Anthropomorphism: why does man seek to humanize animals?

What is anthropomorphism?

“I use animals to teach people. » This is how Jean de La Fontaine introduced his fables at the end of the 17th century. His stories, which feature animals with human characteristics and each end with a moral, are inspired by the fables of Aesop, a Greek writer who lived between the 7th and 6th centuries BC. AD.

Lending human forms and capacities to other living beings is therefore something very old, found in literature, in painting, in medieval illuminations, in Gothic or Romanesque sculpture. This is called “anthropomorphism.” The term comes from ancient Greek anthropos (human being) and morphḗ (for me).

Anthropomorphism can convey an underlying value judgment. In the Middle Ages, the animal is used to give lessons, to show what is good, sin. “In Christian Europe, there is the idea that these animals are creatures of God, and God provides them with a message. They are missionaries to men, they are there to teach religion because they compose themselves as God would have them or as Satan makes them behave. There are evil animals and beneficial animals,” We learn from animal history specialist Eric Baratay.

Until the beginning of the 20th century, the population was mainly rural and illiterate, so taking the example of the animal was normal, natural. For a long time man looks at what other animals are doing.

When animals serve as examples

Thus, the animal sets the example, to follow or not to follow. In L’Introduction to the Devout Life (1609) by François de Sales, a 17th century bestseller, there is an animal example on every page. In his fables, Jean de La Fontaine addresses men and speaks to them about themselves by using animals. But anthropomorphism is not only useful for men and can sometimes be useful for the animal cause. “The Countess of Ségur, when she makes a donkey named Cadichon speak in Memoirs of a Donkey (1860), took the opportunity to make people of the time aware of the fact that donkeys had special lives”we learn Eric Baratay.

The animal, as a point of reference, has long been a means of providing answers to human questions. The fact that they are composed instinctively encourages us to follow them. “Today, it’s a phenomenon that we find in cartoons and comics, but which we understand less because men live in cities and have little contact with animals, apart from their pets. »analyzes Eric Baratay.

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The man at the head of a pyramid scheme

Since Antiquity, man has thought of the world around him in a pyramid scheme inspired by the philosophical conceptions of Plato and Aristotle. There is the man above, the animals below and the plants still a skull below.

From the 1920s, scientists rose up against the school of Darwin. This established an extremely reductive philosophy concerning the animal. Animals were then perceived as biological machines, mechanical models. This vision of things did not correspond to reality because it denied them too many abilities, explains Eric Baratay.

This vision has been completely abandoned for 30 years. The view of the animal world becomes more and more rich and generous. The human/animal relationship is no longer fixed as it once was and the discoveries are multiplying.

Do not confuse “projection” and “questioning” anthropomorphism

In 2000, the American ethologist Stanley Coren published a book entitled How to speak dog? Influenced by Lassie, faithful dog, he studies the communication skills in dogs. Isn’t this demonstrating anthropomorphism? Eric Baratay analyzes Coren’s attitude: “He picked the right one. He’s asking himself questions. Don’t dogs have more abilities than we want to say? In his book, he does not do anthropomorphism strictly speaking. In any case, no “anthropomorphism of projection”, which is useless, but “anthropomorphism of questioning” which brings curiosity and questions. It is, for example, to say to oneself “Man has an intelligence. Are there forms of intelligence in other animals, in their own way? »

The answer is yes. Eric Baratay tells us that a Hungarian experiment made a lot of noise in the field of ethology. Dogs have been dressed for MRIs. Once inside the machine, the scientists interacted with them to see how their brains reacted. And it turns out that the dog brain works analogously to the human brain. The dog, able to identify old smells, current smells and new smells lives in the past, the present and the future. Choose what we ourselves do not know how to do.

“You have to imagine the living as a bush”

Until now, it was difficult to admit that animals had abilities because it called into question our superiority. “It is in this same logic that we inferiorized the humans we wanted to colonize” recalls Eric Baratay. The historian came across a Brussels newspaper from 1949 which said at the time that blacks only saw three colors. At the same time, animals were said to see in black and white. This is part of the speech, very fleshed out, of this pyramid scheme.

Instead of a pyramid, we should imagine the living as a bush. From the last common ancestor, all species are like the stems of a bush. The man is on his stalk, the horse, the dog, etc… each his branch. To recognize the capacities of animals is to recognize their richness, their originality. It does not put them on an equal footing with man, still less above man.

Associated human reactions to animals

Be careful not to mimic our emotions and our human reactions to animals… or risk involuntarily harming them. Everyone has their own codes for expressing their joy, their anxieties or their dissatisfaction. Respecting an animal and avoiding falling into projection anthropomorphism also means taking a step back when it comes to assigning our human characteristics to animals.

The video of a loris raising its paws upwards in response to tickling had, for example, provoked many amused reactions from Internet users. This type of reaction, however, hides suffering: the loris raises its arms in order to secrete venom using a gland located under its armpits.

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