Mark Cocker

Animals make us human

Anthropomorphism was once seen as the ultimate scientific sin. Not any more, as three fascinating books explain

There was a time when biologists so scorned the attribution of human qualities to other animals that anthropomorphism was seen as the ultimate scientific sin and suitable only for children’s stories. Not anymore. Today the inner lives of other creatures are widely accepted as a major research frontier, and here are three books that reflect these preoccupations. One of them even defines it as an entirely new discipline: anthrozoology.

Peter Wohlleben may be no scientist, but he is a professional German forester and the author of the enormously successful The Hidden Life of Trees. In this new book he sets out to overturn the stock assumption that other creatures are mere automata driven by instinct, drawing particularly on studies that use MRI digital imaging of the human brain.

The research demonstrates how people, when asked to make decisions and register them with either the left or right hand, have often made choices seven seconds before they even ‘know’ how they will choose. Wohlleben argues that the selection process is happening in the unconscious parts of the brain and that the ‘decisions’ are subsequently rationalised by the study subjects.

His wider point is that if our ‘rationality’ is partly an outcome of instinctual responses, why shouldn’t other animals be equally capable of higher emotion or complex thought processes? He goes on to illuminate his arguments by drawing on a lifetime of forest experience and his own intimate encounters with pets and domestic livestock — dogs, cats, mice, chickens, pigs and goats. He shows not only how crabs and lobsters plunged in boiling water can suffer agony, but also that horses feel embarrassment, dogs have a sense of fair play, mice and pigs feel empathy and magpies can show gratitude.

The tone is friendly and informal and the prose largely free of scientific jargon; but the problem with Wohlleben’s approach is that he is already a believer.

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