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Why do we project human traits on other species?

  1. Jul 29, 2015 #1
    The pets many homo sapiens sapiens would just love to have:



    --koala bears



    --various birds

    --Polar bears

    (You may disagree with some of these, but that's besides the point)

    Theoretical physicist Dr. Michio Kaku (Yes,yes, yes...I know, not the most popular name on here, but his projections of the future aren't being discussed here.) once described his thoughts as a child when observing alligators at the zoo.
    "I would always wonder 'what are they thinking when they look at me?'. Now I know-- they're thinking 'Is that my lunch?'.

    "Cute" is the word we use such critters (not mature alligators necessarily), cute and cuddly. Many treat these animals like they are their own children, attribute human traits to them. Many forget the distinct differences between humans and other species neurologically.

    Lets take dogs for example. Now, I don't claim to be an expert on the way dogs think, but I'm well aware that a good deal of their loyalty is based entirely on food. They don't care about you, they care that you're the one most consistently able to feed them and keep them safe.

    Now, I have nothing against dogs, but this makes me wonder-- why do we think they're cute? Why do we try and talk to them when they probably don't understand a single thing we're saying? (unless of course they've been trained to connect specific activities to specific sounds).

    Why do we find animals "cute" and humanize them?

    Do they think at all, on the lines we seem to assume they do?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 29, 2015 #2
    Millenium of artificial selection by humans, IMHO. We took a poor mutant lion (housecat) and turned it into a trillion little kitties.
  4. Jul 29, 2015 #3
    Not really, they're just pretty much thinking about the food.
  5. Jul 29, 2015 #4


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    Please, sell me your mind reading device, or post a peer-reviewed study saying so.
  6. Jul 29, 2015 #5
    Well, when I point my mind reading device at the lab animals I deal with, the device reads a zero. I'll rummage through storage to see if I have an extra one to send you, free of charge, of course. In the meantime, though, why don't you ask your pets what they are thinking about and tell me what they say.. You can ask them in any language you see see fit, and tell me what they said they were thinking. I'll take your word for it, you don't even need to get your response peer-reviewed.
  7. Jul 29, 2015 #6


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    I'm pretty sure my friend's dog is not just thinking about food when he brings a slobbery ball back to me and pushes it into my hand. It's pretty clear he wants to play. I'm not sure what the cat is thinking when he pulls the ball of yarn apart, but he doesn't seem to want to eat it.
    What the hell is this crow doing here?

    We are quite capable of finding even wild animals cute, so it isn't only a product of domestication.

    People anthropomorphize animals in many ways, but often times the animals just do things themselves (without training) which remind us of human behavior. I don't think it's too surprising if we accept that we are also animals.
  8. Jul 29, 2015 #7
    Title: Why do we project human traits on other species?

    You're title question differs significantly from your other questions.

    Addressing your title question, I think there is a lot less projection, and more actual parallels then is currently fashionable to presume. We most often see parallels in traits with vertebrates, and more so with mammals.

    1) We have basic common characteristics: short and long term goals, desire for food, sex, temperature regulation, safety and shelter, breathing.

    2) Among the social animals we commonly have love of immediate family, and extended family/clan/tribe.

    3) With child rearing species, there is love of offspring.

    We are recently pack animals. And our more desired pet is the dog, another pack animal. We have a lot in common with dogs. When we play, we both train for the hunt.

    Throw in an unusually wrinkled brain, and there are a few differences.
    Last edited: Jul 29, 2015
  9. Jul 30, 2015 #8


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    Regarding this question in particular, there has been quite a lot of research done on the cuteness factor. The consensus appears to be that we perceive cuteness as having infant-like traits, which elicits caretaking behaviour.
    For an example study see here:
    Baby schema in human and animal faces induces cuteness perception and gaze allocation in children.
    The work done by Belayev mentioned in the above is very interesting in itself. He was breeding (still ongoing) silver foxes to be more docile, and in a few generations managed to do so by selecting for human-tolerant behaviour. The interesting side effect was that the new breed of domesticated foxes exhibited not only higher acceptance of human contact as well as playfulness carried into adulthood, but also morphological changes: larger eyes and heads, shorter snouts, different colouration, more fluffy tails and ears - traits typical for infants and associated with cuteness.
    See here:
    an overview paper:
    Animal evolution during domestication: the domesticated fox as a model

    There's also a few videos uploaded on youtube showing the differences between the aggressive and docile fox breeds. Just search for 'belyaev fox experiment'.
    It is not clear what various people assume about their thought processes, so it's difficult to answer.
    However, there is a large field of study of animal behaviour (see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethology), from which what's going on in an animal's head can be inferred.
    One of the more interesting (for me) interdisciplinary figures here is Robert Sapolsky, a neuroscientist who studies stress. He's got some fascinating observations of social behaviour in baboon troops. His lectures entitled Human Behavioural Biology are available on youtube, and have wide enough scope to include examples of animal behaviour. They're accessible, very fun to watch and potentially enlightening. Give them a go if you can find the time.
    His book 'Why zebras don't get ulcers' is also worth recommending.
  10. Aug 15, 2015 #9
    "there has been quite a lot of research done on the cuteness factor."

