Fur-Kids or Kindred Spirits?

January 5, 2008 at 8:18 pm Leave a comment

Humans have always felt a strong kinship with animals.  Our ancestors believed that animals were aware and that their lives and communications were as meaningful as ours.  They were better able than we are to find meaning in subtle nuances of animal behavior because their survival depended on it – and because they saw animals as kindred spirits who understood the world in a different way than they did. 

KindredSpirit

Today most humans live in an environment far removed from the one our ancestors’ relied on for their survival, and most of us find it more difficult to recognize and understand the deeper meaning underlying animal behavior than our ancestors did.  We still feel a strong connection to animals, but changes in our environment and cultures have drastically changed the way we experience that connection.  Instead of seeing animals as kindred spirits with different perspectives and ways of life, many of us now think of them as amusing copies of our human selves.  Animals as kindred spirits, guides, teachers and partners have given way to fur-kids wearing designer dog coats.

FurKid

This common, excessively anthropomorphized view may be part of the reason why many behaviorists and sociobiologists believe that assigning human, or human-like emotions and intentions to animals is a scientific taboo (as it has been since the time of Descartes).  But in a recent reversal, instead of denying the similarities between us, some scientists are studying how the emotions, modes of communication and motivations of animals do, in many ways, resemble our own.

The problem is not that we anthropomorphize, but that we tend to do it in the wrong ways. 

If we view anthropomorphism as a means, rather than an end, and use it to study the ways that animal behavior resembles human behavior we may gain valuable insights.  Research on the qualities that we share with them may help us better understand the areas where their perspectives differ from ours.  If, on the other hand, we adopt anthropomorphism as an end in itself, we simply stop at assigning human values and motivations to animals.  And when we do this, not only do we lose an incredible opportunity to expand our horizons, but we condemn them to a life and a set of expectations that they can never meet or be fully content with.

“So many baffling aspect of animal behavior are like that – baffling only because we fail to appreciate that the animal’s range of senses is not the same as our own: different but not always inferior.”  Hans Brick “The Nature of the Beast

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Entry filed under: animals, behavior science, dog, dogs. Tags: , , , , , , , , , .

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