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December 17, 2016


           Twitter/National Geographic


Last month National Geographic disseminated a video with a sequence between three penguins, in which a male comes in to disrupt a monogamous nesting couple, successfully mating with the female as the previous partner is bloodily expelled ‘in humiliation’. The video went viral,  and the invader’s characterisation as a ‘homewrecker’ drew evident ire from penguin expert Norman Ratcliffe, who stated in  i News  that the label ‘made no sense’:  “There is a drive to fight for mates, resources and territory. But the video uses very anthropomorphic language, there is absolutely no indication animals feel humiliation”.


The  programme-makers put a playful  gloss on the penguin drama, transposing it to a melodramatic marital meta-narrative so hackneyed it can only have been conceived of by a human. That is a question of aesthetic taste. There are many words one could use to criticise such choices: naivety, sentimentality, colonialism, presumption. Should “anthropomorphism” be among them?


Anthropomorphism is straightforwardly defined by the Oxford Dictionary as the “attribution of human characteristics or behaviour to a god, object or an animal”, but  the need for such a concept only emerges under the assuption that there's something inherently erroneous about the comparison. Therefore typically, it is used to mean a misattribution of qualities that are presumed to be exclusively human. It is a word that carries an intellectual admonishment; and carries a long history of frequently confused, oscillating and often anthropocentric (species-selfish) beliefs about human beings’ relationship to other animals and the natural world.


Ratcliffe implies that these penguins (indeed, all animals) are not capable of humiliation, because there is no evidence of that capacity. Neither, he suggests, do they possess a sense of a ‘home’ that can be ‘wrecked’; hence his criticism that ‘homewrecker’ is a meaningless concept when applied to penguins. Nor, he implies, is the motivation to fight really felt or experienced as a choice. Instead, the impetus to fight is described as a pre-programmed “drive”, a response to a competitive and aggressive environment; part of a nature ‘red in tooth and claw’ that has no time to be lovelorn, homeless or embarrassed.


There are clearly important physiological differences between all species that are likely to result in dramatically different phenomenological and psychological experiences of the world. One could  make the case that penguins do not feel humiliation; and I am no penguin expert. In all probability Ratcliffe has evidence to support his claims that were not contextualised here. But is it justifiable to argue that a penguin is not capable of humiliation specifically by employing the notion of ‘anthropomorphism’? Or is it something else that is objected to  - perhaps something a little less epistemologically neutral?


The notion that there is some sort of absolute evolutionary discontinuity between humans and other animals was refuted by Darwin and continues to be refuted almost daily by cognitive ethologists, who point out that from culture to tool-use to language, human traits are indeed shared by other animals, with many differences largely those of degree rather than kind (1). The philosopher of science Elliot Sober notes that anthropomorphism - mistakenly assuming that an animal has a particular trait - is known is a “Type 1" error in science; whereas what Frans De Waal calls “anthropodenial”, mistakenly denying that an animal has a particular trait, is a “Type 2" error. Yet, he says, it is only the Type 1 error of anthropomorphism that is regularly brought out for trial. The error of “anthropodenial” rarely exercises scientists in the same way. In the absence of evidence, skepticism about animals' capacities is favoured over either agnosticism "we don't know whether penguins feel humiliation" or benefit of the doubt. Why?


The reason, I’d like to suggest, is cultural rather than scientific; and requires some historical contextualization. The word "anthropomorphism" did not in fact arise for the purpose of human and nonhuman animal comparison – it was first used by Xenophanes to criticize Homer’s portrayal of the ancient gods as too recognizably human. The comparison was to the ethereal and supernatural. Fast-forward 1700 years to the Scientific Revolution, and the concept was enjoying  a resurgence as scientists rejected the long-held narrative that nature was minded – that winds possessed divine intent, or that an apple falling to the ground was seeking its natural place – in favour of the new scientific empiricism (2). Descartes’ highly influential strand of philosophy “I think, therefore I am”,  viewed rational thought – which he assumed to be dependent on language -  as the source of all meaning, value and ontological certainty; a ‘rational soul’ which was the ‘ghost in the machine’ of what he saw as mechanistic and deceptive bodies. Since animals did not possess language; and since, he inferred, their behavior could be just as easily explained by the unconscious machinations of nature’s instructions,  he concluded that they did not possess a rational soul and thus were left only with the machinery – utterly devoid of consciousness or sensation. Observing such machinery with one’s senses could be deceptive, so that even the expressions of pain had to be viewed with skepticism. Their cries upon the vivisection table were nothing but “the squeaking of unoiled cogs” (Monamy, 2000); a belief that conveniently supported the burgeoning use of animals in medical vivisection -  all without anaesthetic.


