I don’t believe there is such a thing as anthropomorphization in other animals, there is only misinterpretation or mischaracterization. All practical failures of interpreting what another animal is communicating would be misinterpretations, not anthropomorphizations. And all fantastic attributions to other animals constitute fictional mischaracterizations. These two categories apply to all descriptions of humans that happen to be factually false as well, and there should be no distinct language for these factual errors when they occur with other-than-human animals. The term “anthropomorphizing” is actually not ontologically neutral language, and it betrays some deep anthropocentric cognitive biases even in the most innocent of usages.
The fact is that every individual is different, and other animals display full complexities of emotions and are thinking, conscious beings. Evolutionarily speaking, the emotions are analogous in various overlapping clusters across all of the Animal Kingdom, especially taking into consideration Antonio Damasio’s position that analogous emotional structures are the neurological scaffolding of consciousness in animal species (but other biological kingdoms may have other kinds of structures, since I don’t believe that animals are the only conscious agents in the world). (See Damasio: The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness.)
Now, using the term “anthropomorphizing” is actually a form of implicit cognitive bias in humans. It suggests an analytic center “the anthro”, “the human,” against which animals are analyzed as “wholly Other”. Note already that, as I said, all forms of mischaracterization and misinterpretation of an individual other-than-human animal’s behavior, intentions, actions, social dynamics or physical qualities are categorically the same as when we make such mischaracterizations or misinterpretations of an individual human animal. There is no effective difference in what is done. If we pretend a human has wings, then we are attributing a fictional quality to a human which is the same case if we have a horse write to their senator. Likewise, if we assume a human means to convey sadness when there are tears of joy, it is the same categorically as a misinterpretation if we say a horse is crying when a horse’s eye is watering due to irritation, since horses lack the ability to cry. It is simply not how they express sorrow. But horses do express sorrow, sadness, morning and even engage in ritualistic behavior when losing a friend, so analogously they show the same emotional depth of experience. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RI8it5tUDuY) For this very reason, misinterpretation of communication, behavior, intentions, thoughts and feelings occurs with humans and other animals. So, why is it then that there is a false categorical distinction between “misunderstanding” a human versus “anthropomorphizing” an animal? The process of misunderstanding is exactly the same. We might say that these misinterpretations are intercultural miscommunications or misunderstanding which occur as both human-human and cross-species human-nonhuman and nonhuman-nonhuman communications. The misinterpretation of communication and conveyance, as well as what expressions on animal uses to convey what feelings and thoughts they have are, essentially of the quality of an intercultural breakdown of communication.
From this standpoint, no anthropomorphization ever occurs. Philosophically speaking, the language of “anthropomorphism” and the way it is used to separate human from animal implies a false distinction of nature/being: that the human is a person/subject whereas the nonhuman/animal is an alienated object. Under such a distinction, the human is treated a engaging in communication and response as a intentional agent, while the nonhuman/animal is presumed to be “mindless automata” who only “react” rather than “respond.” This is, however, deeply problematic given that nonhumans/animals are minded, emotional, and intentional beings (See Bekoff and Pierce: Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals). Nonhumans/animals are responsive and engaging, as autonomous agents, just like human animals. The distinction is unsound, thereby rendering the underlying assumptions of “anthropomorphism” false because under the circumstance that a nonhuman/animal has been falsely attributed, this is not anthropomorphization any longer, but rather misinterpretation. I must stress here that the concept of “anthropomorphization” is presuming that there is a special kind of error in treating nonhumans/animals as agential beings; and it presumes that there are “essentialist and exceptional human traits” which cannot be ascribed to nonhumans/animals under the condition that it has presumed them to be “mindless objects.” Once a nonhuman/animal is recognized as a minded and feeling person/subject, their behaviors are conveying meaning, and falsely attributing a certain meaning to them is misinterpretation of the conveyed meaning, rather than “anthropomorphization” which presumes the attribution of an ontological condition that is denied to the nonhuman/animal. What we have to recognize is that under misinterpretation, the nonhuman/animal is not ontologically distinct from the human, but under anthropomorphization, the nonhuman/animal is treated as if they are rigidly and radically different. As agential persons, nonhumans/animals are engaged in meaning. Thus, the relegation of meaning to “only humans” which is a presupposition of the accusation of “anthropomorphism” is actually a cognitive bias of anthropocentrism, which fallaciously treats human animals as the only source of meaning in the universe.
