Animal Rights/Vegan Activists' Strategies Articles

"Good" Anthropomorphism versus "Bad" Anthropomorphism: What is the Difference?

From Karen Davis, President, UPC United Poultry Concerns
February 2023

While sentimental anthropomorphism can be a risk for animal advocates, anthropomorphism based on empathy and careful observation is a valid approach to understanding and appreciating other species.

Listen to Thinking Like a Chicken Podcast, February 10, 2023. Transcript below.

"Sister Species" - Twyla Francois Art

Today I want to say a few words about Anthropomorphism: meaning the attribution of human characteristics to other animal species, originally to a “God.”

In 2004, a professor of agriculture at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, gave a talk in which he argued that the animal rights movement consists mainly of urbanites with “anthropomorphized visions of animals.” Animal rights people, he said, know animals mainly as pets, and having been taught that humans “really are like animals,” these people have a sentimentalized view of animals.

It is true that animal rights people may be tempted to try to turn our companion animals into duplicates of ourselves, surrounded as so many of us are by machines and material comforts in an entirely humanized, technologized world into which our animal companions – typically our dogs, cats and pet birds – must fit.

And yes, some animal advocates may be tempted to portray all animals on the planet as existing in a kind of Disneyland framework of utopian harmony outside of any natural ecological order. It is possible for even the most dedicated animal rights advocate to slide unwittingly from sensitivity to sentimentality toward the members of other species, to the point where the identities, needs and desires of other creatures become artificially fused, or confused, with the advocate’s own, idealized self, resulting in a false anthropomorphism of over-zealous “humanization” of both domesticated and free-living animals.

That said, the majority of activists I have worked with for more than thirty years are passionate about wanting nonhuman animals to be able to live according to their natures and be respected for who they are. The desire to share our lives personally with certain animals, and to protect all animals from human abuse as much as possible, is quite different from the desire to separate our species from the rest of the animal kingdom, except as a controlling, subjugating, traumatizing force of Tyrannical Dread and Destruction.

Animal exploiters brandish the term “anthropomorphism” to silence criticism of their mistreatment of animals. Ever since Darwin’s theory of evolution erupted in the nineteenth century (The Origin of Species appeared in 1859), “anthropomorphism” has been used to suppress objections to our abusive and inhumane treatment of animals and to enforce a doctrine of an unbridgeable gap between humans and other animals – except when convenient, as in the use of nonhuman animals as experimental “models” for human diseases, or dressing them in costumes and making them do tricks for our amusement.

The term “anthropomorphism,” which originally meant attributing human characteristics to a deity – a God or a Goddess, now refers almost entirely to the attribution of consciousness, emotions, and other mental states, once commonly regarded as exclusively or predominantly human, to nonhuman animals.

While sentimental anthropomorphism can be a risk for animal advocates, anthropomorphism based on empathy and careful observation is a valid approach to understanding and appreciating other species. After all, we can only see the world “through their eyes” by looking through our own. The imposition of humanized traits and behaviors on other animals for purely selfish purposes, forcing them to behave in ways that are unnatural to the animals themselves, and that make no sense to them, is not the same as drawing inferences about the emotions, interests and desires of animals rooted in our common evolutionary heritage.

We are linked to other animals through evolution, and communication between many species is commonplace. Reasonable inferences may be drawn regarding such things as an animal’s body language, facial expressions, and vocal inflections in situations that produce comparable responses in ourselves.

Chickens, for example, have a voice of unmistakable woe or enthusiasm in situations in which these expressions make sense. Their body language is similarly interpretable. Behavioral resemblances do not require an exact match. One may consider these resemblances in terms of the common wellspring from which all experience flows, or in the form of a musical analogy, in which the theme of sentience and its innumerable manifestations hark back to the matrix of all sentient forms. Anthropomorphism conceived in these terms makes sense. One may legitimately formulate ideas about other animals – their desires, needs, deprivations, fears, and happiness – that the rhetoric of exploitation seeks to discredit. One may, and I believe that we must, proffer a counter rhetoric of animal liberation.

The treatment of chickens bred for human consumption exemplifies false anthropomorphism as its worst. It entails the industrialized severance of chickens from all human sympathy and connectedness with the natural world, while simultaneously imposing on them a set of humanized constructions designed to reflect only what we want to extract from them, or insert into them, or force them to do or appear to be at the expense of who they are and what they need and desire, in order to experience themselves as Chickens as opposed to desolated remnants of their once-upon-a-time vibrant, autonomous selves.

I hope you’ve found today’s topic interesting and useful. Thank you very much for listening, and please join me for the next podcast episode of Thinking Like a Chicken – News & Views. And have a wonderful day!

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