Anthropomorphism: why is humanization of animals dangerous?

What is anthropomorphism?

“I use animals to teach people. » This is how Jean de La Fontaine introduced his fables in the late 17th century. His stories, which depict animals with human characteristics and each ending with a moral, are inspired by the fables of Aesop, a Greek writer who lived between the 7th and 6th centuries BC. AD.

Lending human forms and capacities to other living beings is therefore something very old, which is found in literature, in painting, in medieval illuminations, in Gothic or Romanesque sculpture. This is called “anthropomorphism”. The term comes from ancient Greek anthropos (human) and morphḗ (form).

Anthropomorphism can convey an underlying value judgment. In the Middle Ages, the animal was used to give lessons, to show what is good, sin. “In Christian Europe, there is an idea that these animals are God’s creatures, and God is giving them a message. They are missionaries for people, they are there to teach religion because they behave the way God wants them to or the way Satan causes them to behave. There are evil animals and beneficial animals, “ tells animal history specialist Eric Baratay.

Until the beginning of the 20th century, the population was mainly rural and illiterate, so it was normal, natural to take the example of the beast. For a long time man looks at what other animals are doing.

When animals serve as examples

Thus the animal sets the example of following or not following. i L ‘Introduction to the pious life (1609) by François de Sales, bestseller of the 17th century, which is an animal example on each side. In his fables, Jean de La Fontaine addresses men and speaks to them about himself using animals. But anthropomorphism is not only useful for men and can sometimes be useful for the cause of the animal. “The Countess of Ségur, when she gets a donkey named Cadichon to speak in Memoirs of a Donkey (1860), took the opportunity to make the people of that time aware that donkeys had special lives.”teaches us Eric Baratay.

As a reference point, the animal has long been a means of answering human questions. The fact that they behave instinctively encourages us to follow them. “Today, it’s a phenomenon that we find in cartoons and comics, but that we understand less because men live in cities and have little contact with animals other than their pets.”analyzes Eric Baratay.

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The man in charge of a pyramid scheme

Since ancient times, man has thought of the world around him in a pyramid scheme inspired by the philosophical notions of Plato and Aristotle. There is the man above, the animals below and the plants still a notch below.

From the 1920s, scientists rose up against Darwin’s school. This established an extremely reductive philosophy about the animal. Animals were then perceived as biological machines, mechanical models. This vision of things did not correspond to reality because they were denied too many abilities, Eric Baratay explains.

This vision has been completely abandoned for 30 years. The view of the animal world is becoming more and more rich and generous. The human-animal relationship is no longer fixed as it once was, and discoveries are multiplying.

Do not confuse “projection” and “question” anthropomorphism

In 2000, American ethologist Stanley Coren published a book entitled How to talk dog? Affected by Lassie, faithful dog, he studies communication skills in dogs. Is not that an expression of anthropomorphism? Eric Baratay analyzes Coren’s position: He chose the right one. He asks himself questions. Do dogs have no more abilities than we would say? “anthropomorphism of questioning”, which brings curiosity and questions. It is, for example, to say to oneself “Man has an intelligence. Are there forms of intelligence in other animals, in their own way?”

The answer is yes. Eric Baratay tells us that a Hungarian experiment made a lot of noise in ethology. Dogs have been trained to undergo MRI. Once inside the machine, the researchers interacted with them to see how their brains reacted. And it turns out that the canine brain works analogously to the human brain. The dog, able to identify old smells, present smells and new smells, lives in the past, present and future. Something we do not know how to do.

“You must imagine life as a bush”

Until now, it was hard to admit that animals had abilities because it questioned our superiority. “It is in the same logic that we degraded the people we wanted to colonize,” recalls Eric Baratay. The historian came across a 1949 Brussels newspaper which at the time said that blacks saw only three colors. At the same time, it was said that animals could see in black and white. This is part of the speech, very concretely, in this pyramid scheme.

Instead of a pyramid, we should imagine the living as a bush. From the last common ancestor, all species are like stems of a shrub. The man is on his stalk, the horse, the dog, etc … each branch. To recognize the capacity of animals is to recognize their wealth, their originality. It does not put them on an equal footing with man, much less over man.

To associate human reactions with animals

Be careful not to imitate our emotions and our human reactions to animals … or risk harming them involuntarily. Everyone has their own codes to express their joy, their anxiety or their dissatisfaction. Respecting an animal and avoiding falling into projection anthropomorphism also means taking a step back when it comes to assigning our human qualities to animals.

The video of a loris lifting its paws upward in response to being tickled, for example, had elicited many entertaining reactions from Internet users. However, this type of reaction hides the disorder: loris lifts its arms to secrete venom using a gland located below the armpits.

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