In any communicative or interpretative moment, anthropomorphism never actually occurs. It does not exist. What has actually occurred is a breakdown of communication or a false attribution. Likewise, the term “zoomorphization” is equally incoherent, because it implies that the human is not animal, is a separate category from animals, and therefore is made animal-like, even though the human is only and nothing more than a biological animal. The problematic ontology and anthropocentric biases at work only become more apparent when we show the absurdities of sticking the terms “anthropomorphism” and “zoomorphism” side by side.
The problems of the underlying false ontological assumptions in the usage of the term “anthropomorphism” run deeper. With “understanding” we suppose that a discourse of communication occurs in which one either “gets” what is being communicated or done or fails to do so. “Understanding” bears an implicit attribution of mind, feelings and intentions to what is understood when it is used for living beings/persons. It seems then that “anthropomorphizing” bears an implicit assumption that the other-than-human animal is not a thinking, feeling, intending being and therefore to construe the animal in any way that is analogous to human traits is considered “inherently fallacious.” This accusation of “anthropomorphizing” itself is actually fallacious. For one, if a trait is actually analogous between a human and an other-than-human animal, then no such error has occurred in attribution. Secondly, the assumption that the other-than-human animal is an “alien or wholly Other” is also false, since they are indeed a thinking, feeling, intending being (which is even the current scientific consensus aside from the fact that commonsense here is absolutely correct and has always been correct) and therefore can be understood or misunderstood. Animals do communicate, and their behaviors and intentions can be misconstrued. (Bekoff, et al, The Emotional Lives of Animals)
They are not, in fact, “wholly Other” but vastly more similar to humans (in lieu of taxonomically being animals as well as convergence, overlap, indifferentiation, identicality) than they are different. And evolutionary distance does not demonstrate emotional difference. For example, horses are far more expressive on their faces than chimpanzees are, possessing 17 facial muscle groups, while chimps have only 13. (https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/scientists-discover-that-horses-are-more-expressive-than-chimps/) In addition, horses use the same complexities of facial expressions as humans within this range. (https://time.com/3985988/horses-facial-expressions/) (https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0131738)
Neodarwinian views would hold that the entire animal kingdom is networks of the same traits distributed in different quantities, contexts, niches, modes, and integrations with the rest of the traits, with some exceptional extreme traits that might diverge significantly (but these are the vast minority of traits). So, in terms of evolutionary psychology, thought and emotion, this would obtain as well, which is what Charles Darwin himself even stated long ago in his seminal work on this subject, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, in which he explicitly argue that there is no significant difference across species with regard to categorical analogous emotions and psychological experience. Now, Darwin made a much stronger claim than he was equipped to defend, and it turns out that in contemporary studies of cognitive ethology, actually there is a whole colorful array of divergent species qualities and cognitive experiences, enriching the beauty of possible emotional divergence and psychological being in different species. (See: Bekoff et al, Species of Mind: The Philosophy and Biology of Cognitive Ethology) Actually, the revelation that there are entirely unique species-specific cognitive modes and experiences should express a more radical recognition of personhood in nonhuman beings, given that species even exceed the human animal in specific cognitive modalities. The dead reckoning trigonometric calculations of honeybees who identify the locations of flowers based upon sun position and gravity flows and then convey this information to the hive using a “waggle dance” composed of only a few body motions is incredibly mathematically elegant (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bFDGPgXtK-U). The animal scientist Temple Gradin notes that horses and other herbivores engage in a form of “extreme perception” in which their experiential life-worlds are far richer and more detailed than humans’, and part of this culminates in the ability to read and remember distinct microexpressions and postural communication in humans as well (See Gradin: Animals in Translation). Given the extraordinary abilities of many other species which dwarf the human animal in certain cognitive modes, why are they not celebrated as extraordinary persons? In a human being, an autistic savant might exhibit extreme forms of cognition which are celebrated but only approach the abilities some other species possess as a common trait. It seems that the only difference in whether these traits are celebrated or not is based upon arbitrary species-membership and not a recognition of merit in the traits themselves.
