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Suspicious minds
04 June 2005
Frans de Waal

DO YOU think of animals and humans as "them" and "us"? Do you believe humans are unique in the animal kingdom? If so, you are probably in "anthropodenial", a word I coined to describe blindness to the human-like characteristics of other animals and to our own animal-like characteristics. Or perhaps you attribute emotions to animals they may not have, seeing guilt in dogs and pride in horses. I do not say these emotions are impossible, but such interpretations often rest on anthropomorphism, the projection of human feelings onto animals.

For years, scientists considered anthropomorphism deeply suspect while taking anthropodenial for granted. In fact, anthropomorphism is a problem largely because of our tendency to set ourselves apart. Critics of anthropomorphism tell us that animals are not people, which is true, but forget that people are animals. An easy way to explain this is through a story about Georgia, a chimpanzee.

Georgia lives at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta, Georgia. When she sees visitors approaching, she hurries to the tap to collect a mouthful of water. She then mingles with the other chimps, and not even the best observer will spot anything unusual. Georgia can wait for minutes with closed lips until the visitors come near, then there are shrieks and laughs as she sprays them.

Once, having seen Georgia go to the tap and sneak up on me, I looked her in the eyes, pointed at her, and warned in Dutch: "I have seen you!" Straight away she moved off. She dropped some of the water and swallowed the rest. Of course, I am not claiming she understands Dutch, but she did sense I understood her game, and that I was no easy target.

Those of us who work with these creatures find ourselves in a curious situation: we cannot help but interpret their actions in human terms, which automatically provokes the wrath of philosophers and scientists, many of whom work with domestic rats, or pigeons, or no animals at all.

The critics' message is something like this: "Georgia has no plan; Georgia does not know that she is tricking people; Georgia just learns things faster than a rat." Instead of seeking the origin of her actions within her, and attributing intention to her, they seek the origin in the environment and the way it shapes behaviour. Georgia had merely found that such behaviour offered her the irresistible reward of annoying and surprising humans.

But why let her off? If a human acted this way, they would be held accountable, so why should an animal that resembles us so closely be considered a passive instrument of stimulus-response contingencies?

We face a choice not just between anthropomorphism and anthropodenial, but between two aspects of that cherished scientific concept: parsimony. Cognitive parsimony tells us not to explain things in terms of higher mental capacities if we can explain them with "lower" ones. Thus you end up favouring a simple explanation, such as a conditioned response, over a more complex one, such as deception.

Evolutionary parsimony, on the other hand, considers shared phylogeny: it argues that if closely related species act the same then the underlying mental processes are probably the same. The alternative would be to assume the evolution of divergent processes that produce similar behaviour - a wildly uneconomic assumption for organisms with only a few million years of separate evolution. If we do not propose different causes for the same behaviour in, say, dogs and wolves, why should we do so for humans and chimpanzees, which are genetically as close, or closer?

In short, we face a dilemma. We are supposed to choose low-level over high-level cognitive explanations, but that means creating a double standard according to which shared human and ape behaviour is explained differently.

Perhaps we need new questions. Should we risk underestimating an animal's mental life? Or should we risk overestimating it? There is a symmetry between anthropomorphism and anthropodenial, and since each has its strengths and weaknesses, there is no simple answer. From an evolutionary perspective, however, it is only fair to ask whether anthropodenial is beginning to look suspect. It seems to me that a complex and familiar inner life is the most parsimonious explanation of Georgia's mischief.

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