A Word In Edgewise: Anthropomorphism: A Two-Way Street

Anthropomorphizing–attributing human characteristics to beings that are not human–hides a darker implication. By dismissing any legitimacy of animal feelings, you label those beings as “non-us,” and justify their exploitation.

This reasoning is applied to other homo sapiens when we deem others–different ethnicities, colors, religions, sexualities–as not really human, open to use and abuse. In 1787, the Three-Fifths Compromise was the degree of humanity allotted slaves when determining a state’s total population for constitutional purposes.

Even we are not exempt. In 1991, David Chamberlain’s paper, “Babies Don’t Feel Pain: A Century of Denial in Medicine,” asserted that for centuries, “Babies were sub-human, prehuman,” as the 16th-century Luis de Granada said, “a lower animal in human form.” Until 1985, revealed Chamberlain, “the public was unaware infants were routinely operated upon without benefit of pain-killing anesthesia,” and that “babies were typically given a form of curare to paralyze their muscles for surgery, making it impossible for them to lift a finger or make a sound of protest!”

Not surprising, people dismiss the concept of elephants mourning, ravens solving multi-step, tool-using problems, or captive orcas showing distress upon hearing recordings of their family members in the wild.

A growing trend is to assist creatures that have been irreversibly injured, that only recently would have been put down without a second thought. Oscar, a cat maimed by a combine harvester, underwent a three-hour, first-of-a-kind bioengineering operation, an exoprosthesis, mimicking the manner in which deer horns grow from bone. Oscar is now back on his “feet,” walking, running, jumping.

Veterinary expenses are immense, and derided by many, but Oscar’s new procedure may prove to be useful in treating human amputees. The amount of money spent shows how great a value the owner places on his animal, but also, in a society where money is the bottom line, may indicate a growing belief that other creatures have intrinsic value.

The problem with the word “anthropomorphic” is its anthrocentricity, if you will. A dolphin recognizing itself in a mirror is not “acting” like a human, it is behaving like a dolphin. More creatures than we yet admit share feelings and emotions built into their own DNA. For our and Earth’s mutual benefit, we need to realize our shared specialness.

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