In 1828 Jean Ignace Isidore Gérard Grandville published a collection of lithographs like the above, entitled Les Métamorphoses du jour, a series of seventy scenes in which individuals with the bodies of men and faces of animals are made to play a human comedy. Humans have been seeing themselves in animals for a long time as I think can be seen in Grandvilles work.
Anthropomorphism is defined as, “ascribing human form or attributes to a being or thing not human.” The human race does this to everything, even to the most mundane nonhuman like things. Like for instance, I personally have a name for my computer, (its frank btw) and will often yell at it when it’s not working properly. This kind of thing is harmless if you know that it’s absurd, I know my computer has no emotion or personality. The problem comes about when we project human emotions on other animals.
Now there has been plenty of research into the emotional range of different animals, and it’s clear that some have a huge range that one could argue is not unlike a human. The problem is that we commonly misread these animal’s emotions. An example of this I’m sure some of you would be familiar with is reading a dogs face as guilty, when actually it’s frightened.
I think this projecting can be harmless at times, and I’m sure there’s plenty who won’t agree, but I find it hard to say that when my Dad and I used to give voices to the different animals in nature documentaries,(because I’m cool), we were causing any harm. The harm it can cause though is when we are presenting our projections as fact, and this is said much more eloquently in Clive Wynne’s paper, What are Animals? Why Anthropomorphism is Still Not a Scientific Approach to Behaviour. He writes,
The kind of anthropomorphism that must be avoided by serious students of animal behaviour is unwitting “naïve anthropomorphism.” This is when someone allows their natural tendency to see living things as having a human-like mentality to operate in an “unacknowledged, unrecognized [form], or used as the basis for accepting conclusions by circumventing the need to actually test them”
This is where we find, I think the main issue with the documentary, Black Fish.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the film, Blackfish is a 2013 American documentary film directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite. It concerns Tilikum, an orca held by SeaWorld and the controversy over captive killer whales.
The biggest problem I had with this film was not necessarily the huge focus it put on talking about the psychology and emotional state of Tilikum, but that the comments made and the way of filming showed what the people in the movie were saying was fact, where as in actual fact what they were saying is still pure speculation.
There has and is still research being done that specifically focuses on the brains of killer whales, and it has been able to show a lot about how their brains are made up and how they work. Even experts in this field though can at best take an educated guess at how they think, how they communicate, how they interact with one another.
One of the main reasons it’s hard to do anything past speculation at this point, is that killer whales brains are significantly different to ours. Not that we don’t have the same parts of the brain, it’s just that killer whales have parts of their brains much more developed than our own. Specifically when looking at emotion it’s important to look at part of the brain called the limbic system. In humans this system is associated with emotional life and behaviour as well as the formation of memories. The key difference between humans and killer whales in this respect is that when compared to human’s killer whales cingulate gyrus, or limbic lobe is much larger in proportion and is also made up of three different lobes. When looking at this way that the killer whales brain is made up scientists are able to hypothesise to the extent of their aptitude for emotional expression, but no more than that.
I think what we have to think about when looking at Black Fish, and certainly my take away from it, is that even if there is no definite proof that being kept in captivity has significant impact on the emotional state of killer whales, the fact is that killer whales are highly intelligent, complex, and social animals and shouldn’t be spending there life doing tricks for our amusement.
Thanks for reading.