Of course, this gave rise to the usual round of questions and points regarding human interpretations of these actions and raised the question of anthropomorphism. Yet, this was precisely one of the more absurd elements that was involved in these discussions.
Even the point of raising the question of testable hypothesis, is a false alarm when it comes to interpretation of animal behaviors.
The following quote illustrates the problem precisely:
Are they just animals, or are they something closer to us?While I realize that this article was simply written by a science journalist, and I don't want to unduly criticize the author, this statement illustrates the absurdity and depth of the problem which appears to be largely taken for granted.
What makes the statement absurd is that humans are, of course, animals, so what does being "just an animal" mean? More importantly what does it mean to say that something is "closer to us"?
The obvious point being that this is anthropomorphism in its raw form. The notion that somehow humans are special and therefore represent some phenomenon outside the normal biological explanations to which all other organisms adhere. There are other expressions of this view, by questioning and even wondering whether other animals are aware of death and their reactions to it.
What should be obvious is that humans are the result of a long line of descent from an ancient ancestor which clearly possessed certain traits which ultimately resulted in the creatures that we are. However, there is nothing to suggest that humans are sufficiently unique to postulate a schism between emotions, cognition, learning, etc. Instead, the reasonable approach would be to expect such behaviors in related animals, since human traits did not arise in a vacuum.
It’s hard to say definitively what Hare saw: Mimi might have been as protective of anything left in her pen, whether dead body or old sandbag.This suggestion sounds absurd on the face of it and would have been easy enough to verify. Yet, one can't help but get the sense that a concern being raised is a sense of guilt suggesting that these creatures may well understand far more about their predicament than has been traditionally recognized, and that we understand that we are singularly responsible for how their lives turn out.
After all, there is a vested interest in denying animals such cognitive abilities lest we have to address our own consciences regarding how they have been treated. We may well rationalize the importance of using animals in research, but increasingly we cannot hide behind the excuse that they are incapable of suffering or recognizing their situation.
Finding out if this is behavior we share with chimps and bonobos, as it appears to be, could cast a new light on our own funerary rituals and even, perhaps, our notions of purity in the afterlife.A more insidious aspect of such anthropomorphism stems from the notion that somehow we'll develop a better understanding of our own behavior or culture by crediting other animals with something similar. This risks imposing our views on the animal, so that when it falls short, we can again rationalize how different we are from them (1).
The issue of anthropomorphism is a silly argument and has raised far too many false concerns. If we are animals and we behave in a certain way, then clearly it follows that other animals behaving similarly may well have similar traits and motivations. What we can't know is precisely what those motivations may be. As a result, the problem isn't being anthropomorphic (2), but rather projecting subjective interpretations, which would be similarly flawed if done to another human being.
This doesn't mean we can give up collecting evidence and testing behavioral hypothesis, but let's stop pretending that humans are separate and distinct from other animals. If we can do it, then it is plausible that another creature can too.
(1) The point being that even if we observed another species following identical rituals to humans, there would still be no way to conclude that they were motivated by the same factors or traits.
(2) As indicated in the article, the caution to avoid being anthropomorphic is misleading because it automatically suggests that we separate ourselves out as a special case, so even when similarities between animals are observed, we aren't willing to acknowledge the commonality that is obvious.