In either case, these notions would have been unfathomable to the contemporary cultural views of Darwin which took almost no interest in the experiences and lives of other species due to its settler-colonialist views of nature as something to be conquered. Notably, this would have been the very basic assumption of indigenous people’s views and spiritualities which took an intense interest in the experiences and lives of other species and were always deeply ecological, so we should not essentialize the culture of Darwin’s Europe as if this recognition of the richness of other animals’ lives was some kind of historic impossibility at the time. And such an assumption is often a bad faith argument that it is necessarily the case that “other animals are insignificant and unimportant to so-called human destiny,” really just settler-colonial ideology. But the spirit of Darwin’s claim is true, that analogously, there is not significant difference, and species are more comparable than they are distinct. And the differences themselves are not of a form of “deficiency” but rather of remarkable aptitude tuned to species’ niches. That is, nonhumans/animals are not “deficient humans” (a fallacious anthropocentric definition), but rather are themselves remarkable persons, whose differences are extraordinary compared to the human.
The very notion of suggesting that nonhumans/animals are “deficient humans” and therefore “lack intelligence” is generally based upon a human intelligence model of cross-species comparisons that is theoretically unsound. The cognitive ethologist Michel-Antoine Leblanc notes that these “intelligence” comparisons are meaningless, and that measurements of “intelligence” by human-specific cognitive traits (themselves incoherently selected and failing to recognize the shear range of cognitive aptitudes in humans themselves) are inherently problematic in their inability to even agree upon a scientific definition of what intelligence is. In response, cognitive ethologists utilize cognitive models which recognize an incredibly array of abilities beyond-the-human which allow for accurate description of the mental abilities of nonhumans/animals. What we see from this is that the human animal is resituated into a vast more-than-human sea of cognitive potentials which comprise thinking, feeling beings, and that human cognition only occupies a small speck of the more-than-human world of cognition and intelligence. (See Leblanc: The Mind of the Horse: An Introduction to Equine Cognition)
There is another sense in which Darwin’s strong claim is true, namely that all emergent traits of animals are variations and combinations of existent possible traits across the entire species, and, as such, there is skepticism on whether there is such a thing as a “truly unique trait”. The fact that a prehistoric deer-like land mammal called pakicetus evolved to become baleen whales which eat krill expresses that humans are no exception on the evolutionary scale of kinship, and that they are not themselves essentially or metaphysically human since all human traits are evolved arbitrary niche contingencies and humans could, for instance, evolve to become sea-creatures in the future. What a human is currently is an arbitrary evolutionary byproduct, a possible arrangement of a range of biological, social and psychological traits that come from t he general animal kingdom. That means that what is treated as “essentially human” is not in fact human at all, but is owed to being animal. Humans are human only insofar as they are animal, which is generally called the ontological view of animalism. (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/animalism/) (This view generally recognizes that personhood is a function of being an animal, not being a human. I still think that this conceptualization of personhood is far too limited, as I am a spiritual animist and, like many indigenous spiritualities, attribute personhood to even non-biologically-living natural formations, processes, and plants and other non-animal species. The religious studies scholar Graham Harvey has an excellent text about this which I often suggest to readers, Animism: Respecting the Living World.)
