GTA animal cognition meeting on anthropomorphism

11 04 2014

Last week Jamie and Walter went to Toronto to a GTA Animal Cognition meeting organised by Kristin Andrews. I couldn’t go, sadly, as there as a departmental faculty meeting at the same time, but the readings were really interesting and the meeting sounded great. Here is Walter and Jamie’s report:

Last week, Jamie and Walter participated in a GTA Animal Cognition journal club about the place of anthropomorphism in science. Anthropomorphism is the unjustified attribution of human properties to non-human animals – think Babar the talking elephant. When trying to explain the behaviour of non-human animals, it is often tempting to project our own human feelings and thoughts onto them. We already do this willy-nilly with respect to other humans, but in the case of non-human animals it is an even more controversial practice. Animal welfare and animal cognition researchers, in particular, can be vulnerable to charges of anthropomorphism.

Kristin Andrews, whose draft manuscript and chapter were being discussed in the meeting – along with a chapter by Eliot Sober – thinks that scientists researching on animal cognition and animal welfare are often too cautious for fear of being labeled anthropomorphic. She argues that null-hypothesis statistical testing is being misused in a way that favours anthropectomy (the opposite of anthropomorphism), because the null hypothesis is almost always taken to be that animals don’t possess a particular cognitive ability or faculty that humans do. The burden of proof then falls on trying to prove that they do possess these capabilities. However, even though differences between humans and other animals are bigger than between adult humans, there are also good reasons – like shared phylogeny and analogous behaviour and neural function – to think that we share at least some mental states and abilities. The participants mostly agreed that, in research design and statistical analysis, researchers shouldn’t be overly concerned about being called anthropomorphic or anthropectic, but instead just ensure that their concepts are rigorously operationalized. Many were adamant that this applies equally to the capabilities of humans as to those that animals may also have – how can we legitimately start to ask if some animals form friendships, for example, if we haven’t even rigorously defined what that means in humans?