In a previous blog post, I introduced Pamela Asquith and her journal article, “Of Bonds and Boundaries: the modern role of anthropomorphism in primate studies” (2011) Asquith first considers the importance of language in primate studies, the terminology used to describe alloprimates (nonhuman primates) – “anthropomorphism is ultimately about our use of words and what they can and cannot tell us about animals” (p. 239) Researchers such as MacKinnon in the 1970s, describing orang-utans committing “rape”, and others using terms like “murder” and “monogamy” in relation to certain alloprimates seemed to be attempting to naturalise human behaviour, asserting continuity (shared basic natures).
Asquith then shifts her focus in the article to long-term primate field studies, considering the bonds that researchers develop with their study subjects and how such bonds can lead to legitimate insights based on familiarity and communication between researcher and alloprimate, rather than conclusions being distorted by anthropomorphism. Asquith acknowledges the value of anecdotes, as they capture nuances and context, and the animals as “actors”, which indeed they are. (p.241) She makes the following key point:
“Primatologists who have gotten to know their animal subjects over many years can predict behavior in some situations, as much as anyone can predict another’s behavior, and can respond appropriately in ‘‘baboon’’ or ‘‘gorilla’’ terms to incidents in which the animals have involved them. Other primate species’ abilities to learn, invent, have a social memory and strategize should not need to be defended just because humans also do them. At the same time, in providing us with such a full picture of their lives, we have enough of a context to understand the concepts in ‘‘baboon terms,’’ for instance, without fear of naıve anthropomorphism.” (pp. 241-2)
De Waal’s PAM theory can be referenced here, and could further strengthen the primatologist’s position, in being able to understand closely related social animals’ behaviours and mental states. In my previous blog post, I introduced de Waal’s theory:
“The theory posits the following: if a subject and object are very similar, it is easier for the subject’s perception to activate motor and autonomic responses that match the object’s. He goes on to explain:
‘this activation allows the subject to get ‘under the skin’ of the object, sharing its feelings and needs, which embodiment in turn fosters sympathy, compassion and helping… This is not to say that higher cognitive levels of empathy are irrelevant, but they are built on top of this firm, hardwired basis without which we would be at a loss about what moves others.’ (p. 37, 39-40)”
Some researchers in the field of psychology, as noted in previous blogs, appear to want to separate humans from other animals in terms of a difference of kind rather than degree, despite evidence that piles up to support the latter. Clive Wynne (2007), while not as extreme as Guldberg, argues against anthropomorphism, characterised as follows:
“What the true anthropomorphisms share is a belief that the imaginative projection of one’s mentalistic self into the life of a member of another species can lead to the production of hypotheses which may prompt the production of useful objective data.” (p. 132)
Of course he has a point – the age old question of how much we can know another being because we can only see through a particular human mentalistic lens and such projection is not an “objective” scientific undertaking. But Wynne argues against de Waal and Bekoff, among others, who to me provide strong arguments (with evidence) for empathy and understanding (etc). And how does one inhabit a purely objective position anyway, if we take into account the inevitable biases within and cultures of different science fields (and individual biases)? Surely psychologists must imagine themselves into the mental lives of their human patients, many of whom have vastly different mental lives to their own. Wynne goes on to use a canine example of what he considers to be the problem with anthropomorphism – a dog seems to show “remorse” after breaking an object in the house. But Wynne argues that we cannot know that the dog’s reaction is actual remorse or Pavlovian conditioning (resulting from previous punishment for similar behaviour), (p. 133) This is a pared down version of what he presents, so please do read his article for more detail.
Counters to Wynne’s position can be found, in Asquith as presented and beyond, as evidenced in some of my previous blog posts on this subject. If you watch Laurel Braitman’s informative TED talk, you will hear her measured response to such positions – we are all individuals, and just as we may not be able to absolutely know (in some purely testable scientific manner) the mental state or reasons for behaviours of our partners (or any other human being) we can and often do read behaviours based on our familiarity with these individuals, coming to accurate conclusions; this can be applied in the case of other animals we have observed closely over time. I would agree that we can never know even another human being’s perspective fully, due to the different genetic and environmental (familial, cultural, etc, etc) factors/experiences that have shaped each one of us; but we can imagine, empathise as much as is possible and gain insight through this “care-full” observation (it’s worth mentioning Einstein here, who made the assertion: “only intuition, resting on sympathetic understanding, can lead to [discovery]…the daily effort comes from no deliberate intention or program, but straight from the heart.” , in Keller, 1983, p. 201). Braitman would also counter Wynne’s behaviourist description of the dog – she has gathered evidence of mental illness in other animals and the existence of rich emotional lives that influence behaviour (her own dog used as an example); if we acknowledge the existence of rich emotional lives in individuals of certain species, we must also acknowledge our moral responsibilities when it comes to our interactions with them. So, while there may not be a position that is purely objective, other beings, with their own agencies and motivations, can be observed more accurately or less accurately (I would argue that greater accuracy comes from having the counterpoint of a “feeling for the organism”, as described by Keller, 1983, etc). Wynne concludes his article by stating that anthropomorphism must be resisted and particularly in the growing field of animal cognition. His view could well reject observed behaviours that are not ultimately being described anthropomorphically, but in the individuals’ terms (despite the terminology used) – and so he would not be gaining true insight into the lives of other animals (his account would be less accurate than an account that appeared to him to be anthropomorphic).
Of course, Asquith cautions us about use of terms such as “culture”, for example, which could be conceived of in modern human terms in relation to alloprimates – as de Waal has explained, the rudiments for such things as morality and culture can be found in other primates, and so baboon culture or chimpanzee culture (etc) is of course considerably different to manifestations of culture in humans; but one can still say that culture is apparent in animals other than humans. I’ll conclude with a quote from Asquith’s article:
“However far along the line of permissible anthropomorphism that individual researchers may place their observations, there is no doubt that through discussions of anthropomorphism we have enhanced our views toward a far more nuanced, textured and empirical understanding of alloprimate (as well as human and other animal) lives.” (p. 243)
Asquith also explains that “we need to remain vigilant” when it comes to language used in scientific studies, which is true (feminist philosophy of science reveals the importance of this!), but this does not mean abandoning words as descriptors of other animals that used to only apply to humans, if they seem to be legitimately applied (and these should not be called cases of anthropomorphism). The next blogs dealing with this subject will look at the “anthropomorphic” language of primatologists like Jane Goodall, Shirley Strum and Frans de Waal.