The idea that animals do not experience pain is now utterly rejected by all but a few mavericks, but the idea that skepticism was an appropriate default response to the notion of animal consciousness has lingered. Comparative psychology, and its later corollary, behaviourism, refused to attribute mental states to animals’ observed behavior; preferring to speak in what Eileen Crist calls the “mechanomorphic” language” of “stimulus-releases” phenomena, where the appropriate environmental stimulus ‘releases’ an animal’s pre-programmed behavior like a key fitting a lock; bypassing any sense of active minded-ness or intention on the animals’ behalf. For example, a bird feeds its chicks not because of any maternal feeling, but because the shape of an opened maw automatically releases its mechanism of regurgitation. The bird itself is passive - no need for it to feel anything at all. This language of ‘mechanomorphism’, it is argued by Crist and Sober -  arose partly through the struggle to make the study of animal behavior accepted as a natural science with all its emphasis on unchanging natural laws; partly as a result of the genuine methodological difficulty of identifying what an animal is feeling; and partly because of the influence of “Morgan’s Canon” of 1903  and its concept of “parsimony”: “In no case may we interpret an action as the outcome of the exercise of a higher psychical faculty, if it can be interpreted as the outcome of the exercise of one which stands lower in the psychological scale”.


It seems reasonable to think that this rule is entirely appropriate – one should not make judgements about the possession of traits without evidence. But Sober and De Waal identify a number of inherent biases in Morgan’s formulation. Firstly, Sober argues, Morgan assumed a linear evolutionary scale, with species and their capacities ranked in an order of simplicity to complexity – peaked by humans and their traits. Tool use is a ‘higher’ faculty than echolocation. Dogs are a 'higher' species than rats. A more horizontal Darwinian figuration, however, sees all capacities, including those of humans, merely as successful environmental adaptations in an evolutionary moment in time, with no particular sense of “higher” or “lower” abilities. Even if one could argue that some traits are more ‘complex’ than others, Sober demonstrates through a series of algorithms that it is entirely possible for a creature to possess a ‘higher’ trait without possessing the ‘lower’ trait that would validate Morgan’s canon. Thirdly, he asks why it is logical to assume that the ‘higher’ traits are absent if there is no evidence of their existence, rather than simply take an agnostic approach? The primatologist Frans De Waal takes this further, arguing that it is more scientifically “parsimonious” to assume that similar behaviours, at least in closely related species, are the result of similar mental mechanisms.


Both authors believe that the confident assertion of instinct over intention, absence over agnosticism, and of an unbridgeable gulf between human and nonhuman experience is logically indefensible bias. Perhaps one reason is our cultural anthropocentrism – the sheer convenience of drawing a hard and fast line between humans and the rest of the animal world given our use and abuse of them. Sober suggests another reason: a squeamishness about the inclusion of messy emotions in the business of science. He says:


“The type 1 error is associated with ‘tenderheartedness’, whereas the type-2 error of mistaken anthropodenial is supposed to reveal a kind of tough-mindedness. – It’s a strength, not a weakness, to resist the pull of sentimental attachment to a pet’s mental states”.


Do penguins feel humiliation? I don’t know. But “anthropomorphism” is a word designed to spook, carrying a loaded and confused history. To use it in such generalised way to support the assumed absence of animal emotions, without stating specifically what is erroneous about the comparison between humans and animals, is to sow anachronistic doubt about the very concept of human-animal continuity. It would seem wiser to avoid the term and stick to agnosticism; or at least find more specific and more accurate terms for one’s objections.




1) Bekoff, Marc and Horowitz, Alexandra, (2007) “Naturalizing Anthropomorphism: Behavioral Prompts to Our Humanizing of Animals” Anthrozoös 20, (1)


Crist, Eileen (2000), Images of Animals: Anthropomorphism and Animal Mind. Philadelphia: Temple University Press


2) Daston, L, and Mitman, G., Thinking With Animals: New Perspectives on Anthropomorphism, Columbia University Press, New York


De Waal, Frans (1999) “Anthropomorphism and Anthropodenial: Consistency in Our Thinking about Humans and Other Animals”, Philosophical Topics 27.1: 255- 280


Sober, Eliot (2005), "Comparative Psychology Meets Evolutionary Biology: Morgan’s Canon and Cladistic Parsimony", in Daston, Lorraine, and Mitman, Greg, Thinking With Animals: New Perspectives on Anthropomorphism, Columbia University Press, New York


Monamy, V.,(2000) Animal Experimentation: A Guide to the Issues, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press





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