Until a few years ago, anthropomorphism—attributing human mental characteristics to other animals—was synonymous with unscientifically sentimental. Nowadays, thanks to squee-rich social media and scientific research on animal intelligence, anthropomorphism is both common and common-sense.
It’s a tidal shift in culture, and the implications for wildlife management are unavoidable. “Traditional values that emphasize domination over wildlife are giving way to mutualism values that regard wildlife as fellow beings in a common social community,” write researchers in the journal Biological Conservation. “As values shift, so do beliefs about what is right and wrong and what constitutes acceptable versus unacceptable treatment of wildlife.”
The researchers were led by Michael Manfredo of Colorado State University and Alia Dietsch of Ohio State University, both of them social scientists who specialize in nature-related values. In the new study they investigate the origins of this anthropomorphic trend, which has been linked to modernization: as people become more prosperous, educated, and urbanized, they ostensibly become disconnected from lifestyles that involve hands-on subjugation of animals. Instead people know other creatures through experiences with pets, urban wildlife, and media representations that promote species-transcending empathy.
Manfredo and Dietsch’s team analyzed data from nearly 43,949 U.S. adults interviewed in the America’s Wildlife Values Survey. The survey asked questions designed to gauge respondents’ level of anthropomorphism, such as whether they believe other animals have intentions, emotions, and minds of their own. It also asked if they agreed with statements—such as “Humans should manage fish and wildlife populations so that humans benefit” and “I view all living things as part of one big family”—that indicated a bent towards mutualism or domination.
Nearly two-thirds of respondents leaned anthropomorphic. Hawaii, where 74.5 percent of respondents felt thusly, was the most anthropomorphic state—but even in the last-ranking state, South Dakota, 54.5 percent of respondents see fundamental commonalities between human and nonhuman minds. Not surprisingly, anthropomorphism and mutualist values went hand-in-hand.
Rather less expectedly, income, education, and urbanization were only weakly correlated with anthropomorphism at the individual level. “Clearly these variables alone have little direct effect on whether a person engages in anthropomorphic thinking,” write the researchers. Yet when they looked at state-level correlations—not whether a specific person is prosperous and well-educated, but whether the people living in their state tend to be—the correlation between modernization and anthropomorphism was quite strong. (Urbanization, however, continued to have little bearing.)
This suggests an interesting wrinkle: modernization’s forces “have little direct influence at the individual level,” but instead “affect groups of people in aggregate, presumably by creating a social context more conducive to anthropomorphic thinking,” write Manfredo and Dietsch’s team.
The researchers pass no judgements on these trends. Rather, “our theory is meant to describe how society has shifted,” they write, and there are big implications for how people relate to nature and in particular to wildlife management. The latter often involves lethal approaches to human-animal conflicts and puts hunting, trapping, and fishing at the center of humanity’s relations with wild animals. People who empathize with animals often disagree with these practices but rarely have a voice in government wildlife agencies.
“The roots of the wildlife management profession are steeped in a domination ideology,” write Manfredo and Dietsch’s team, who imply that reform is necessary for the profession to survive. “Over time,” they conclude, “the institutions that emerge and endure in an open society are a reflection of the values and the related ethics and morals held by its people.”
Source: Manfredo et al. “How anthropomorphism is changing the social context of modern wildlife conservation.” Biological Conservation, 2019.
Image: Diane Cordell
About the author: Brandon Keim is a freelance journalist specializing in animals, nature and science. He is now writing Meet the Neighbors, a book about what animal personhood means for our relationships to animals and to nature. Connect with him on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.