train wreck.”

Bulldogs have been so deformed that one university uses them to study the phenomenon of sleep apnea. “In humans,” the author continues, “this condition causes a severe disability, and considerable research efforts are devoted to finding a cure for it. Yet these animals are being deliberately bred to preserve, and even accentuate, the same disabling characteristics.... Because they have been generated by anthropomorphic selection, their handicaps not only are overlooked but even, in some quarters, applauded.”

Declawing and tail-docking, Serpell writes, probably also contain elements of anthropomorphic selection—people don’t have tails or claws, so we presume our Mini-Mes don’t need them either.

While some of what people do to enhance the human characteristics of their pets is relatively harmless—dressing animals up like dolls, for example, is probably not painful for the creatures—anthropomorphic selection has also distorted the behavior of pets, Serpell argues. The loyalty of dogs to their owners is probably a product of anthropomorphic selection, the author writes, but it becomes a problem when accompanied by abnormal dependency—resulting in dogs who suffer from terrible separation anxiety. By selecting for animals who demonstrate attachment to humans, “it is probable that we inadvertently have created lines of over-dependent dogs who fall apart emotionally when their attachments are threatened.”


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