Friday, June 9, 2017

Paper notes: The Weirdest People in the World

Reposting here two notes I wrote elsewhere. I was responding to a thread of comments on Tumblr about a seminal psychology paper from a few years ago. The first few posts in the thread claimed that the paper explained how anthropomorphic fantasies about animals stem from a lack of contact with animals during childhood and from general detachment from nature.

That would a ridiculous and easily disproved claim, but unsurprisingly it turned out that's not what the paper was saying. The original poster had drawn hasty conclusions from an article which in turn has summed up the paper while skipping important details. Nevertheless the matter helped me focus a few thoughts about anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism in culture, therefore I'll repost both my notes here so they won't get lost forever in the depths of Tumblr.

[First note, written after reading the original Tumblr post and skimming through the article]

I grew up in the country, always owned pets, always loved to hike in the woods and see wild or exotic animals at any opportunity, always disliked the city environment. And that’s exactly why I always anthropomorphized animals in my imagination. I don’t perceive them as unknowable aliens not I ever felt any need to pretend humans are fundamentally different from animals.

I haven’t yet read the research paper in question (I’ll be sure to review it on my blog ASAP), but from the conclusion it smells like typical facile psychology which treats correlation as causation and has looked for data to prove a preconceived sensational-sounding conclusion. This point in particular strikes me as dishonest:

These studies posit that it is not until children are around 7 years old that they stop projecting human qualities onto animals and begin to understand that humans are one animal among many.

All it takes is a cursory look at the news, the humanities and social controversies to see that most people think humans aren’t animals at all and would rather resort to supersition, appeal to authority, denialism or outright violence than accept such an idea and live with it. So no, most children do not “begin to understand that humans are one animal among many”… if only they did! What they do is begin to learn and accept anthropocentrism. They are taught that humans are special creatures only vaguely related to animals and that “human” and “animal” are two distinct realities which aren’t supposed to intermix even in fantasy, because if they do the foundations of humanities will crumble or devils will fly out of your nose or something.

Furries are for the most part people who see no reassurance and no appeal in anthropocentrism. Of course we furries have conserved (or rediscovered in adult age) the children’s tendency to mix human qualities with the qualities of other animals, but our motives and the reason why anthropocentrism does nothing for us are wildly different and a simplistic inference like that made by the paper isn’t going to explain anything.

Besides nobody ever seems to explain what the problem with anthropomorphism is exactly. Nature scientists must consider it a fallacy and actively avoid it in the context of their work, but that’s a separate matter which has nothing to with psychology.

[Second note, written after reading the actual paper which was actually very good research]

Ok, after a closer look to the article and paper… it seems that the guy who made the original posts jumped to conclusions and should have checked what the paper actually says about anthropomorphization, because the article didn’t sum it up very well. Here’s the relevant excerpt from the paper (page 13-14):

Cognitive scientists using children drawn from U.S. urban centers, often surrounding universities, have constructed a developmental theory in which folkbiological reasoning emerges from folkpsychological reasoning. Before age 7 urban children reason about biological phenomena by analogy to, and by extension from, humans. Between ages 7 and 10 urban children undergo a conceptual shift to the adult pattern of viewing humans as one animal among many. These conclusions are underpinned by three robust findings from urban children: (1) inferential projections of properties from humans are stronger than projections from other living kinds, (2) inferences are asymmetric, with inferences from human properties to mammals emerging as stronger than inference from mammals to humans, and (3) children’s inferences 13 violate their own similarity judgments by, for example, providing stronger inference from humans to bugs than from bugs to bees (Carey 1985;1995).
However, when the folkbiological reasoning of rural Native American communities in Wisconsin and Yukatek Maya was investigated (Ross et al. 2003, Waxman & Medin 2007), none of these three empirical patterns emerged. Among the Yukatek Maya, the human category appears to be incorporated into folkbiological induction relatively late. The results indicate that some background knowledge of the relevant species is crucial for the application and induction across a hierarchical taxonomy (Atran et al. 2001). In rural environments both exposure to, and interest in, the natural world is commonplace, unavoidable, and an inevitable part of the enculturation process. This suggests that the anthropocentric patterns seen in U.S. urban children result from insufficient cultural input and a lack of exposure to the natural world. The only real animal that most urban children know much about is Homo sapiens, so it is not surprising that this species dominates their inferential patterns. Since such urban environments are highly “unnatural” from the perspective of human evolutionary history, any conclusions drawn from subjects reared in such informationally depauperate environments must remain rather tentative. Indeed, studying the cognitive development of folkbiology in urban children would seem the equivalent of studying “normal” physical growth in malnourished children.

What it posits is that urban children tend to think of real animals in terms of what they know about humans, developing an anthropocentric perspective since they know very little about other species. Nothing surprising here: anthropocentrism is indeed a massive encroached problem of Western culture. But concluding that it fosters anthropomorphic fantasies on the basis of the paper’s comparison is quite the stretch, especially considering the prominent role of anthropomorphism in Yucatec Mayan folklore and in the ancient Mayan mythology it’s rooted into.

In fact pretty much all ancient mythologies featured anthropomorphism more than present day cultures and religions do. This fact keeps suggesting me that anthropomorphic imagination is a core component of human imagination.

I’d argue that lack of contact with animals forces that spontaneous function of our imagination to use what it can as building material. If the only animals an urban kid knows are plushies and cartoons then he will use them as a starting point for the unavoidable anthropomorphic fantasies. The same thought process which in ancient times would have led to faith in Coyote the Trickster, Quetzacoatl or Anubis now leads to finding solace in different anthropomorphic fantasies based on cartoons and the like. I’d also argue that such fantasies are unavoidable, to the point that all anthropocentric cultures have to actively force children to abandon them as part of “growing up”.

Going back to the paper, I still hold that most Western adults do not grow to view “humans as one animal among many” as the paper states, and they classify humans as animals because they were taught so in basic science classes rather than because of a deeper acceptance of the fact. But that’s a minor complaint; other than that the paper looks like very good research on the topic of fallacies and undisputed assumptions in social sciences, but it doesn’t help explaining the origins of furry culture in the slightest.