Lorraine Daston/Gregg Mitman (Eds.) Thinking with Animals. New Perspectives on Anthropomorphism. New York (Columbia University Press), 2005, 230 p.

Thinking with Animals collects nine essays that grew out of talks presented at a corresponding workshop at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin in May 2001. The essays are centred around different aspects of anthropomorphism (i.e. the supposed problem of describing animals in terms of human psychology or human behaviour). Thinking with Animals is neither another collection on the methodological problem of anthropomorphism in (cognitive) ethology [like Robert Mitchell et al. (Eds.) Anthropomorphism, Anecdotes and Animals. New  York, 1996] nor does it take on the more recent developments in that debate [like Eileen Crist’s Images of Animals (Philadelphia, 1999) or John Kennedy’s The New Anthropomorphism (Cambridge, 1992)]. Thinking with Animals rather takes a wider perspective beyond the way animals are described in science. Thinking with Animals thus takes up a current trend of increased interest not just in (cognitive) ethology, but in historical and cultural studies of the human/animal relationship. As the introduction has it: ‘This is the double meaning of the title of the book Thinking with Animals: humans assume a community of thought and feeling between themselves and a surprisingly wide array of animals; they also recruit animals to symbolize, dramatize, and illuminate aspects of their own experience and fantasies.’ (2)

The essays, accordingly, range in style from the analytic philosophy of science to post-modern cultural studies.

Part I of Thinking with Animals contains three essays on the history of anthropomorphism. Wendy Doniger shows how in ancient India monkeys are transformed into humans and humans are transformed into animals, especially ‘to partake of animal sexuality’ (26). Lorraine Daston compares today’s anthropomorphism with respect to animals with medieval theories of angels, and claims that because medieval thought did not know the modern subjective/objective distinction ‘medieval angelology was not about angelic subjectivity’ (45) – whereas modern anthropomorphism wants to know what animal thoughts are from the perspective of the animal. Paul White tells the story of experimental animals in Victorian Britain and the simultaneous treatment of animals as mere machines (in the laboratory) and as family members (at home).

With respect to the methodological problem of anthropomorphism Part II of Thinking with Animals contains two essays. Elliot Sober highlights the one-sidedness of the debate on anthropomorphism. Whereas anthropomorphism is often considered a mistake the opposite mistake (of denying animals a description in human-like terms where it in fact is appropriate) does not even have a common name. Sober calls it ‘anthropodenial’. He examines in detail Morgan’s canon (of always preferring to give an explanation of an animal’s behaviour in most simple terms applicable). It turns out that Morgan’s canon might either be considered to be an application of more general methodological guide lines (like a principle of parsimony or a principle of conservatism in explanations) or the canon has no ‘justification in evolutionary biology’ (96), since one may with the same right opt for cladistic parsimony and work on the canon that homologous behaviours or features are produced by the same proximate mechanism (which include in this case cognitive faculties or feelings in animals). Sandra Mitchell analyses where the mistake in anthropomorphic reasoning is supposed to lay. She sees it in a form of analogical reasoning where one concludes from some similarities to overall fit between the base system (humans in this case) and the target system (animals in this case). Nevertheless the analogical inference may work in some cases. So one has to check the individual cases – ‘In short, anthropomorphic models are specific, scientifically accessible claims of similarity betweens humans and nonhumans.’(114)

Although the book, as said, is not a reader in the philosophy of cognitive science these two essays are worth reading for anyone interested in the methodological debate on anthropomorphism.

Part III of Thinking with Animals deals with our pictures of animals in daily life. James Serpell proposes that the ubiquity of pets rests on their role in enhancing the health of pet owners, which in turn rests on the fact that pet owners ‘must have interpreted and evaluated the various behavioural signals of social support they received from their pets as if they were coming from fellow human beings’ (127). Anthropomorphism so was causal to benefit from pet animals. Cheryce Kramer explores Tim Flach’s photos of animals and their usage in advertisement.

Part IV of Thinking with Animals deals with animals in film. Gregg Mitman tells the story how the anthropomorphic portrayal of elephants in some Discovery Channel films helped the cause of elephant protection. Sorita Siegel provides an inside view on her making of a National Geographic documentary on orang-utans. Anthropomorphism is seen as a didactic device for an ‘untrained audience’: ‘Carefully crafted scenes that combine video images and interviews in meaningful ways bring audiences into the world of orang-utans and imbue the film with subjectivity, emotionality, and wonderment. Strong human and animal characters establish an emotional identification with the audience.’ (197).

(Anyone interested in these broader topics dealt with in Thinking with Animals may also subscribe to a list like H-ANIMAL@H-NET.MSU.EDU )

 

Manuel Bremer, University of Düsseldorf, Germany