I’m not sure why, but I have always liked this word! It originally meant giving a human form to something inanimate, such as showing a cloud shaped as a human face blowing wind from its mouth or giving a deity like Zeus a human body. When I first heard it, anthropomorphism pertained more to giving human traits and/or characteristics to animals. This could either be literal, such as Mickey Mouse and other cartoon animals acting as humans or regarding something a pet does as being “just like a human.”
I am in my early sixties, so I grew up on Saturday morning cartoon (imagine having just two station until ABC and PBS came on and, as far as I was concerned as a child, PBS didn’t count as Sesame Street was a couple of decades away), ahh, Wiley Coyote, Bugs, and all the Warner Brothers’ characters. I confess I am also somewhat a snob and think they and their contemporaries as being much superior artistically and having much greater personalities than most cartoons that followed until the first Pixar movie!
Notwithstanding my nostalgia for Disney and Warner Bros., I’m not really a fan of talking animal cartoons any longer. I can appreciate the quality and the story of newer animated films like Ice Age and Rio, however they grate mainly because they present animals not being true to their nature. I recently read about a fellow that was just livid at the portrayal of the geese in Charlotte’s Web, stating that real geese are not sociable and, he maintains, they would never have befriend Wilber; I didn’t quite understand his focus on the geese and never mentioned a talking spider, pig, etc.! I do not think I am that anal, but I have moved away from pigeonholing animals into anthropomorphic roles. That said, I loved all the Toy Story and Monster’s Inc. films, but I digress.
Before continuing, let me also mention that while I like animals and pets, I just do not want to be their primary care giver; unlike some girls and ladies I know, the two best days of my horse ownership were the day I purchased Winrock and the day I sold him! I thoroughly enjoyed my ex’s and daughter’s cats and now have two wonderful male Labradoodles courtesy of my wife’s love of dogs, but if I were on my own, I would not have a pet.
This brings me to the crux of this blog, the interesting juxtaposition of anthropomorphic verses real emotions in animals. Watching our two dogs, half brothers, mature through my somatic psychology “eyes,” I have seen first hand many traits that are supposedly only human while, at the same time, absolutely keeping in mind their canine traits and behaviors to maintain order.
I have seen attachment mannerisms in both, outright scheming and trickery, and emotions from jealousy to love, however one defines that term. I have watched the older dog, jealous of the bone the other has, deliberately jump up and run barking to the door. Naturally, the other jumps up and heads to the door, only to have the older dog circle back and grab the bone! One of the first self-help books I read was The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck and I remember he did not think animals could love; observing our two dogs, I can categorically state that is not true. My wife and I do not treat them as our “fur children,” they are our animal companions. Because they are not human, whatever they and we experience as love between us is different from human love, but I would argue it is still love.
On the other hand, our dogs are trained and well behaved not only to insure they do not mug guests (they are 90 pounds each!), but also because if we do not lead, one of them will try to become the alpha in the house. This is simply in a dog’s nature. A psychologist once told me when my daughter was growing up that smart children will constantly test their parents and, being intelligent , our dogs are like human children and test us in their dog ways. We have forgotten to mimic an alpha dog every now and then, like clockwork, the youngest will begin to get aggressive to both us and to the other dog in order to fill the perceived vacuum. While acting consistently within their dog nature, they test our resolve like human children might and, again like children, our dogs are definitely less stressed when they have clear, consistent rules to follow.
Even though we have to respect their animal nature, that does not mean animals cannot feel the same emotions we humans do, after all, they are mammals and we share the same mammalian brain as they do. While their brains are enhanced in some areas, such as processing smells, and less in others, like their prefrontal cortical functioning, we still share many traits. There is a neuroscientist, Jaak Panksepp, who is also a psychologist, a psychobiologist, and an animal behaviorist that has done many studies on evolutionary emotions and has a wonderful documentary, Why Dogs Smile and Chimpanzees Cry. His studies, much to the chagrin of his fellow psychologists, show that all mammals share the same feelings.
There is a wonderful YouTube video (Which guilty dog did this mess?) showing three small dogs at the top of the stairs when their owner finds a mess and calls out loudly “Which one of you did this mess?” Two of the dogs simultaneously turn to look at the third! Then, as the owner calls out their names, the guilty dog begins to back away to hide! Guilt, shame, remorse, or fear of getting in trouble, like their love, might not be exactly as humans experience those emotions, but the third dog definitely had them.
Not too many years ago, the brain was considered to be fully formed and inflexible when we entered adulthood. Now we know that the opposite is true; the brain is very plastic and continues to learn and change until we die. Similarly, what used to be considered anthropomorphism, might simply have been our observing emotions we didn’t think existed in animals!