Baboon Studies Part II: Anthropomorphism

It’s been ages since my last blog post!  Work has been quite busy with some travel (Brussels, a trip that made me ill!), I’ve been sorting out starting a new course (MA in Anthrozoology, University of Exeter, part-time) and I’ve been managing health problems (numerous inflamed bits!).  At the same time, I also have another blog I need to keep going, which presents excerpts from a novel I’m trying to write in memory of my sweet little cat, Schmoo.  But I’m hoping to get on track, despite having a rather busy schedule from now on, with the coursework and full-time job at UoE continuing – I’ll aim to post every two weeks. And please also note that other parts of the website are being updated regularly – resources in particular.

Here I just want to begin exploring problems with anthropomorphism when it comes to baboons, or any other species.  I’m concerned about its distortions, but at the same time I am also concerned that the fear of anthropomorphism leads to distortions and this negatively impacts our relationships with other animals.

Anthropomorphism is the projection of human characteristics (behaviours, thoughts, feelings) onto other animals.  So human abilities, emotions etc are imposed upon or attributed to baboons, for example, and to bad effect when they don’t match up with the actual abilities and mental lives of baboons.  This results in unrealistic expectations.  Tourists visit South Africa and see baboons as aggressive (considering them in terms of the boundaries that humans would respect), without knowing context.  The baboons face persecution because they are misunderstood – anthropomorphism leads to a much less than accurate understanding of baboons, and a lack of recognising/acknowledging difference because baboons are being compared against humans as the touchstone.  We can see this in the case of pet monkeys who behave “badly”, and a well-known example in a “research” setting is the case of the chimpanzee, Nim. Researchers had unrealistic expectations with tragic results for Nim.  So this is a denial of difference.

At the same time, we share a close evolutionary history with other primates, so why wouldn’t we share certain cognitive abilities and emotions.  Human exceptionalism often rears its head and fear of anthropomorphising can deny shared characteristics, so again we don’t get at a more accurate understanding of the individuals/subjects of study.  This denial can lead to justification for continuing to treat other animals with condescension, cruelty, or even in cases where the best interests of the animals are central, as in wildlife conservation or “management”, there could be “mis-management”.  A shift away from human exceptionalism would change (for the better) the way that we relate to nonhuman animals and how we understand ourselves.  But it is always a matter of acknowledging both sameness and difference.

Subsequent posts on this subject will focus on primates and baboons in particular, to present evidence of continuity between humans and primates with consideration of anthropomorphism, looking at Darwin’s writings and the work of contemporaries such as Goodall, de Waal, Strum, Haraway and Seyfarth and Cheney.