Animals and Us   /   Spring 2019   /    Animals and Us

Two Cheers for Anthropomorphism

Could it be possible that without anthropomorphism, we’re liable to miss the animal anyway?

Nathan Goldman

Illustration by Olga Angelloz/Shutterstock, Inc.

When I was young, I spent many hours imagining what it would be like to transform into an animal. This is not a notion I came to on my own; I had the help of Animorphs, a popular children’s book series written by K.A. Applegate. Many who are unfamiliar with the series or even its title would probably recognize the original covers, which showed one of the main characters in the process of becoming an animal. My recollection is that it was the cover of the fifth book in the series (which ran from 1996 to 2001 and spanned fifty-four titles, in addition to a few shorter spinoff series, most of which were ghostwritten) that first caught my eye at the local library. That cover depicted one of the animorphs’s founding members, the wisecracking Marco—it was his speech tags that inspired me to ask my parents, to their chagrin, the meaning of sarcastic—as he took on the form of a silverback gorilla.

My dad read me that fifth book, The Predator, but when we realized we’d found ourselves a bit too in medias res for comfort, we went back to the beginning of the series. In the first book, The Invasion, the central group of teenagers encounters a dying alien who has crash-landed on Earth. The alien—an Andalite—warns them that another alien species, a race of sluglike parasites called Yeerks that enter the brains of other organisms and take control of their minds, is preparing to invade Earth. To help the humans in their fight against the Yeerks, the Andalite grants the teenagers a power cultivated by his species but never before used by any other: the ability to morph into other animals.

Because the main characters’ use of this morphing power is their primary means of resisting the threat the Yeerks pose to life on Earth, the books that follow brim with their transformations and subsequent adventures in a variety of animal forms. The way the books present the experience of the human characters in animal form is, in some ways, surprisingly sophisticated for the medium. The humans maintain their human thoughts and personalities while transformed, as well as a capacity for language—they are able to communicate telepathically by means of “thought speak.” But in animal form, they also come into contact with the animals’ experience of the world around them, which sometimes encroaches on their own desires and even actions. Take, for instance, this scene from the first book, in which one of the animorphs, Jake, has taken the form of a green anole lizard inside his school locker. Jake narrates (forgive the short paragraphs; it’s for kids):

Gigantic drapes as big as the sails of a ship were falling all around me. They were my clothes. In the dim light I could see two monstrous, misshapen things on either side of me. I could just make out the Nike swoosh, and realized they were my shoes. They were the size of houses.

And then the lizard brain kicked in.

Fear! Trapped! Run! Run! Rruunrunrun!

I shot left. A wall! I scampered up, feeling my feet stick to it. Trapped! I jumped back. Another hard surface. Trapped! Runrunrunrun!

I fought to get control, but the lizard brain was panicked. It didn’t know where it was. It wanted out. OUT!

Go toward the light! I ordered my new body. The ventilation slits. That was the way out.

But the body was afraid of the light. It was terrified.

I was still bouncing off the walls. I could not overcome the panic instincts of the lizard body.

Go to the light! I screamed inside my head. And suddenly I was there.11xK.A. Applegate, Animorphs: The Invasion (New York, NY: Scholastic, 1996), 114.

As the human body becomes the animal’s, the human’s mind comes into contact with the animal’s, and often, as here, a struggle for control ensues. The books consistently acknowledge that every animal’s experience of the world has a distinct form and that to take on the body of an animal is also to take on the shape of an alien experience.

There was, and remains, something fascinating about the premise of these books, and there’s a reason why their covers are iconic, recognizable even to many who never cracked the spines. On one side stands a human teenager (well, usually); on the other side, an animal—a wolf spider, a peregrine falcon, a housefly, a giant squid. Between these two stable shapes, a sequence of stages occurs as human gives way to animal. If you open one of the books, you’ll find, on the bottom right corner of the first page, a miniature black-and-white reproduction of the human from the cover. Flipping through the pages is like working a tiny flip book that yields a reimagination of the transformation depicted on the cover, now stretched across more than a hundred intermediary stages and given the magic of motion. I would watch these little movies over and over.


Anthropomorphism and Its Discontents

Although my immersion in the Animorphs series is now behind me, the books’ traces remain in the way I look at animals. Back then, members of my family or I would often joke that our cat was perhaps an animorph in disguise, or even a nothlit—in the books, someone who stays in a morph past the allotted two-hour limit and becomes stuck in that form. Today, my wife (who did not read the books) makes the same joke about our dog, Micah, especially when Micah exhibits behavior that we interpret as seemingly human. (She exhibits such behavior often.)

