Smarter Than The Average Bear

With the exception some microorganisms, it’s probably safe to say that humankind has conquered the animal kingdom.  However, in this position of power we have projected our own behavioural and emotional qualities onto the other animals we share this planet with.  We have humanised and personified them, and this perhaps a way to better understand the world around us.

This is something that we experience early.  Whether it is the story of the Garden of Eden where the serpent convinces Eve to eat the forbidden fruit.  A bear tricking tourists out of their picnic baskets.  Or even a cricket acting as the voice of reason for a ‘real boy’.  Our anthropomorphising shapes how we perceive the world from a young age.  However, I would like to suggest that this humanising may be doing more harm than good.

Throughout film, television and literature we have portrayed lions and tigers and bears as creature that share our complex emotions and abstract thinking, but we have no knowledge of them sharing these traits in real life.  So is this creating a dangerous misrepresentation of reality of children growing up with these depictions?

Patricia Ganea, a psychologist at Toronto University, conducted a series of experiments in which children three to five years old were given information about animals in both a factual way, and in an over-the-top anthropomorphised way.  The findings suggested that the children were less likely to keep in mind the factual information about the animals when shown that the animals live life just like humans.

She said that while this is good for developing a sense of empathy with animals that may be mistreated, there is a downside.  This anthropomorphising may lead to an incorrect understanding of natural biological processes.  She also said that, “it can also lead to inappropriate behaviours towards wild animals through a misunderstanding of their actions or intentions.

We must consider that while our human tendencies are familiar to us, many animals display lots of (what we would consider) ‘human-like’ behaviour.  Chimpanzees have shown the ability to plan through situations… and hold grudges.  Wolves live is tight family groups.  And as the saying goes, elephants never forget and have been shown to suffer from grief and PTSD.

Now I’ll be honest, while I can definitely understand this viewpoint that some hold that anthropomorphising animals can be harmful to a child’s development as they learn about the danger of the world that surrounds them.  I myself can’t recall ever truly thinking that bears exclusively eat from a honey pot, or that sharks could be vegetarian and live by the mantra that “Fish are friends, not food.”  However, I do know that I learnt a lot about my own species through empathising with the animal characters of my childhood.


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