In this sense of indistinction in neodarwinism, humans have no wholly unique traits, just that the particular organization of traits available to the animal kingdom would recursively enable the kind technological recursion of what you see before you. It seems as though “humans are unique” because “look at what humans are capable of doing,” but actually, the collection of traits that contingently happened to evolve were already present throughout the animal kingdom in varieties of orderings, arrangements and relations, and the byproduct (technological innovation) is actually just a set of animal traits that happen to work in concord to produce that. In other words, there is no unique “essential human characteristic” but the species of homo sapiens is just a general range of potential trait combinations (along with biological definitions, such as reproduction). (See: Calerco, Thinking Through Animals: Identity, Difference, Indistinction) As such, no accusation of “anthropomophization” is actually conceptually coherent. There is nothing specially human to falsely attribute to other humans. There are only appearances: consequential emergent products of a set of animal traits that composes the general range of what is biologically human. And any false attribution of these is merely a mischaracterization of another species, not “anthropomorphism.”
This also renders cross-species intelligence comparisons completely incoherent, since we cannot even speak of “intelligence” except as species-relative, and the only cross-species comparisons that can be made is of the presence of cognitive traits and networks and integrations of these traits into an individual. Neodarwinism holds there is no uniquely human trait. The human is only “one particular organization of traits available to the animal kingdom”, and, in fact, each subspecies of human, each individual, is also a unique organization. An example: language is often treated as uniquely human. The fact that other species might exhibit language, but more importantly, that “language” is not an atomic trait but is actually a configuration of cognitive traits present in other species, even in amazingly similar configurations, and the fact that language is a learned behavior passed down recursively (since feral children who do not learn language at a young age have divergent neurological structuring), there is nothing unique to humans about language. This is a false analysis of what language is that creates an artificial separation with shared cognitive traits across species responsible for “language,” namely, that “language” is a wholly naturalistic configuration of communication and thus is a subset of animal communication, not an essential human trait. Since also, it is not necessarily the case that it cannot be learned through cultural development of species-specific language education modes, since, again, horses were actually demonstrated to have symbolic thought and could be taught how to use perceptually irrelevant symbols to represent and communicate a desire. (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0168159116302192) Nor is it necessarily the case that language couldn’t parallelly evolve in other species as evinced by the cultural-idiomatic dissemination modes of wolf howls who develop unique regional variations and dialects. (https://aeon.co/essays/we-learn-more-about-our-language-by-listening-to-the-wolves) And again, here, it is worth pointing out that the indigenous spiritual view has no problem attributing culture, personhood and language to other species. Often, our gods and goddesses are other animals, and humans are merely children of them, inheriting their qualities and inventions, such as language. “The Zuni believed the coyote taught man to hunt; the Sioux that coyote taught humans the use of medicinal plants; the Shasta and others that coyote gave man fire; the Kutenai that coyote divided day into equal parts of light and darkness.” (quoted: http://www.topangamessenger.com/story_detail.php?ArticleID=6911) It is a hangup that primarily is limited to the “Western” settler-colonial mindset.
Here is another reason why the criticism of “anthropomorphization” demonstrates cognitive bias. When we experience another human culture or individual who’s facial expression are coded differently, we do not say “we are anthropomorphizing them” when we misinterpret. A good example is to consider what a “smile” can mean, the range of modal expressions, and how it can communicate both happiness as well as pain, anxiety and fear in different humans from different cultures. A parallel occurrence happens in dogs. A dog’s smile can convey either happiness or nervousness. A lot of times humans misinterpret context when they assume the dog’s smile is because the dog is joyful and relaxed when the dog could be anxious or fearful. But this is true for humans too, and people misinterpret this all the time. Some people display smiles when they are nervous and anxious, while others do so when they are happy. And you can tell the difference by context and tensions, as well as other expressive cues as well as “the learned complexities of the individual” (their culture, experiences, who they are, maybe they have anxiety and are used to expressing this with joyful excitement modes, or maybe they come from a culture where the expression of anxiety is to smile). The same is true for the dog. In Eastern cultures, a smile might more frequently be used to express discomfort than in Western cultures. So emotional expressions are both species-relative as well as individual-relative, and they are culturally-relative. And we can identify generalized and particular differences in dogs’ expressions, according to their individuality, breed, history, personality, species, and locale (environment, whom they are surrounded by and learn their expressions from, just like humans, whereby we might attribute culture to other species too through mimesis and autopoeic generation of novel, idiosyncratic behaviors that get disseminated to each other through learning).