But this perspective, the humanizing of the animal, extends beyond jokes about a book series I once loved. About Micah, I often find myself saying to my wife (or she to me), “Her eyes look so human.” I think what we mean to say is that in those moments we’re witnessing the fact of her sentience shining forth. It’s not really that her eyes look human, but that they look doggish—after all, she is a dog, and her thinking, experiencing aliveness to the world is not human at all.

My wife and I are far from alone in this particular mode of meaningful mispeaking about an animal we love. This conflation of animal sentience with humanness is one variety of anthropomorphism—the ascription of humanlike traits to nonhuman animals. Our language about and behavior toward animals are rife with anthropomorphism, which many thinkers have, in one way or another, persuasively argued inhibits our access to the reality of animal experience. That’s a problem for anyone interested in appreciating the features of the nonhuman animal life that surrounds us, which is no less rich or complex for its dissimilarities to our own ways of being.

In his 1974 paper “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?,” now a classic of philosophy of mind, Thomas Nagel engages that very question as a means of arguing that the phenomenon of consciousness is irreducible to the physical explanations provided by those he terms “reductionists.” Considering improper solutions to the mind-body problem that hinge on a misunderstanding of or an unwillingness to confront consciousness, Nagel writes:

Every reductionist has his favorite analogy from modern science. It is most unlikely that any of these unrelated examples of successful reduction will shed light on the relation of mind to brain. But philosophers share the general human weakness for explanations of what is incomprehensible in terms suited for what is familiar and well understood, though entirely different.22xThomas Nagel, Mortal Questions (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 166. First published 1974.

Whereas those Nagel criticizes attempt to sketch out the terms under which the mind-body problem might be understood—for instance, by analogizing the poorly understood relationship between the brain and the mind to a better-understood relationship, such as the one between water and molecules of hydrogen and oxygen—Nagel is concerned with charting the depths of the mystery, the possible unknowability. He does this by turning to the phenomenon of consciousness as the conscious being experiences it. But, as the paper’s plainspoken title suggests, it’s not human consciousness that concerns him.

Nagel postulates that bats have “conscious mental states,” which means that “there is something that it is like to be that organism—something it is like for that organism.”33xIbid. Because we humans, too, have conscious mental states—because there is something that it is like to be human—we can, to some degree, speculate what it is like to be other organisms. But to what degree? Nagel writes that:

Our own experience provides the basic material for our imagination, whose range is therefore limited. It will not help to try to imagine that one has webbing on one’s arms, which enables one to fly around at dusk and dawn catching insects in one’s mouth; that one has very poor vision, and perceives the surrounding world by a system of reflected high-frequency sound signals; and that one spends the day hanging upside down by one’s feet in an attic. In so far as I can imagine this (which is not very far), it tells me only what it would be like for me to behave as a bat behaves. But that is not the question. I want to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat.44xThomas Nagel, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?,” The Philosophical Review, Vol. 83, No. 4 (Oct., 1974): 439, Accessed January 22, 2019.

Nagel is skeptical of the utility of anthropomorphism as a way of saying anything about nonhuman experience. He doesn’t frame his position in these terms, but that’s because the question of anthropomorphism as such doesn’t interest him, at least in this paper; for him, it’s a way of getting to a point about the intractability of physical explanations of consciousness.

Nagel even anticipates the premise of Animorphs, in a wry aside meant to emphasize, through hyperbole, how hopeless he finds the prospect of the human mind coming to understand the bat mind, even if the human mind could be brought right up the very edge of the border between the two. “Even if I could by gradual degrees be transformed into a bat,” he writes, “nothing in my present constitution enables me to imagine what the experiences of such a future stage of myself thus metamorphosed would be like. The best evidence would come from the experiences of bats, if we only knew what they were like.”55xIbid., 169. Nagel understandably fails to consider the possibility of the human mind maintaining its own integrity within the bat mind, able to report its experience in human language through thought speak, as occurs in the world of Animorphs. (In his defense, even this is not the same thing as understanding the experience of being a bat.)

Nagel does not go so far as to say that there is nothing we mere humans can say about the experience of a bat, which we can, he allows, to some extent analogize to our own. He writes that

we may ascribe general types of experience on the basis of the animal’s structure and behavior. Thus we describe bat sonar as a form of three-dimensional forward perception; we believe that bats feel some versions of pain, fear, hunger, and lust, and that they have other, more familiar types of perception besides sonar. But we believe that these experiences also have in each case a specific subjective character, which it is beyond our ability to conceive.66xIbid.

But really, this doesn’t get us any farther than me, as a human, imagining myself into the position of the bat, accounting as best I can for what I know about our physiological differences, and adding to that whole picture a big asterisk and question mark.

