Curious as a Cat?

Isn’t it amazing how the simple addition of a caption can connect what some would consider uniquely human emotions to an animal?

Anthropomorphising animals, or in other words, imparting human characteristics on an animal, is common place and an everyday occurrence in most cultures. We’re all guilty of it, pigs are often considered slobs, cats are private and a little bit pompous, while dogs are friendly and impulsive (not that I’m taking sides). Comparing and blending the qualities of animals and people has proven crucial in conveying the morals of many fairy-tales and even some religions. However, in zoology, and science more widely, personifying animals is deemed a big no no.

It is exceedingly difficult to know what an animal is thinking without any form of mutual language. Therefore as scientists who place our faith in evidence we cannot assume the thoughts or personalities of the species we may study. As a zoologist (albeit a newly inducted one) who studies mating behaviour in fairy-wrens, the most promiscuous birds in the world, I often find this difficult. I have a tendency to relate the social relationships of the charismatic species’ to those of humans, and am constantly censuring myself when collaborating with other scientists. However with an increasing volume of literature which explores personality and intelligence in animals, the line between animal and human is forever being weakened.

I’m writing this blog contribution in the hope of starting a revolution. Why can’t we anthropomorphise animals in science? By ascribing the poor birdy above feelings of gloom, the image (hopefully) conjures a visceral emotion in you, either sadness if you’re the empathetic kind or amusement if you’ve got a dark sense of humour like me. Either way the personification of animals can be a very powerful tool which connects mankind to the other creatures we share the Earth with.

By destroying the distinction of us and them perhaps the wider community (those who are not already animal lovers) will have a greater respect for the nature that surrounds us. Anyway, if zoological research is lucky enough to make it to the media more often than not it is given some kind of human twist. This only makes sense, humans are a selfish bunch who want to read about science that relates to them. Anthropomorphism is one means in which to make this certain.

6 Responses to “Curious as a Cat?”

  1. Glen Bain says:

    Thanks heaps for letting me know that Natasha, makes me very happy 🙂 Unfortunately I never bought tickets because I was expecting to be at a conference overseas which ended up falling through, devastated! I do agree on your ‘thinking’ point, there are some risks involved.

  2. Natasha says:

    You’ll be glad to know that Sir David Attenborough agrees with you, Glen! I don’t know if you saw it, but in his Melbourne show on Saturday night, someone asked him what his opinion was on anthropomorphism and he was quite for it! He sort of said it is impossible not to, and in fact, we do know that animals feel certain emotions like fear and anger, so why not others? Of course, trying to state that an animal is THINKING about a certain thing, an abstract concept or past or future event gets into dangerous territory, but he implied that anthropomorphism is what draws and connects us to the natural world, which we are still a part of, even though we seem to try very hard not to be!

  3. Glen Bain says:

    Haha, look forward to that day.

  4. Ginger says:

    I’m also studying zoology but I can never stop anthropomorphising animals. I guess it is just part of life, people like to familiarise and stereotype things. For example spiders, snakes and other reptiles are often portrayed as evil and dangerous animals but are they really!? I think people need to learn and respect the natural behaviour of animals instead of being influenced by the media or being scared just because they are not cute and fluffy.

    Maybe one day, Dr Dolittle will help us to understand and communicate with animals!

  5. Glen Bain says:

    Thanks Tariq, I’m glad it made you think :)Perhaps one day we will be able to communicate articulately with animals. Just look at how far we’ve progressed with apes, dolphins, and whales. Of course we have to learn to communicate science with other people first!

  6. Tariq says:

    A wonderful thought Glen.I’ve often wondered, that we as human beings have been given the power of speech which helps us to be articulate and more importantly helps communicate what exactly we feel at all times. Should there then be a distinction between us humans and the animals, simply because we were born human or as you so fantastically put it,”Why can’t we anthropomorphise animals in science?” Thought provoking to say the least.