This reveals a problem: if a human who misinterprets a dog’s “smile” as happy when the dog is anxious is accused of “anthropomorphizing the dog”, then an artificial separation between dogs and humans is created, where it is assumed that “dog’s expressing anxiety through smiling” is “wholly Other” or alien. But this is not true at all. The fact that dogs express both and many more complex emotional experiences through “smiling” actually shows that they are even closer to humans who also will use smiles to express both happiness, anxiety, etc. and humans might favor one expression over the other for their emotions depending on both the individual and the culture. So a dog’s personality, their character, their individuality and identity, as a being, will color what expressions they use, how they use them, what those expressions are colored by, what other cues indicate the meaning of the expression exactly like humans, revealing an order of emotionality and expressiveness within the realm of relative complexity to that of humans, even if quantities and types of expressions might diverge.
Analysis of the misinterpretations that humans frequently have of dogs, reveals that dogs are fantastically socially complex and opens up an entire array of individuality, identity, species- and breed- relativity, and complexity of what emotions and expressions dogs have, as well as what kinds of meanings they might favor or develop, just as humans’ own expressiveness develop from both genetic dispositions and lived experience. The kinds of misinterpretations that humans make in ignorance of dogs reveal that there is much more being communicated by context and much more subtlety and meaning to the expressions.
But the moment such an error is accused of being “anthropomorphization” it dumbly shuts down all closer examination of what the dog is actually expressing and the complexities of context. It reduces the dog’s emotions to “unknowable Other” and then from there, ignores this as immaterial and reduces the dog down to mere material. And it shuts down any revelatory knowledge that comes from realizing the misinterpretation. In other words, the misinterpretation of a dog’s expressions actually reveals that there is an interpretation, intentionality and emotional, expressive and meaning content to the dog’s communications, and this creates a real scientific window into cross-species communication and understanding. The accusation of “anthropomorphization” destroys closer examination of a misinterpretation and therefore reinforces a bias that the dog is a “simple animal you don’t know and shouldn’t treat as a thinking, feeling person” as opposed to realizing that dogs are just as complex emotionally and expressively through contextual expressions as humans are. “Anthropomorphism” presupposes an inherent skepticism of all human-other-than-human cross-species comparisons and analogs. This is a false presupposition and therefore the accusation of “anthropomorphism” is scientifically false and conceptually incoherent, because a comparison or analog, if present in both species, is shared objectively: it is a real analog. Dogs, humans, horses, and so on all feel empathy. It is therefore not “anthropomorphization” to say “my dog cares about what I am feeling and knows to comfort me when I am sad”. That is actually the truth, and denial of it is delusion rooted in cognitive bias. If one says “the horse is morning their lost loved one” that is not anthropomorphism. The horse is capable of love and morning a lost loved one, and if the horse is expressing morning through communicative modes that mean “morning for a horse,” then the horse is, in fact, morning a lost loved one, and the expression is true, not an “anthropomorphization.”
(It should be noted that expressive multiplicity exists in every animal and therefore undermines behaviorist reductionism. For instance, cat’s purrs can mean they are joyful, safe, friendly, in pain, scared, surprised, embarrassed, ticklish, and so on. And the fact that cat’s adopt modalities of unique emotional expression they only use for communicating their emotions, thoughts and desires with humans which they do not use with other cats demonstrates extreme emotional and communicative complexity, adaptive in the exact same conceptual order as humans. (https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2016/03/160328-cats-communication-animals-pets-science/) That is, don’t we too develop unique expressions, modes, behaviors based upon our friend circles, social contexts, etc.?)
