‘Anthropomorphism’: Universal human tendency to attribute human qualities to things that are not human.
E.g. The cruel sea or The selfish gene
Anthropomorphising lacks scientific rigour in the way we look at animals. And it is completely open to pure and unbridled speculation, with no constraints and no ground rules. Anyone can subject and interpret their feelings onto the animal and say “The dog is feeling sad (as it’s whimpering) because it’s owner passed away.” but when scientifically tested, the dog just has a bad bout of gastrointestinal problem.
Story of Clever Hans
Clever Hans was a horse who lived in the early part of the twentieth century. His owner, Wilhelm von Osten, made a considerable living by taking his horse to fairgrounds and getting people to ask the horse questions, such as 2+2=?
Hans would give the answer by striking his foot on the ground the correct number of times and then stopping when he got to the right answer.
The horse’s fame spread.
A commission of inquiry into Clever Han’s abilities concluded that no tricks were involved and so his owner was not deliberately deceiving anyone.
However, at least one person, Oskar Pfungst, was unconvinced by all the stories of what the horse could do and began to investigate what was really happening. Clever Hans was certainly impressive. It was possible to ask him a wide variety of questions, which provided they could be answered by a hoof striking the ground, Hans was consistently able to answer correctly. He could be asked questions verbally or he could be shown a blackboard with the question written on it in chalk. It didn’t seem to affect the accuracy of his answers at all.
What did matter was whether he was in sight of a person who knew the right answer. This didn’t have to be his owner, which ruled out fraud, but if he was isolated from a knowledgeable person or was made to wear blinkers so that he could not see them, his powers failed him and he was unable to give the right answer.
The most critical part of what Pfungst did was to vary whether the person standing next to Hans did or did not know the right answer themselves. He devised an experiment in which sometimes von Osten did not know which question Hans had been asked or was deliberately told the wrong answer.
For example, horse and owner might be shown different blackboards each with a different question. Pfungst found that Hans consistently gave the answer his owner thought was the correct one rather than the answer that was actually correct. If von Osten thought the questions was 2+3 and Clever Hans had been asked for the sum of 2+1, Hans would hit the ground five times, not three. This clearly showed he was somehow taking his cue from the owner, but it was not clear what the cue could be. Herr von Osten was unaware that he was doing anything at all and was genuinely under the impression that his horse was a mathematical genius.
Pfungst was able to show what Clever Hans was really doing. It turned out that when the horse was asked a question and began to strike the ground, von Osten inadvertently tensed himself slightly as the horse got near the right answer and then relaxed with a slight release of breath when he had done the right number of hoof strikes. This tiny change in his owner’s behaviour, almost imperceptible to humans, was enough to tell Hans he had to stop hitting the ground.
Hans was so good at this that he could pick up cues not just from his owner but from other people as well, even those unfamiliar to him.
Hans was certainly clever but not in quite the way that had been claimed.
Anthropomorphism is not entirely bad, it can be used, if used correctly.
1. The anecdotes about animal behaviour that anthropomorphism thrives on (E.g. Clever Hans ability to count, but in actual fact responding to cues from the owner) can be used as possible starting points for more thorough scientific investigations. In other words, anecdotes are not evidence in themselves but can be use as an important line of enquiry which could lead to a new understanding of what animals can do.
2. Thinking anthropomorphically can be use to derive hypotheses that, if they lead to testable predictions, contribute directly to solid science. Again, the anthropomorphism does not provide evidence in itself but is a means to an end.