Week 9: Besides Anthropomorphism

Rachel Mayeri’s Primate Cinema: Baboons as Friends and Primate Cinema: Baboons as Family both featured the reenactment of Baboons’ interaction by human actors. They emphasized on the similarities between the communication of baboons and the one of human to provide the audiences a more familiar way to understand baboons. It’s interesting to see how many achievements in studying other species we have already attained by mapping the our logic and behaviors onto them. Yet, it triggered me wonder why human always had to anthropomorphize other species in order to understand them? Or, in other words, is anthropomorphism necessarily the best way of studying other species?

Looking at the distribution of ongoing studies of different animals, although without confirmed statistics, it is still noticeable that how much more attention the scientists as well as the public have put into the animals they defined to be more humanlike than the others, such as chimps, elephants, dogs, and mice. In a similar account, these animals have also been tagged with the title of “highly intelligent animals”. However, what is “intelligent”? Who defines its meaning? The answer is we — human. We consider ourselves to be the most intelligent species on earth. So when we refer an animal to have high “intelligence”, what we really mean is that the animal has similar intelligence as human. In order to receive this title, the animal has to have resembling capabilities of human, such as the abilities to talk, to learn, and to express its feelings. In order to define the animal’s level of intelligence, we start from making our characteristics make sense on them. This is exactly the primary way of how we study other species and it seems to have brought very far so far.

However, what about the animals that are not humanlike? Are they necessarily less intelligent than us? And under the convention of equating the size of the brain to the potential amount intelligence, do animals with bigger brains really smarter than the animals with smaller brains? These are all questions we have ignored because we are just too good at think in the human way that we are constantly avoiding the possibility of other forms of intelligence. For earth has such a long history, there are many species that have evolved through completely different circumstances than us. It is very possible that they have developed a system that is nothing like the ones we have on the way. They might not have what we called emotion; they might not what we called sense; they might not even have what we called a brain! Everything we have can exist in forms we can’t think of with these species. So wen there is no place to map ourselves onto them, do you still simply say they are not intelligent, or underdeveloped? Just because we can’t find things in the same form on the other animals should never mean that they don’t have them.

I’m not saying that anthropomorphism is not a feasible way of studying other animals. After all, there are also many species that had evolved in similar circumstances like human. What I’m trying to express is that, just like Mayeri not only have films reenacting the baboons’ interaction in a human scene, like Baboons as Friends and Baboons as family, but also have films documenting human trying to act in the same manners of baboons, like How to Act like an Animal, when we study other species, besides anthropomorphism, there should also be phase in which we try to think and behave like them.


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