By John Allen
Chances are someone has recommended you watch a Youtube video of a cat, dog, or other irresistibly cute animal doing something human. This "cat sitting relaxed" video was the top animal video of 2012, having gone viral with close to nine million views:
Maybe I'm wrong, but I'm pretty sure that cat had the help of a human being who thought a cat acting like us would make a cute and viral video.
This human tendency to project ourselves onto animals is explained in Hal Herzog's 2010 book, Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard to Think Straight About Animals. Herzog tells us that we're practically wired to project our human behavior and attitudes onto animals:
I had paddled halfway down the river when I caught a whiff of cigar smoke coming from a raft a hundred yards in front of me. There was a large fifty-year-old man in the raft puffing the offending cigar and guiding his wife and a little brown Chihuahua through the rapids. The dog was not having a good day. She was shivering uncontrollably and looked terrified. And that was before their raft flipped over.
I have to give the guy credit. He kept the cigar clamped between his teeth even after he was dumped out of the raft. The little Chihuahua deserved credit, too. She had the sense to climb onto the nearest large floating object—Cigar Man. That’s how they went down the river, a man with soggy cigar jammed in his mouth, his wife, and a hypothermic dog desperately clinging to the man’s head. I remember wondering what made that guy think a Chihuahua would enjoy running the rapids of a freezing Class III river. The answer is anthropomorphism. Humans are natural anthropomorphizers. It is part of our mental equipment. Psychologists have found that humans will even attribute motivations to animated geometric figures moving around on a movie screen—“Now the red triangle is really pissed at the blue square. You go, girl!” (60).Humans have a unique ability to form a "theory of mind" that allows them, according to Herzog, to discern what other people and animals might be feeling and thinking about at any given time:
When we anthropomorphize, we are extending our theory of mind to members of another species. This tendency is at the root of many of our moral quandaries with animals. Take, for example, hunting. James Serpell argues that the hunter who can think like a wild pig is more likely to come home with the proverbial bacon. But the hunter who sees the world from the point of view of an animal he is trying to kill would automatically empathize with it and, hence, feel guilty for killing it. My game warden friend Bill lived in an African village where baboons would destroy crops. The villagers would trap them in pits at night and kill them the next morning, but they felt bad about it because their eyes looked so human. They have a saying in Swahili, “Never look a baboon in the eye.” It makes it too hard for you to kill them (62).As humans easily and naturally anthropomorphize animals, says Herzog, they get themselves into dilemmas they have difficulty recognizing and resolving, a state of cognitive dissonance:
The environmental philosopher Chris Diehm (who is a vegan) is optimistic. He says that when he discusses with people inconsistencies in how they treat animals, they often make an effort to change, or at least they try to justify their behavior. He writes, “We recognize that our relationships to animals take widely disparate, apparently contradictory paths: We have cats in our houses but cows on our plates. When people have this inconsistency pointed out, they try to make sense of it, or remove it to the point where they are comfortable with it. The drive for consistency seems to be a good thing, and exposing inconsistencies is a deep motivator for moral reflection and development.”
Chris is a philosopher. He is impressed by the need of humans to achieve logical coherence in their beliefs and behaviors. I am a psychologist. I am more impressed by our ability to ignore even the most blatant examples of moral inconsistency in how we think and behave toward animals. In my experience, most people—be they cockfighters, animal researchers, or pet owners—remain stubbornly oblivious (other than an occasional uncomfortable laugh) when you point out the paradoxes and inconsistencies in our personal and cultural treatment of animals.
So moral consistency is elusive, if not impossible, in the real world, and both head and heart can lead us astray in how we think about the treatment of animals (261-262).In their stunningly beautiful documentary Sweetgrass, anthropologists and filmmakers Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash show us how sheep herders in Montana resist projecting themselves onto their sheep as they rear them and then drive the entire herd two-hundred miles through the Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains.
The filmmakers also resist projecting a human "theory of mind" upon their subject by using for its soundtrack only the sounds that naturally occur from the Montana landscape, the ranching machinery, the animals, and the occasional observations from the cowboys. I especially admire how the incredible mobility and acuity of HD camera technology enables them to capture the details and textures of Montana landscape, the ranch, the sheep herders, and the sheep in a remarkably straightforward way that avoids anthropomorphism.
In an interview in Filmmaker Magazine, Castaing-Taylor and Barbash share their desire to honor a long history of humans working unsentimentally with animals that is coming to and end:
Then right at the end of this interminable credit sequence that lasts almost as long as the movie itself, you have an In Memoriam, not of a person, but of a ranch. Usually it’s always of a person, but here its of a ranch, all of that was totally deliberate. There is an immense amount of sadness that we wanted to communicate about how this is a livelihood, this is a way of being in the world, a way of cohabitation between humans and animals that has been hugely important throughout human history for the last 10,000 years since the Neolithic revolution, and it has ended in the American West.
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