Monday, April 12, 2010

A Rant On Anti-Anthropomorphism

So I'm cleaning house while listening to the radio. The program* is about studying whether other animals have "human" emotions, such as guilt or gratitude, and the discussion is interesting.

But suddenly my jaw is locked as if I was a pitbull bitch worrying something rather nasty, and my hands, turned into talons, are shredding the cleaning rag into small pieces.

Anger has come to visit, and I'm not even reading evo-psychos or MRA sites! Indeed, I'm FURIOUS. Note that this is not an intellectual reaction. It is pure primal anger and came upon me by surprise.

Let's see why. The history of anti-anthropomorphism is of course the scientific reaction to anthropomorphism: the attribution of human ideas and emotions to other animals. Scientists disapprove of such attributions. What they have in mind are (female) pet owners who dress their cat or dog in human clothes and treat the animal like a child. Scientists look down on such silly behavior and warn all of us of the dangers of assuming that, say, our dogs love us or that they feel guilt after eating the contents of the trash can and so on.

That's not what my anger is about, though the condescending attitude of scientists does annoy me, too. Why is it that researchers spending a few months in a lab (a biased environment for animals) with dogs are assumed to arrive at more valuable observations than pet owners who spend decades with dogs? Why are the latter assumed to be biased and the former not?

This is odd. A researcher who may know nothing about dogs is deemed a neutral observer even if he or she doesn't understand what a particular type of bark means, what a particular tail position is meant to convey and so on, but someone who has a lifetime experience as a pet owner is presumed to be biased for having been a pet owner.

Yes, of course owning a pet can bias the owner and many owners do relate to their pets as if they were human beings. But not having had anything at all to do with dogs, say, can also bias the results. Because human beings without that experience only "speak human", not "dog," and as a consequence they may set up an experiment which doesn't mean what they think it means. Isn't that anthropomorphism in a sense?

I'm not arguing that pet owners know things better than the researchers. Far from it. But criticizing the knowledge one can acquire from spending a lot of time with animals does throw away the baby (of the long experience) with the bathwater (the tendency to assign human characteristics to pets).

Yes, I resent the condescension of the researchers in that program. It is unbecoming and reminds me of other areas of research condescension.

But the real reason for that erupting anger is not there. It is in the nasty history of what happens when we pretend that we cannot tell if animals feel pain the same way we do or when we pretend that animals don't feel fear the same way we do and so on. Who cares if the feelings are exactly the same? After all, I have no idea if my feelings of pain or fear are the same as yours (assuming that you, dear reader, are a human being, too). Mostly we simply accept that if someone is hit with a dagger, bleeds and screams, then that person is in pain. If an animal is hit with a dagger, bleeds and screams, the same conclusion appears warranted.

Add to that the hidden tendency to assume that if an animal does not feel, say, guilt the same way humans do it does not feel it at all. And the major assumption in all this is that we know what we talk about when we discuss human love or human guilt. I think the emotion we call "love" is often not that different from something we might call "need" though other times it is, and we might well turn anthropomorphizing on its head and ask, for example, how "love towards one's family" differs from a dog's desire not to be separated from her or his pack.

That's the rant. Except that one of the men in the show compared animal sex (humping everybody freely) to human sex (having to buy drinks first) in a way which showed that he didn't know much about animal sex in general (pun intended) and that sex to him is from his own angle. And then we all laugh at the clever quip.
*I was too angry to make a note of it but I think it was in this series.