The concept of “anthropomorphization” is actually a reductionist separation that is deeply problematic. The more neutral term should be “misinterpretation” or “mischaracterization”, the same terms we would use for the exact same error if when we engage with humans or paint them in ways that they aren’t, whether practical errors or fictional/fantastic portrayals. “Anthropomorphization” as a term actually ontologicalically privileges a false human exceptionalism where none exists, and then measures the experiences, thoughts and expressions of other animals *by a false separation that we are not more kin and similar than we actually are* which generally allows any attempt to expand the sphere of kinship to other animals in modes identical to human animals to be suppressed and erased from moral and philosophical consideration.
The subjective being of an other-than-human animal, while perhaps not as complex in terms of specific cognitive modalities humans typically possess in greater quantities, are relatively equally complex in terms of other cognitive modalities, exceeding humans in some these while matching them in depth and richness of inner experience. That is, certainly, my cat Grey will not be solving complex mathematics. But also he possesses a hyper-precision of bodily and spatial awareness, as well as grace of fine control and coordination to the level of art, that I could not even hope to match with my human body. And of emotional depth and richness of experience, there is no question.
Within their respective niches, species evolved along trajectories that favor certain cognitive modalities over others. The fact that homo sapiens evolved through a technological modality does not detract from the thriving and complexity of other species and richness of consciousness, intention, thought and emotional experiences which evolve along other modalities. Certainly there is variability, but it is variability within the same general order of conceptuality. Other species do not occupy a radically distinct order of conceptuality from humans, who are only animals themselves. To privilege a human cognitive modality as a measure of “general intelligence and consciousness” is woefully blind to the richness and complexity of thought and experience across the more-than-human living world, and, moreover, betrays extreme anthropocentric bias.
So, when we speak of comparable and shared cross-species traits, or attribute consciousness, intention, thought, empathy, communication of intentions and emotional relations and other such dimensions of an organism’s life, no anthropomorphization occurred if these are present, and so all accusations of “anthropomorphization” are actually structured on a false ontological precept which assumes radical difference and poverty of other-than-human consciousness, where, evolutionarily speaking, no such difference or poverty of experience and expression exists. If a false attribution occurs, there is no special category of “anthropomorphization;” rather, the person only misinterpreted or misunderstood. Such terminology acknowledges the equal-but-different footing of a discourse between species, recognizing the other-than-human animal as a subject with intentions communicating these intentions, just as we might misinterpret or misunderstand another human. “Anthropomophization,” however, seeks to deny and erase cross-species communication by implying that only humans have an “inner world of experiences” and that only humans communicate this. This assumption of “anthropomorphization” renders other species mute and implicitly mindless, reduced from agents to mere animate objects set in opposition to human subjects (engendering a slew of additional contradictory and incoherent ontological precepts). And it denies recognition of the ability of other species to respond, have intentions and be misinterpreted in what they intend to communicate. “Anthropomorphization” renders “misinterpretation” a category only available to humans and supposes an ontological separation on the basis of a false assumption that “other species do not communicate information which can be misinterpreted.” Underneath the surface is a denial that there is an interpretation, understanding and/or intent of meaning within the other-than-human animal which is being communicated.
This is perhaps the most insidious anthropocentric bias within “anthropomorphism”: the denial of meaning to other species. And other species do respond in communication, not merely “react”. Their responses carry meaning and intention. Other-than-human animals expressions are laden with rich meaning and depth, often layers of subtlety that humans must learn to interpret and even notice over a lifetime of experience with the species. And this language of other species frequently exists within communicative modalities that are different from what humans either favor cognitively or are brought into privileging by culture. Body language is extremely subtle among cats and horses, involving dimensions of proximal expressions and contextual gestures that often go completely over humans’ heads. And each animal is different as each human is, different personalities, different people, different modes of communication. To learn the language of another animal requires one to develop familiarity with that animal in order to learn their patterns of behavior and communication and what these patterns mean (as well as what breaks with these patterns means), and they are always situation, contextual, and adaptive, changing according to circumstance and evolving as the relations between individuals change and shift. This is the same for nonhuman animals as well as any human animal. A stranger you meet comes ready with an entire lexicon of communication patterns and implicit history which shapes how their behaviors are to be understood. And “getting to know” a human stranger is no different from “getting to know” and other-than-human stranger: it requires internalization of their patterns of communication and behavior and association of meanings particular to that individual. We must “learn the language” of each individual we meet, so to speak, whether that individual is human or other-than-human. This entire realm of rich and individuated interspecies relations and communication becomes completely erased by the language of “anthropomorphism.”
