Seeing Ourselves in Animals: The Pitfalls of Anthropomorphism

The thought of an orca playing with its food – a cute seal – can be a grim one. But is it useful to project our ideas of morality and emotion onto other species? (Image Credit: Christopher Michel, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped)

Guest post by Mary Shuttleworth

Scene: A lone seal on a piece of ice, surrounded by an expanse of deep and frosted blue. The scene would be romantic, except the water is rippling. Every now and then dark fins with streaks of white emerge, jostling the ice. It is an orca, and it is in training. Members of its family, or pod, are nearby, watching it as it practices how to take down its prey. The seal is in distress, stress resonating throughout its body. If they have noticed, the orcas take no notice. They are learning how to hunt. More than that, it appears that they could even be playing.

Our stomach coils and we look away as the scene unfolds. Most of us think, ‘that poor seal!’ as our ability to empathise moves beyond our species. A few of us may even think, ‘orcas are assholes.’

Woah there, okay – let’s just step back a bit. It is tempting to look at socially complex animals and attribute human traits or intentions onto their actions – but is it helpful to do so?

There is no doubt that orcas are an intelligent species. Many social animals exhibit higher intelligence, measured by the encephalization quotient (EQ). EQ is the ratio of an animal’s actual brain size compared to the expected brain size for an animal of its mass. Orcas have a high EQ of 2.5, although it is far lower than the EQ of humans, which sits at 7. There is still some debate as to how humans developed our empathy. As our understanding of evolution deepens, some scientists are suggesting that empathy has developed as part of our evolution as a species and society. Contrastingly, many others consider that our EQ is the key component for our ability to empathise. Regardless, an impressive trait of human empathy is that it has developed to a point where we can express it towards other species – possibly to their detriment. If we CC BY 2.0_project morality onto animals, we can discredit them as ‘dangerous’ or ‘evil’, oversimplifying species and discrediting the complexities that they can exhibit.

Anthropomorphism is a complicated subject, long taboo in the study of biology, despite many well-known early biologists utilising it in their descriptions. While discredited for decades, the use of arguably anthropomorphic descriptions by biologists such as Jane Goodall and Diane Fossey lead to the acknowledgement of linguistic abilities of great apes, their ability to construct tools, and the occurrence of personalities in great ape species. Increased understanding of the brain and neurochemical formation has allowed scientists to see the similarities between human and animal brain structures. It is becoming increasingly clear that many animals, not just humans, feel and express emotion.

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We know now that many other animals feel emotion. But does this mean we can automatically start projecting our emotions onto them? (Image Credit: pxhereCC0 1.0)

But do we have to correlate human emotions to other animal’s emotions in order to acknowledge their importance? While the evolution and development of emotions and empathy in animals is emerging, it is still a field that is not well understood. Associating or measuring animal behaviours against human behaviours can lead to observational biases. We interpret their behaviour how we would interpret ours.

Projecting our feelings onto other species can also be harmful to conservation. If we assign value to species we can empathise with (think orangutans, pandas and dolphins), we subconsciously assign less value to those we cant, many of which are both vital and threatened.

Instead, it may be better for us to acknowledge and move towards the complexity of species as separate to ourselves – their own species capable of emotions that are separate, but just as deep and complex, as our own.

Let us open to another scene:

An orca mother holds her dead infant for 17 days, keeping it afloat far longer than usually observed. Experts in orca behaviour noted she was in clear and deep distress. Many articles claimed that ‘orcas mourn their dead, just like us.’

Well no, not exactly. Orcas mourn their dead, like orcas. They are their own species. Let us acknowledge and sit with that, before we try to correlate it with our own experiences.

So are orcas assholes? Maybe. But we will only find that out by asking other orcas, instead of asking ourselves.

To read more about the topics covered above, check out the following links.

Mice in the Sink: On the Expression of Empathy In Animals

The comparative study of empathy: sympathetic concern and empathic perspective‐taking in non‐human animals

Into the Brains of Whales

Do Animals Experience Grief?

Understanding Orca Culture

Can ‘humanizing’ animals help conserve them?

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