|"This pelican looks like a urinal. |
Go home, evolution, you are drunk."
But it's calling evolution drunk that really got you, isn't it?
Steven Pinker (as of the late 90s) might say that personifying evolution's funny because it juxtaposes or mixes up what are normally separate rules or domains of our intuition. Personification's funny the way slapstick comedy's funny: Without any warning (but with a well-placed banana peel) a guy goes from being a dad to being a bag of molecules.When we give nonhumans human potential, Pinker says that we’re marrying “our intuitive psychology to our intuitive biology.” 
Personification is the same sort of thinking that enables us to discover, to know, to understand how the world works. It’s story, analogy, metaphor, unseen imaginative b.s. that we misfire like crazy. And even though we've overcome much of our reliance on it, we tend to preserve the spirit of it anyway.
The powers of life, death and destruction aren't the only things worthy of personification. We'll give agency to a triangle or square. Just shapes. Being two-dimensional and moving around is all it takes. We are constantly up to this and as Dawkins said,
“The reason we personify things like cars and computers is that just as monkeys live in an arboreal world, and moles live in an underground world, and water striders live in a surface-tension dominated flatland, we live in a social world. We swim through a sea of people. … We are evolved to second guess the behavior of others by becoming brilliant intuitive psychologists. Treating people as machines may be scientifically and philosophically accurate, but it’s a cumbersome waste of time if you want to guess what this person is going to do next. The economically useful way to model a person is to treat him as a purposeful goal seeking agent with pleasures and pains, desires and intentions, guilt and blameworthiness. Personification and the imputing of intentional purpose is such a brilliantly successful way to model humans, it’s hardly surprising the same modeling software often seizes control when we’re trying to think about entities for which it’s not appropriate, …”
Although many other animals have desires and pleasures and pains and generally have experiences—at least they do as long as we assume we do—we should extend Dawkins’ reflection to our personification of nonhuman animals. There's very good reason we do this as scientists. It's not a terrible null hypothesis that if you observe an animal behaving like a human could, then it might be thinking like a human could. This is the argument by analogy or as I call it doing demonstrates knowing. How else could you reverse engineer cognition? You're a human, you think like one, you know how humans think from a scientific perspective better than you know how any other animal thinks. This makes sense. It's a good default. But that's all it is. And scientists get that. They taught me all this after all. (Reading a lot of Shettleworth, Povinelli, and Tomasello lately.) But the rest of us who don't work on animal behavior and who have very little experience with real animals at all are taking this perspective literally without caution. For example, maybe we should perk our ears but cock our heads skeptically when the website for Dognition (a service rooted in good science that sells cognitive testing for your furry friends) says, “Learning who your dog is as a ‘person’ will help you make the most of the time you spend together.”
Sometimes anthropomorphism smells like money and sometimes it makes us angry for no good reason. For example. Ed Yong wrote a piece "Male frog extracts and fertilises eggs from dead female" about an Amazonian frog that bleeps to death and still procreates. (No survival necessary--take that, Darwin!) Yong didn't personify the frogs but that didn't stop a reader.
And thanks to the delightful woman who accused me of misogyny for my piece on the necrophiliac frogs. They. Are. Frogs.
— Ed Yong(@edyong209) March 1, 2013
I wonder a lot about how our language encourages these mistaken habits. I've written before about how I don't use "force" to describe processes and mechanisms of evolutionary change. It's one of my f-words of evolution.