Given that most humans are deprived of any meaningful interspecies communication and contact as a result of withdrawing from the natural world into anthropocentric settler-colonial cultures, they lack even the ability to correctly interpret the most basic and obvious communications of other species—that is, if they are not even so severely and callously arrogant to ignore such communications entirely to treat the animal as an object or mere property, and do what they will. Other species are constantly engaging and initiating communication with humans, who have so intensely privilege their own verbal communication, they are completely deaf to other species. And in their deafness and self-obsession with their own language, humans have falsely concluded that they alone are subjects; they alone communicate meaning; they alone are conscious because of “language” they have supposed exclusive only to themselves. (And let us not start on the attempts to treat human “language” as ontologically distinct from the natural world and the evolution of communication in animal species. For them, it was some magical “gift of the gods.” But the reality is that it evolved from animal communication, which we should call Language, the Language of the living world, and the language spoken by each and every species. To many indigenous humans, other animal species were not “species” at all, but different peoples, and these peoples had their own ways, cultures and spoke their own languages. How vastly different from the hubris of settler-colonial cultures and their endless chorus celebrating so-called “human exclusivity”?)
“Accusations of anthropomorphization” come from a false human cognitive bias that A. other species are more different than they are similar, B. everything humans experience is exceptional and uniquely human (when actually there are hardly any if at all “unique human traits”) and C. presupposes that all of the traits used for moral consideration of personhood automatically only apply to humans, when descriptively and scientifically they apply to all other animals too. In other words, the kind of bias underlying “anthropomorphization” is an exclusionary bias that seeks to move other species outside of the realm of philosophical consideration and kinship so as to avoid having to question fundamental philosophical, religious, social and political beliefs that have taken human exceptionalism as a foundational given. It turns out that, were we to accept the factual truth of human non-uniqueness and kinship, it would render everything we are currently doing in society and to the rest of the living world profoundly immoral at a level of overwhelming personal anxiety and failure. And it is easier for a human’s cognitive biases to deny reality and retreat into fantasies of false separation than it is for humans to acknowledge that their entire world is ghastly immoral and they have no hope of even being moral without tearing it down and radically shifting in ways incomprehensible to most folk in colonial civilization. Such shifts would not be alien to surviving indigenous peoples who maintain their traditional ecologically integrated lifeways as best as they can when beset by colonial empires that cause trans-geopolitical damage to the environment. But to colonial cultures, the socialization and induction of the human into “citizen” creates an impossible to overcome anxiety to change over the profound moral failure of their “society”, and therefore, they retreat into fantasizing about false information to render “their society” unquestionable on the whole. For an individual to reject the society or the country they are citizens of in toto is also treated as misanthropy, which is another cognitive bias reinforcing conformity to the colonial society they are a part of. (Ahuja, Bioinsecurities: Disease Interventions, Empire and the Government of Species)
It is telling that all the indigenous animistic spiritualities I know of presuppose personhood without question in all other species, going even beyond this to express the personhood/spirit of non-animal organisms, geologic formations, ecosystems, and natural formations. And not only personhood but multi-species community. With such a conceptuality as a baseline, the very idea of destroying other animals and species, causing extinctions, exploiting resources, taking endlessly from the land without giving back more to it than one took, is genocidal, it is the destruction of other peoples in a more-than-human community.
“Anthropomorphism” is a humanocentric cognitive bias in colonialist cultures. It cannot even conceptually exist without a presupposition of human centrality, without making “man the measure of things,” as opposed to the more-than-human living world, the measure of humans.
Where I had originally posted this essay, I received a comment that presented an interesting point. The comment and my response to it explaining my position are below.
