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Anthropomorphism debunked – or are we really guilty of human special pleading?

Cat senseI confess to a strong desire to stand scientists on their heads when I read any animal Mans-best-friends-best-fr-007studies which look at those of us with a tendency to ascribe ‘human’ motivations, feelings and even thoughts to ‘dumb animals’, as being guilty of anthropomorphism.

Particularly in relationship to ‘dumb animals’ we may choose to share our lives with. In common parlance, pets.

John Bradshaw is a British biologist, probably its fair to say that he is really (whispers) a dog-lover, but clearly does like cats. QUITE a lot

I remember, years ago, reading an earlier book which Bradshaw wrote on the subject of woman’s best friend, and thinking, hmm, doggy person, distinctly doggy. There was a little too much stressing the superior qualities of the canine versus the not quite so intelligent, personable qualities of the feline.

I cannot deny my own reverse prejudices. I like dogs rather a lot, but my heart belongs to tabby.

But it isn’t this which makes me wish to invert Mr Bradshaw and his fairly interesting (though a little dryly written – a bit four square and lacking in cattish whimsicality and quirkiness for my tastes) tome.

It is the assumption that those of us who ascribe the prevalence of complex emotions to non human, or at least non-primate, species, are guilty of anthropomorphising animals.

There is another way of looking at all this – and it comes, not just from those who have strong connections with our companion animals, or other animals, but from OTHER scientists, who study animals with less of a sense of the uniqueness of the human animal, and more of a sense of a continuum of evolution which means that our very complex ‘humanity’ may be seen as a developing continuum across other species. 

Anyone who is interested in this approach may well find that the observations and studies cited in books by Jonathan Balcombe an absorbing, convincing and educative read

But one doesn’t have even to go along with this to think that some of the studies Bradshaw cites, ‘debunking’ animal ‘owners’ beliefs, may themselves miss the point.

One particular study involved disproving the fact that dogs could feel guilt, by setting up a double blind experiment whereby owners believe their dogs have been guilty of a misdemeanour (food theft) when in fact only SOME of the dogs have been, and comparing which owners recognise the guilt of their dog by the ‘expression’ on the dogs face, on coming back into the room (the owners are told their dog has ‘offended’, though not all dogs HAVE). The owners (including those with with innocent dogs) report guilty looks from the dogs.

Two ideas hit me – dogs (and cats, as Bradshaw acknowledges) have the skills to ‘read’ their humans – it is an evolutionary advantage to be able to be able to second guess and interpret what another animal is about to do. Given a dog WILL read its owner it is not a far jump to assume an owner projecting ‘bad dog’ posture, and facial expression WILL result in the ‘interpreting your-human’ sensitive dog in itself projecting ‘Whoops I have been a BAD DOG’ – as the animal will have picked up ‘bad dog’ from the owner and so is likely to reflect their bad guilty dogness back

Guilty Puppy white background

The other thought is that PEOPLE readily ASSUME guilt, feel guilt, and even project clearly ‘I am guilty’ when they are no such thing.  One only has to think about situations where wrongdoing is being checked for – think about the airport scan experience,  or even, what most of us may feel on passing a policeman on patrol, even though we are squeaky innocent as the driven snow. MOST people, even though they know they have no contraband etc and are not breaking the law,  will feel a prickle of imaginative anxiety and guilt and begin to LOOK a little shifty

I’m not saying the dogs were going through that process (though of course such a complex cascade cannot have sprung into being fully formed in homo sapiens with having some sort of ‘proto development at an earlier stage) But the projection/imagining ‘my dog is guilty’ to dog LOOKING guilty does not mean it is purely an owner’s imagination that the dog expresses a certain look.

Whilst I appreciate there may be a fairly narrow window of opportunity, within a kitten’s life, for socialisation with humans to happen, so that a very young kitten (we are talking around the second month), needs to be used to humans, and being handled by humans (kindly) for it to be receptive and desirous of human touch, this surely is not so different from the experience of a baby. Where Bradshaw (I think) is talking about genetic ancestry from the wild, versus the imprint of early experience and environmental modification, he does I feel rather look at cat response as different in kind from human response. Whereas, much work on the development of small babies also shows the profound importance of habituation to good touch. Brains have plasticity, both the brains of Homo sapiens and the brains of Felis catus.

Ashley Montagu in his profoundly informative book Touching, though it is subtitled Human Significence of the Skin is very much about a common mammalian inheritance. Montagu shows that young babies, young primates, young puppies, kittens and indeed the poor old lab rat, may not be that different from each other, and that the plasticity of the early brain is profoundly important (for good or ill)

So….interesting though Bradshaw’s book may be, it also frustrated me somewhat, as it was coming from a place of difference between humans and other animals. A difference which some animal behaviourists, like the aforementioned Balcombe, indicate may be much narrower than we think

Bradshaw did not really tell me much I didn’t already know, except in the closing chapters of the book where he looks at the FUTURE of the domestic cat, as influenced by the fact that most responsible owners who share their lives with ‘moggies’ are likely to have had them neutered. This means that outside pedigree breeding (which has its own potential problems as visual desirability makes breeders choose mates for their queens, rather than cat choice selecting for health) there is a greater tendency for un-neutered domestic queens to be breeding with feral toms. This is more likely to result in the resulting kittens to have a wilder, less ‘socialised domestic’ temperament than the mating of 2 moggy domestics. This of course assumes that some of the suitability for domestication in our cats will be of genetic base and not just environmental. There is interesting genetic evidence in terms of a long history of genetic mingling between small wild cats Felis lybica, Felis sylvestris and our domesticated catus.

Cross tabbyFinally, I have no wish to leave Mr Bradshaw standing on Mans-best-friends-best-fr-007his head, though I have no idea what this less than pleased looking tabby feels about that.

My own felines do not appear within this post. They are extremely private individuals and request that the paparazzi leave them alone, at this challenging time.As this book was an ARC from the publishers via Netgalley, and it not yet appearing on the Amazon’s for prepublication ordering, links will have to wait

I did enjoy reading this book, though I was often in disputatious mode, snorting crossly at the elevation of homo sapiens and man’s best friend

Having shared my life with various cats (and dogs) over many years, most of which have been rescue animals, and none of which have been pedigree, I have only ever had one cat which was more attached to place than person and did not intensely form a relationship with me. And it does not surprise me that this was my very first cat, when I was in some ways too young to understand MYSELF never mind how best to respond to the complexities of the needs of other beings in my world, whether human or cat.