The Opposite of Anthropomorphism

Anthropomorphism means treating something as being more like a human than it really is. It can be a literary device, but it is often used pejoratively, to suggest that someone is just being sentimental and possibly downright unscientific when they talk as if an animal might have similar sorts of experiences to a human.

Pragmamorphism means treating something as being more like a thing - and less like a human - than it really is. The term seems to have been coined first by Emanuel Derman, mainly to describe the habit some economists have of treating humans as if we were simple and predictable enough to be described adequately by scalar variables and linear equations. He's absolutely right to decry the over-simplifying habits of economists, which smack of physics envy, but what I want to address here is a quite different form of pragmamorphism.

Humans are a kind of animal. All of our emotions, inclinations and cognitive processes are the result of evolution. That means that they've been built up piecemeal by adapting and building on aspects of our primate, mammal and other vertebrate forebears. Our minds are animal minds; many of our emotions and quite a few of their expressions are clearly inherited from ancestors going back tens of millions of years, and even our most sophisticated mental processes are the result of incremental evolution.

That makes it a little odd that there is a fairly well-known word for the sin of talking as if other animals were more like humans than they really are, but no common equivalent for the equally unscientific habit of talking as if they were less like us than the facts suggest. I'm going to call this pragmamorphism, which is Greek for 'thing-shape-ism', by analogy with anthropomorphism, or 'human-shape-ism'.

Given that humans are a kind of mammal, mammals in general have more in common with us than they do with rocks, or even robots. They enjoy themselves much like us, they get scared, much like us, they experience pain much like us. Not exactly like us of course, but then for all I know you experience pain quite differently from me, too. The point is that on a continuum from 'inanimate object' to 'just like me', the evidence suggests all mammals, probably most vertebrates and also cephalopods are considerably closer to me than they are to something with no experiences or emotions at all.

Perhaps this all seems very obvious; perhaps not. Certainly some people prefer to talk as if it wasn't. It seems that humans have a powerful tendency to think of ourselves as a special case - at the centre of, but somehow fundamentally different and separate from everything else. At the most extreme, this manifests as solipsism or the much-discussed philosophical suspicion that everyone else is really a zombie with no conscious experiences; broadening it out, we arrive at various forms of tribalism. When Kenan Malik, in an interview for the book 'What Scientists Think', says: 'If as scientists we assume that primates have self-awareness even though we have no real evidence that they do, this can do great harm to science', as if the supposition that they don't have self-awareness was any better supported, it looks to me like a manifestation of the same tendency.

In the last couple of years, the BBC has made a whole raft of programmes exploring fresh scientific evidence about animal minds and feelings. These have all been very interesting and generally well-made, but with scripts expressing constant surprise at evidence that animals have feelings, and non-trivial cognitive processes. It is regularly asserted that until recently, 'scientists thought' that humans were the only animals to exhibit this or that trait, although no positive evidence for the assumption is ever mentioned. In trying to keep anthropomorphism at arm's length, even when talking about precisely the ways that other species of animal resemble humans in their mental makeup, they make it clear that they have been guilty of profound pragmamorphism. It is only with the weight of incontrovertible evidence against the position that they are starting to move away from this starting position. We are given to understand that scientists in general have been working from the default assumption that apart from most of our physiology, biochemistry and genome, humans have nothing whatever in common with the rest of the animal kingdom. It is never made clear what the philosophical or scientific basis for this starting point was supposed to be.

People do, of course, sometimes interpret other species - not to mention natural phenomena and deities - with more human characteristics than the evidence warrants. Once we get the idea that other people are actually quite like us, which most humans manage quite early on in life, we're faced with the deceptively thorny problem of what counts as a person. We attribute agency to the weather, or we deny the validity of the experiences of people who don't look like us. It's clearly not an easy balance to get right, and it's easy to see why people have been leery of the tendency to treat things as being too human, but that doesn't make it rational to jump all the way to the other extreme.

In fact, it is the opposite tendency that leads us to the dehumanization of people who don't fit in with what we are used to, especially when it suits us to dismiss their needs - a cause of untold strife throughout history and all around the world. A pragmamorphic attitude to other animals fits in with the same pattern. When we share brain structures, hormones and evolutionary history with other animals, on the face of it there is a pretty strong case for expecting some resemblance between our mental processes, too. If someone suggests that other animals, particularly our closer relatives, lack sentience after all, they are making quite a strong claim. Perhaps they have good scientific or philosophical reasons for that position, but if not, it would certainly not be the first time that convenience and force of habit have trumped rationality.

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