I've got similar concerns about our language that describes animal behavior. Take for example this fascinating paragraph written by the primatologist Toshisada Nishida about the chimpanzees he studied at Mahale, Tanzania:
“In an effort to maximize their reproductive output, males and females may cooperate when it is to their mutual advantage. However they may also control, manipulate, betray and even attack each other when they have conflicting interests. Chimpanzees maintain a promiscuous mating system, for which females develop a huge swelling of sexual skin and males large scrota. These morphological features make sperm competition the characteristic features of chimpanzee sexual activity. Males are expected to mate with as many females as possible, while female are expected to be more choosey because reproductive output over their lifetime is more limited. A powerful constraint on female chimpanzees is the need to consider males’ tendencies toward infanticide.”I added those italics to emphasize the language that could be interpreted to give chimpanzees more cognitive ability and more agency than the author intended or has evidence for. That paragraph, re-written to avoid any overstatement of chimpanzee cognition and any hint of calculated intention by chimps or by Mother Nature, could look like this:
In a system where higher reproductive output means more of whatever traits lead to it in future generations, males and females may behave cooperatively because it has been perpetuated by higher reproductive output in the past and will continue to do so until something changes. However, depending on the circumstance, they may also control, manipulate, betray and even attack each other if cooperation is supplanted by another behavior that is and has been perpetuated due to its increase of reproductive output, instead, in that sort of circumstance in the chimpanzee’s life. Chimpanzees maintain a promiscuous mating system and, because higher reproductive output of females with huge sex swellings and males with large scrota, females have huge sex swellings and males have large scrota. These morphological features exist, as hypothesized, because sperm competition has been occurring over chimpanzee evolutionary history. Males that mate with as many females as possible have, and have had, higher reproductive output, while females mate less frequently and have much more limited procreative potential over their lifetimes, so they appear to be choosier than males about their copulatory partners because doing so (assuming they are actually choosier than males) has and does increase reproductive output. A powerful influence on female chimpanzee mating behavior is males’ tendencies toward infanticide because females who have babies that are killed have lower reproductive outputs.There. I managed to suck all the fun out of chimp sex. Not only that, but if you made it far enough you must be wondering how I could be so circumspect about female mate choice. That’s something for another day, but let’s just say that we should be circumspect about male choosiness too since they can’t decide which females (or males, or other circumstances) will give them erections.
Oh, hello! Now you’re awake! Why did my translation of Nishida’s paragraph fail to engage you? Here’s a try: Because it wasn’t a narrative and there were no interesting actors with calculating minds raging with intentions. There was nobody to figure out, to empathize with, to love, to fear, to root for. You just don’t tell stories without those kinds of characters.
But listen up close: that’s the true story of most of Earth’s evolutionary history. Agency evolved (maybe), but evolution itself did nothing purposefully, or even whimsically, to cause it.
Left to our naïve devices, how we talk and write about animal behavior affects how we think about their truths, their essences. The animals we put on the big screen are now just CGI manipulated reality--no cartoon drawings necessary for a pig like Babe to politely request sheep to scram, or for the pups in Space Buddies to bark interstellar commands. If only they had our mouths and throats these creatures could tell us about all the complex thoughts and feelings they experience! My mom has named this the Disney Syndrome. Some might blame the fertile “lolcats” and other such memes. We don’t just anthropomorphize animals, though, we personify oak trees, grandfather clocks, and toenail fungus.
Let's not pile all the blame our limited language, our love of agent-driven narrative, our teachers, scientists and Disney. Because how removed we are from “nature” probably affects our perceptions of animals too. Urban and suburban Americans might be the worst about this. In a piece about Joe Henrich's work, Watters writes,
“While studying children from the U.S., researchers have suggested a developmental timeline for what is called “folkbiological reasoning.” 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. Compared to Yucatec Maya communities in Mexico, however, Western urban children appear to be developmentally delayed in this regard. Children who grow up constantly interacting with the natural world are much less likely to anthropomorphize other living things into late childhood. Given that people living in WEIRD societies don’t routinely encounter or interact with animals other than humans or pets, it’s not surprising that they end up with a rather cartoonish understanding of the natural world.”Nobody's saying to give it up completely. It's adorable.It's funny. It's lovely, actually. But if we coddle it like crazy in our children and if we don't check it once in a while in ourselves, this cultural phenomenon is going to continue to contribute handily to the scientific challenges that we face with increasing urgency.
Before submitting a scientific manuscript about animal behavior, evolution, climate, or any process that tempts us to infuse agency, make sure it's not drunk.
 Richard Dawkins's TED talk at about 21:00 - http://www.ted.com/talks/richard_dawkins_on_our_queer_universe.html
 Nishida, T. (2012) Chimpanzees of the Lakeshore (Cambridge University Press), p. 201