In the News (from Scientific American Blog): “Childrens’ literature and movies are rife with talking mice and ducks who wear clothes (even if they’re occasionally portrayed without pants) and dogs that range from, well, dogs, to dogs that might as well be people.
“Stories are one of the main ways that our species understands the natural world. Giving human attributes to animals is by no means a recent phenomenon; ancient gods were often hybridized human-like animals (or animal-like humans). In the classic story illustrated above by Arthur Rackham, three bears sit at a table and eat porridge, like humans.
“Given how ubiquitous these anthropomorphic animal-people are in our culture, University of Toronto psychologist Patricia A. Ganea wondered how those sorts of representations influence the way that young children think about real animals.
“Young children already have a hard time distinguishing reality from fantasy, especially before they reach their fifth birthday. And while most children can distinguish reality from fantasy when it comes to visual representations of animals, that distortion can also be reflected in the content of the story itself. ‘Human consciousness, knowledge, abilities, purpose, and intentions are often attributed to animal characters (e.g., seals solve mysteries, cats build houses, and mice drive cars) and even to inanimate objects (e.g., lamps have faces and dance the tango, trains strive against all odds to achieve impossible goals),’ Ganea writes.
“Together, the findings show that language matters more than illustration when it comes to learning about animals’ biology and psychology. Even when the stories were accompanied by realistic images, if the language was anthropomorphic, the kids transferred that false knowledge to real animals.
“More importantly, it isn’t just that the kids failed to learn true facts when exposed to the anthropomorphic stories; those stories actually made it harder for them to learn, teaching them falsehoods rather than facts. They were even more likely to think of animals in human-like terms after reading the books than if they had never seen the books at all!
“Do children transfer the fantastical abilities of non-human animals in their storybooks to their real life models? If so, then those sorts of stories could seriously impede kids’ ability to learn and remember true facts about real animals, or at least to distinguish fact from fiction. That would be especially true for children in urban and suburban areas, who have few opportunities to regularly interact with actual animals, at least compared to their rural counterparts. ‘Presenting animals to children in ways that are similar to how humans act and behave is likely to be counter-productive for learning scientifically accurate information about the biological world and to influence children’s view of the biological world,’ she says.
“The problem is actually more pervasive than it sounds: human adults, at least in the US, are also highly likely to imbue non-human animals with human-like emotions and motivations. It’s a tricky line to navigate. Research is increasingly revealing the fundamental similarities between our species and the rest of the animal kingdom, but there are also aspects of human culture that are, indeed, unique to our species. Is it reasonable to suggest that an animal can feel something complex like pride or embarrassment? We are poised to attribute a similarly complex emotion, guilt, to dogs, but a deeper look reveals that while dogs indeed have a ‘guilty look,’ they probably do not actually realize that they’ve transgressed. If children are routinely exposed to these sorts of anthropomorphic representations of animals, it is no wonder that they grow up to become adults who look at non-human animals as if they are people wearing animal suits.”
My Comment: By the way, in Judaism there are no tales of human-like animals, and if the Torah speaks about a talking donkey, it happens at God’s command. Kabbalah in general looks at the texts of the Torah as secret, the meaning of which is revealed only to one who has attained love of friends.