Volume 2: pp. 125-135

What are Animals? Why Anthropomorphism is Still Not a Scientific Approach to Behavior

by Clive D. L. Wynne,
University of Florida

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Before Darwin, the relationship of humans to the rest of creation was straightforward. Animals had instincts and habits: humans were blessed with rationality and language. Darwin’s recognition of the interrelatedness of all living things made this position untenable. Around the time of the publication of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, people began to use the term “anthropomorphism” to describe the attribution of human qualities to nonhuman animals. The rise of Behaviorism (e.g., Watson, 1913) led to a concentration on observable phenomena and treated ‘anthropomorphism’ only in a pejorative sense. Ethology, which arose in the 1930s, shared the Behaviorists’ distaste for anthropomorphic and mentalistic explanations (e.g., Tinbergen, 1951). This reticence was punctured by Griffin in 1976. Griffin argued that all animal species are consciously aware and consequently, anthropomorphism is an entirely appropriate way of thinking about animals. Several contemporary authors have attempted to ‘tame’ anthropomorphism into a respectable branch of psychology. Burghardt (1991) coined the term “critical anthropomorphism” to distinguish the inevitable (“naïve”) anthropomorphic impulses that human beings uncritically bring to other species, from a sophisticated anthropomorphism. This latter type of anthropomorphism uses the assumption that animals have private experiences as an “heuristic method to formulate research agendas that result in publicly verifiable data that move our understanding of behavior forward” (Burghardt, 1991, p. 86). I shall argue that, as I put it once before, “the reintroduction of anthropomorphism risks bringing back the dirty bathwater as we rescue the baby” (Wynne, 2004). The study of animal cognition will only proceed effectively once it rids itself of pre-scientific notions like anthropomorphism.

Wynne, C. D. L. (2007). What are Animals? Why Anthropomorphism is Still Not a Scientific Approach to Behavior. Comparative Cognition & Behavior Reviews, 2, 125-135. Retrieved from http://comparative-cognition-and-behavior-reviews.org/ doi:10.3819/ccbr.2008.20008