29 April 2008

'Biobigotry' and anthropo-muddleheadedness

We’re all of us prone to a massive over-interpretation of the things that we see...I distinctly remember, when I first went to Amboseli National Park to study vervet monkeys, how quickly I developed strong feelings about the personalities of the monkeys — here were the great and brave ones, there were the lame ones that hid in the bushes and acted pathetic.
-- Marc D. Hauser quoted by Natalie Angier in Noble Eagles, Nasty Pigeons, Biased Humans.
As Robin Dunbar, a strong defender of the idea of animal intentionality, has himself admitted, 'the very language we use [to describe animal behaviour] derives from human experience...There is simply no "neutral" language in which to describe the behaviour of animals that does not prejudice the issue.'

John Maynard Smith once pointed out that such anthropomorphism does little mischief if we are concerned solely with animal behaviour. But if we want to draw lessons about human behaviour, then applying 'to animals words that describe human behaviour' can cause 'quite a lot of harm'.
-- from Humane Beasts and Beastly Humans, Chapter 8 of Man, Beast and Zombie by Kenan Malik.

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