posted by Michel on Apr 25

Recently, I read a magnificent book, “The emotional lives of animals” by Marc Bekoff, who is Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, USA and a well respected author of a number of books. The book was given to me by a dear friend and fellow animal lover, who during the course of her studies caused me to think more on the concept of antropomorphism, which literally means “of human form” according to Wikipedia. Traditionally, you would come across this concept in fables (in which animals could speak and dress as people), but more recently it has been used to describe the apparent emotions that animals display. Dr. Jane Goodall, of international chimpansee fame, describes in the Foreword in Marc Bekoff’s book how much trouble she had when stating that a certain chimpansee was showing happiness or was obviously in a sad mood. Until then, the scientific community had been doubtful of the existence of such “human” emotions in animals and were used to describe them in very uncertain terms, e.g. “the horse appeared to behave as if it were experiencing happiness”.

We share so much with our fellow mammals

From ape to man

Anybody that has ever owned a dog or cat, or indeed many other pet-species, will attest to the fact that, contrary to scientific belief, it is blatently obvious that such animals very clearly display their emotional state and, not surprisingly, that we can largely recognise these emotions for what they are. Why? because we, as mammals, have largely the same range of emotions!

As a geologist (I took a number of palaeontology courses), I’m convinced that concepts like antropomorphism are fundamentally wrong: it’s the other way around! Humans, who only entered the evolutionary spectrum some 5 million years ago and primates some 55 million years before that, share a common evolution with our fellow mammal species for gazillions of years. Hence, this leads me to believe that it is virtually impossible for us to be the “inventors” of even the more complex emotions. Rather, we possess a (super?)set of those emotions that were already well developed by our common ancestors. Such emotions developed because they gave the possessor some evolutionary edge over those that didn’t. I dubbed this idea the “genetic-evolutionary theory;-) Therefore, to me it is no surprise at all that animals posess the same emotional spectrum as we do, especially the species “close” to ours. If I think about it, the statistical odds that a species that occurs only very very late in evolution is the sole inventor of some evolutionary advantage is, well, probably zilch I would imagine. Recognising such emotions however appears to be an entirely different matter and that is probably why we have to devote an entire branch of science to work out the differences and similarities across species.

How about some typical “human” emotions or behaviours then, or at least those that many people would consider typical of our own species. You will find that complex emotions and behaviours are not even limited to primates. Altruism is a nice example. Not too long ago a video clip turned up in which a Chilean stray dog tried to rescue its buddy from a busy road after he or she had been hit by a car. You can see that video here. How about “culture” then? Well, National Geographic showed a wildlife series in which a certain group of elefants regularly visited a cave where they apparently were harvesting certain minerals to augment their diet. Strangely enough, other elefant herds in the region had not caught on to this habit and so it is shown that groups of individuals exhibit regional variation in their behaviour, i.e. display culture. Another example of this is a group of Japanese makaque monkeys that frequents hot springs. Apart from the fact that they obviously enjoy the warm water, their nearby neighbours completely ignore the springs. Another striking example: wildlife rangers in South Africa recorded many years ago that a babboon couple abandoned their troup and for days stalked AND killed a lioness that had killed their baby a few days before. How’s that for premeditated revenge!

So to sum up emotions and complex behaviours such as: happiness, anger, jealousy, murder, altruism, kindness, joy, grief, kidnapping, child care, fear, hunger, pain, to name only a few, it’s all been done before! In this respect, I don’t think the human species has contributed much to the emotional landscape. Apart from “religion” perhaps …

One Comment to “Antropomorphism, au contraire!”

  1. Stephen Kho Says:

    Nicely put!

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