A recent edition of Science Friday talked about mental illness in non-human animals. One of the guests pointed out that this may involve anthropomorphizing other animals, and that got me thinking.
Whether it is malice attributed to stinging insects, propositional thoughts projected onto pet fish, or a sense of humour read out of a pet cat’s funny antics, there are plenty of cases where people are almost certainly reading their own mental states into other animals’ minds. It is a *failure* of empathy, a failure to understand the capacities and limitations of the other creature.
But there is another side to this. When someone objects to the cruel treatment of animals in factory farms, there are those who will say that they are just animals, and cannot feel pain. There are those who will say that, even when a zoo animal displays all the symptoms that would point to depression in a human (social withdrawal, lack of appetite, etc), it can’t be actually depressed because it’s “just an animal”.
This anti-anthropomorphizing is no more rational or correct than the over-anthropomorphizing of the other side. The one is assuming that other animals are more like humans than they really are; the other is assuming they are less like humans than they really are.
Well, as I was listening to the Science Friday episode, I had a thought. Perhaps a way to bring both sides closer to a realistic assessment of other animals’ mental states is to look at it the other way. Instead of thinking of other animals in terms of human traits, why not think of humans in terms of animal traits.
After all, humans are simply one kind of animal. We are apes; we are mammals; we are vertebrates. Just like we share certain biological traits with other apes (such as long post-natal care period of young and fine motor skills in our hands), we probably also share certain psychological traits. Why? Because our brains, which shape our mental states, are similar in many ways to those of other apes. We also share some traits with other mammals (though fewer than with the apes, because we are related more distantly). And some with other vertebrates. And so on.
Anyway, I don’t have anything more specific to offer just now. Just something to think about. Don’t anthropomorphize other animals; zoomorphize humans!