While Nagel’s paper questions the viability of anthropomorphism from the perspective of the unknowable occurrences within the frame of the animal’s own experience, decades earlier the biologist Jakob von Uexküll questioned it from the vantage point of the animal’s reciprocal relationship with its environment. In A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans, published in 1933, Uexküll proposes—as the title suggests—that we humans do not, properly speaking, share a world with animals. Rather, each species of animal inhabits its own world. In the foreword, he explains the basics of his theory with a simple, evocative illustration, imagining a walk through some environment:

We begin such a stroll on a sunny day before a flowering meadow in which insects buzz and butterflies flutter, and we make a bubble around each of the animals living in the meadow. The bubble represents each animal’s environment and contains all the features accessible to the subject. As soon as we enter into one such bubble, the previous surroundings of the subject are completely reconfigured. Many qualities of the colorful meadow vanish completely, others lose their coherence with one another, and new connections are created. A new world arises in each bubble.77x7 Jakob von Uexküll, A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans, trans. Joseph D. O’Neil (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), 43. First published 1933.

This can be understood as another way of saying what Nagel does about the bat, only from the perspective of the world as it appears to the bat rather than that of the bat itself. But Uexküll does not take the skepticism about the intelligibility of the nonhuman animal’s experience to Nagel’s extreme; after all, unlike Nagel, he was a biologist interested in using animal behavior and physiology to understand that experience to whatever extent is possible.

At one point, Uexküll cautions explicitly against anthropomorphism, even as it has arisen in his own way of speaking, despite his scrupulous attempts to evade it. He scrutinizes the assumption that animals other than humans proceed according to goals: “Since we human beings,” he writes, “are accustomed to dragging our existences wearily from one goal to another, we are convinced that animals live in the same way. That is a fundamental mistake that has led research to this point down the wrong path.” Turning the criticism back on himself, he refers to his discussion, earlier in his book, of ticks: “In describing the life of the tick, we already spoke of how they lie in wait for their prey. With this expression, we smuggled our workaday human concerns, even without meaning to, into the life of the tick.”88xIbid., 86. However scrupulous one is in the attempt to attend to the animal’s experience in itself, based on a rigorous survey of the conditions that give rise to it and the behaviors that arise from it, this possibility of anthropomorphism always, inevitably, lurks near, portending error and foreclosing possibilities of understanding.


An Apology for Anthropomorphism

On the other hand, anthropomorphizing language might itself be a way of bringing us closer to the animal. In philosopher Donna Haraway’s book The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness, she takes up this matter in a discussion of philosopher and dog trainer Vicki Hearne’s book Adam’s Task. Considering Hearne’s position on the language humans use during dog training, Haraway writes:

Hearne likes trainers’ using ordinary language in their work; that use turns out to be important to understanding what the dogs might be telling her, but not because the dogs are speaking furry humanese. She adamantly defends lots of so-called anthropomorphism, and no one more eloquently makes the case for the intention-laden, consciousness-ascribing linguistic practices of circus trainers, equestrians, and dog obedience enthusiasts. All that philosophically suspect language is necessary to keep the human alert to the fact that somebody is at home in the animals they work with.99xDonna J. Haraway, Manifestly Haraway (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 140–41.

Anthropomorphism, we fear, makes it likely that, by seeing in the animal only a version of our own image, we’ll miss all that is truly animal. But could it be possible that without anthropomorphism, we’re liable to miss the animal anyway?

After all, there is a long history of people, many highly intelligent (René Descartes, for instance), seeing in animals much less than is clearly there in the way of perception, cognition, and experience. Despite the fact that humans, for our entire history as a species, have coexisted with other animals, we lack, to a degree that should make us all feel at least a bit embarrassed on  behalf of our species, ways of representing possible forms of experience outside of our own. A flat-out abdication of anthropomorphizing risks impoverishing one’s vocabulary for considering animal experience in any depth—even, perhaps, at all. And historically speaking, between the two dangers of, on the one hand, overlikening animal experience to our own and, on the other, underlikening it to the point of denying its complexity or even its existence, we humans have been far more susceptible to erring in the latter direction. So what’s wrong with a little loose talk in the name of easing ourselves into a practice of thinking more readily of animals as actual others, rather than as objects?

Accepting such a defense of anthropomorphism wholesale requires relinquishing the hope of a genuine understanding of the animal in itself. Perhaps relinquishing such hope, or at least indefinitely deferring it, is not such a bad idea. It’s surely quixotic to expect an understanding of the animal that is utterly untainted by the human; it would be quixotic even to expect such an understanding of a rock. Moreover, freeing ourselves from the fear of the errors of anthropomorphism might actually help us to err less in our accounts of the animal. In a footnote in her later book When Species Meet, Haraway proposes that “careful practice of therio-anthropo-morphisms can lead to much sounder scientific investigation than belief that some idioms are free of figuration and others are polluted with culture.”1010xDonna J. Haraway, When Species Meet (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 375–76. “Theriomorphism” is the inverse of “anthropomorphism,” the likening of the human to the animal. So Haraway’s neologism—“therio-anthropo-morphism”—suggests a reciprocal slippage between the human and animal even in the practice of so-called anthropomorphism. That is, we might learn more about what it is like to be a bat if we don’t inhibit our inquiry from the start by worrying too much about whether we’re speaking about what it’s like to be a bat or what it’s like for a human to imagine being a bat.