Comment: “How do you feel about “homo-sapiens are also anthropomorhised” as an alternate take? The act of constructing homo-sapiens as humans associates them with various universalisations and separations from the non-human that are, in many cases, anthropomorphisms. The “smiling indicates happiness” thing also being a means of humanising expressions of people who aren’t neurotypical, or who aren’t from a culture where smiling is given this significance for example.”
I completely agree. I actually argue in a chapter I am writing that the human is anthropomorphized as “human not animal” by structuring and delineating “what is human” by an essentialized ideal and not by empirical reality. That is, the moment something is called ‘human’ it is taken as an essential character of humanity shared by all humans universally, which is not, in fact, the case.
Georgio Agamben tackles this idea a bit with “the anthropological machine”, imagining a categorizing machine that is constantly artificially creating “the human” and “the animal” by moving traits back and forth between the two as if they are distinct. (Agamben, The Open: Man and Animal)
It is also something Michel Foucault tackles in History of Madness: the exclusion of neurodivergent individuals, “the insane” and people with mental illnesses to the outside of humanity occurs in order to not recognize they have human traits and that their unique divergences constitute being a human animal. Foucault notes that in early asylums, “the insane” were literally treated as animals, locked in cages, made to do manual labor as beasts of burden. The precept was that some normalized human traits were artificially selected as “properly human nature” and divergence was an indication of “animality” or “bestiality” by which the individual was not considered fully human. In this way, the psychiatric institution constructed the human and thus anthropomorphized it.
I run into this problem all the time as someone who is neuroatypical. I am constantly misinterpreted, especially in my facial expressions. I am happy when my face actually looks slack and “sad”. But then while I am actually quite happy, I get people being constantly “concerned” and insisting that my internal state is troubled even if I am saying I am not. If I “look happy”, I am generally nervous and forcibly presenting a facial expression folks interpret as happy in order to not display my nervousness. This overriding reductionism is a way of humanizing my divergence. It is more profound in how I experience my thoughts and subjectivity. I have never experienced a “word” in my head. All my thinking is done through vivid sense experiences literally occurring in my sense field and also separated in my mind. But all the “linguistic centrality” seems to treat me as external to humanity, while also denying my internal states to “humanize me”. I legit do not experience the words I am typing in any relation to thoughts. I think in emotions, pictures, sounds, touch sensation, taste, proprioception and typing words literally feels like “magic” an accident by which feeling an emotion causes a word to come out. Words flow out because “they feel right” and not because I really am intending to say something. That is also how I intuited solutions to math problems. I literally “felt” answers.
Temple Gradin, the autistic animal researcher, even mentions this: https://www.grandin.com/references/thinking.animals.html
My mental processing is divergent in ways that are confusing to others and make me seem alien. The consequence is to censor the real presence of my divergence and “humanize” me to “normalcy”.
I think that the whole process of “humanizing homo sapiens” is even self-contradictory. Traits that are very human and very animal, such as the feeling of bloodlust are excluded outside the realm of humanity to “the beast” but then reversely celebrated in soldiers only when that trait has been relegated to the State. The “treatment of bloodlust as bestial when it is present in individuals but exemplary of humanity when ordained by the state” hasn’t changed much from Platonism and Aristotles’ writings in Politics at all, and in this way, “the properly human,” or “essential humanity” is actually a cover for “belonging as a citizen to a colonial state.” That comes in line with some similar statements that Rosi Braidotti has made on posthumanism and the anxiety in contemporary colonial governing cultures over the revelation that “the human subject” is in fact “the colonial subject” and that humanism does not, in fact, universally value or even recognize homo sapiens for moral consideration. (https://www.academia.edu/39056086/Posthuman_Critical_Theory?email_work_card=view-paper) That anxiety leads to more fiercely guarding the boundaries of “human normalcy” (read cultural nomos), which is why, for instance, many marginal identities get treated as subhuman and are subjugated, i.e. LGBTQ+ and neuroatypical individuals.