CONCEPTS IN BIOLOGY

PART IV. EVOLUTION AND ECOLOGY

 

18. Evolutionary and Ecological Aspects of Behavior

 

18.2. The Problem of Anthropomorphism

 

Anthropomorphism is the idea that we can assign human feelings, meanings, and emotions to the behavior of animals (figure 18.2). Poets, composers, and writers have often described birdsong as the act of a “joyful songster,” but is a bird singing on a warm, sunny spring day making a beautiful sound because it is happy? Students of animal behavior do not accept this idea and have demonstrated that a bird sings primarily to attract mates and to tell other birds to keep out of its territory. The barbed stinger of a honeybee remains in your skin after you are stung, and the bee tears the stinger out of its body when it flies away. The damage to its body is so great that it dies. Has the bee performed a noble deed of heroism and self-sacrifice? Was it defending its hive from you? Scientists need to know a great deal more about the behavior of bees to understand the value of such behavior to the success of the bee species. The fact that bees are social animals, like humans, makes it tempting to think that they are doing things for the same reasons we are.

 

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FIGURE 18.2. Anthropomorphism

It is tempting to think that both the girl and the dog are having the same experience. However, that would be anthropomorphic thinking. We really don’t know what the dog is experiencing. We can’t ask the dog what it is thinking.

 

If you chase a squirrel in a park it will run up a tree and chatter at you. This is often referred to as scolding; however, this is a human interpretation based on what we might do if someone disturbed us. We might yell at the other person to go away and leave us alone. However, several other possible interpretations are equally reasonable. Perhaps the purpose of the squirrel’s noise-making is directed at driving you away. Or perhaps its vocalizations warn other squirrels of the presence of a predator. Or perhaps it is simply a nervous reaction to being disturbed. We cannot crawl inside the brain of another animal and see what it is thinking.

In order to evaluate behavior objectively, we need to avoid anthropomorphic assumptions. A scientific study of this scolding behavior would attempt to determine what triggers the behavior, rather than jump to a conclusion that it must be for the same reasons we humans do things. Furthermore, a scientific study of this behavior would seek to determine the effect of the behavior. A scientific study of an organism’s behavior looks at the behavior of an animal during its lifetime and seeks to determine the behavior’s value to the animal and how that behavior may have evolved. This scientific way of thinking requires the testing of hypotheses; an anthropomorphic approach does not.

 

18.2. CONCEPT REVIEW

3. Why do students of animal behavior reject the idea that a singing bird is happy?

4. Define anthropomorphism.