    Really? Have the pointy headed intelluctals also figured this out?
  11. Aug 15, 2015 #10

    jim mcnamara

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    We seem to be in Philosophy now. This reallt is not Biology. Anyway -- Douglas Hofstadter proposed a simple answer to most of the thrashing at answers we have here.

    It is now referred to or explained in terms of evolutionary theory. The concept is this:
    You can make two kinds of errors on walking through the woods to home.
    So proposition: Is there is a tiger behind the bush ahead?
    1. I do not think so - I will go forward, soimetimes there was a tiger in the bush- we are tiger chow.
    2. I think there is, I will go another way. But there was no tiger in the bush. We walk longer ways home but we are not tiger chow.

    We are descended largely from people who are of the #2 stripe. We see things that may or may not be there - we apply Hofstadter's 'template' to what we see. And go another way.

    The #1 types got eaten much more frequently, had fewer children consequently, and so most of us now are #2 types. We see faces in the clouds. There ARE no faces up there, we make them. As a remnant of our past survival.

    Let's just let this whole topic go to sleep before it gets out of hand like it has before.
  12. Aug 21, 2015 #11
    How about something concrete to discuss.

    What falsely projected traits do you think are commonly attributed to animals?

    I can think of one possible. A dog looking at you with a toothy smile, is actually both hot and wants something. But is this really commonly misunderstood?
  13. Aug 22, 2015 #12

    jim mcnamara

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    Maybe I do not understand. Please do not deal with what you THINK you know, post some a citation to some research data.

    Sometimes when science advisors here use the words 'think or believe or theory' and non-scientists invariably perceive this in the wrong way. Non-scientists equate these two:
    1. in ordinary parlance 'I have a theory' means I just pulled this concept out of my posterior opening.
    2. Theory of Relativity
    Conclusion: Because theory means it came from somebody's posterior region, then theory of relativity is fair game for any weird idea I can come up with. This is a huge problem with the internet. Why do you suppose the Evolution primer thread at the top of the Biology sub-forums is locked?

    Read this 2009 summary (Harris poll) of beliefs. The US percent in the first link below places it below Bulgaria (second link) in terms of adults who understand and accept evolution.
    Where the US stands (this is a Wikipedia article - that means you need to read/check out the cited references.)
    here is a link to a graph showing this
    Links to the two sources for the graph are behind a paywall.

    [opinion]Too many people, with a decent education, that I work with do not understand the above problem. Science is not like grocery shopping, you cannot say something is bad, ignore it, and then choose other items. Like gluten-free, noMSG, lactose free, etc. For them there is a gluten-free version of Evolution, or climate change. Or a version derived from pet theories [/opinion]

    'Theory think believe' -- This is clearly a problem for the science types here who know better. Don't fall into the trap.
  14. Aug 22, 2015 #13
    Humans are very closely related to all mammals; we are close cousins to many in evolutionary time. We share many traits with our cousins.
    A deeper question might be, why do so many deny that we share obvious traits with other animals.

    Anthropomorphism is the wrong way of looking at it. Instead of thinking why we give animals human traits, we should ask why we would NOT share many, or most, of our traits with animals.

    it obvious, that as part of the animal kingdom, we have common traits with other animals
    Last edited: Aug 22, 2015
  15. Aug 22, 2015 #14


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  16. Aug 22, 2015 #15
  17. Aug 22, 2015 #16

    Do you think the topic is evolution vs. creationism? I think you are fighting the wrong battle.

    I don't understand what this is all about, but I am fairly sure that spending time arguing on creationist vs. evolutionist web sites can drive one to excess, and I recommend against it, if this is the case. It's a destructive no-win game, consuming all parties.
    Last edited: Aug 22, 2015
  18. Aug 26, 2015 #17
    Because it helped our ancestors survive, the blanket answer for everything involving why creatures are the way they are.

    Most likely "cute" comes from the idea of caring for babies and children. The helplessness of a child invokes empathy, this evolved obviously as we cared for our own children, but the functionality in the brain doesn't care. It probably helped our ancestors understand other creatures that would help us get to where we are. Our ancestors needed both cats and dogs. Without cats, the Egyptians probably wouldn't have lasted very long. Early civilizations required a lot of food, agriculture is what allowed us to civilize. Lots of crops also means lots of pests: rats. Cats controlled the rat population and prevented famine, the humans who were more tolerate of cats, had crops eaten less. Early dogs were top predators, like us, they competed with us, but some of them were more subservient than others and made faces that invoked that empathy response, throwing them a bone. We chose to tolerate the dogs that we best understood.

    Animals do not just think about food. Our complex, abstract thought process had to come from something simpler. You have to go back pretty far to find a creature that thought exclusively about food; probably even before our mammal ancestors split from the reptile branch. The only animal to ever ask an existential question about itself (other than human) was a parrot named Alex. Koko the guerilla cried after hearing of Robin Williams' suicide, they'd met a few times. Elephants draw abstract things if shown how to paint (by a human.) Dolphins language has complex grammar and fits statistical models of human speech. Mere cats not only have words to warn of specific creatures, but use adjectives too. My dog runs up to me every day after I come home from work. He's had a full bowl sitting there all day so it's not a Pavlov response, he's legitimately happy to see me.
  19. Aug 26, 2015 #18


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    Thread locked for moderation.
  20. Aug 27, 2015 #19


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    The OP is not participating in this thread and the thread seems to not have a question to answer, so it will remain closed.
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