Meeting between Forms

To encounter animals as they encounter themselves is impossible. To encounter animals as they present themselves to us as other than us might be difficult, but it’s not impossible.

Apart from the anthropomorphism-haunted spheres of speaking, thinking, and imagining about animals, there’s another way that we relate to them: the human-animal interaction. Haraway, for instance, moves from the abstraction of the animal to the specificity of this animal by considering in concrete terms her relationship with her Australian shepherd, Cayenne Pepper, with whom she plays the human-canine sport of agility. In When Species Meet, Haraway writes about the way this activity allows for a mutual joy:

I ask how Cayenne can possibly know the difference between a good run and a mediocre one, such that her entire bodily being glows as if in the phosphorescent ocean after we have flown well together? She prances; she shines from inside out; by contagion, she causes joy all around her. So do other dogs, other teams, when they flame into being on a “good run.” Cayenne is pleased enough with a mediocre run. She has a good time; after all, she still gets string cheese and lots of affirming attention. Mediocre runs or not, I have a good time too. I’ve made valued human friends in agility; I get to admire a great motley of dogs; and the days are uncluttered and pleasant. But Cayenne and I both know the difference when we have tasted the open. We both know the tear in the fabric of our joined becoming when we rip apart into merely functional time and separate movement after the joy of inventive isopraxis. The taste of “becoming with” in play lures its apprentice stoics of both species back into the open of a vivid sensory present. That’s why we do it. That’s the answer to my question, Who are you, and so who are we?1111xIbid., 242.

Haraway’s description here is by no means free of anthropomorphism. After she treats Cayenne in ways that are “incoherent and hurtful instead of inviting and responsive,” she experiences “forgiveness” from Cayenne; she also speaks of Cayenne’s “invitations, preferences,” and “alarms.”1212xIbid. Haraway then admits, in a move that echoes her interpretation of Hearne’s defense of anthropomorphism, “I know perfectly well that I am ‘anthropomorphizing’ (as well as theriomorphizing) in this way of saying things, but not to say them in this manner seems worse, in the sense of being both inaccurate and impolite.”1313xIbid. But even if it’s not possible to describe this mutual knowing and joy without anthropomorphism, it might well be possible to experience it without that overstepping.

The togetherness that infuses the sport of agility with joy, Haraway emphasizes, is one important element; but also at play is the fundamental human-dog difference, which interests her just as much and is, for her, the basis of the relationship. Speaking of herself and Cayenne, Haraway writes, “We are, constitutively, companion species. We make each other up, in the flesh. Significantly other to each other, in specific difference, we signify in the flesh a nasty developmental infection called love.”1414xHaraway, Manifestly Haraway, 94–95.

In general, such encounters, though not anthropomorphizing, are for us anthropocentric: I swat away a fly that I perceive as a distraction from a task. And the human-dog relationship is a special case; dogs and humans coevolved, and our two species share a unique bond that can’t be compared to relations between members of other species. Yet there remains the possibility of some form of coexperience, even if it lacks the exuberant mutuality of human-dog play, between humans and members of other species. Even Nagel, for all his skepticism, concedes this: “Even without the benefit of philosophical reflection, anyone who has spent some time in an enclosed space with an excited bat knows what it is to encounter a fundamentally alien form of life.”1515xNagel, Mortal Questions, 168.

In the Animorphs books, it is a key point that before the animorphs can transform into a particular animal, they must share an encounter with the animal—specifically, they must touch it in order, as the dying alien explains as he bequeaths his power, “to acquire its DNA pattern.”1616xApplegate, Animorphs: The Invasion, 22. As a result, this human-animal encounter becomes a ritual precursor to the act of assuming the animal’s form. As human skin touches scales or fur, or skin of a very different kind from the human’s, this moment of contact emphasizes the difference between the beings even as it gestures toward and prepares for its overcoming. And it is, too, an acknowledgment that, though species might dwell in separate spheres, we also dwell alongside one another. Our worlds, though irreconcilable, intersect. When I pet or play with my dog, I know, of course, that no difference is being overcome in such a literal way. I will not absorb her genetic material into my own; I will not take on her form and see the world as she sees it. But I do feel a closeness with her that, in the best moments, still buzzes with the mystery of all that insurmountably separates us.