The Oxford English Dictionary defines anthropomorphism as “the attribution of human traits, emotions or intentions to non-human entities.” We are all guilty of anthropomorphism when we attribute the behavior of our pets to human emotions. The Oxford dictionary goes on to say that anthropomorphism “is considered to be an innate tendency of human psychology.”
When a dog is jumping around and barking and licking us, we assume that the behavior of the dog is because of joy. In reality, this is an instinctive behavior in animals when establishing dominance within the pack. When the same dog tucks its tail between its legs and slinks away, we assume it is feeling guilty when it is an act of submission for fear of being attacked.
Some scientists attempt to prove that humans are just animals acting out animal responses to various environments. They conduct experiments to show that animals do the things we think are unique to humans. An example is attempting to explain the human smile. For us humans, a smile is an expression of happiness, warmth, and friendliness. When an animal grins, it shows its teeth expressing terror or aggression. When you see a monkey or ape grin on a commercial, sitcom, or movie, there is a trainer behind the camera threatening it.
Human traits which are not seen in animals include worship, guilt, sympathy, and creativity in art and music. It is essential to look at other explanations when considering the behavior of animals. Recently people witnessed a female whale carrying her dead calf for nearly a week. Several newspaper articles were guilty of anthropomorphism by saying that the whale was expressing grief. Many times animals in the wild avoid the scavenging of a dead sibling or offspring by maintaining a vigil over the corpse. That instinctive action assures that the offspring is, in fact, dead, and avoids spreading the disease that killed the dead animal.
I remember a field trip I had in my NSF graduate workshop for science teachers. At an aquarium in Chicago, we watched a demonstration of natural selection. A hungry northern pike was placed in an aquarium with three small fish. One was a wounded and incapacitated minnow. Another was a slightly wounded but otherwise relatively healthy fish of the same species. The third was a healthy well-fed fish. The lesson plan said that the students should predict which of the three fish the pike would eat. Our group of teachers all agreed it would be the incapacitated minnow. For the next 30 minutes, we watched the pike tear up the aquarium trying to get the healthy minnow and avoiding the two wounded fish. We teachers debated as to why that happened, but the aquarium workers said it was frequently the case.
Humans are unique because we are created in the image of God. That allows us to do things that reflect that unique makeup. When we interpret animal behavior in human terms, we are guilty of anthropomorphism.
We have received several letters from people suggesting that sexual practices among animals show that humans are not unique in their moral choices but are merely acting out their animal heritage. Our supposed animal heritage can then be used for justifying animal behavior in humans.
We have read articles and news releases describing animal behavior including the pedophilia practices of bonobo apes, and recreational sex, rape, and homosexuality in monkeys. We have seen documentaries on the fact that many males in the animal kingdom kill the babies of their own species. The supposed reason for that is to push the mothers of those babies to become more quickly receptive to the sexual advances of the males.
It is a foolish argument to suggest that humans are just animals and that all human behavior is inherited and therefore we can’t condemn it. One PBS program recently said that the greatest threat to the babies of bears and lions was from the males of their own species. I am sure that very few atheists would maintain that human males should not be condemned for killing their offspring.
The other major point we would make is that sexual activity in animals is almost always a way of expressing dominance and control. The pedophilia practices of the bonobos produce extreme violence among the clan. Using sex to show dominance or to establish a pecking order among the group is a long way from the purpose of human homosexuality.
God created humans in His image. That means that dominance and control is not the only focus of our relationships. The “oneness” that God intended for sexual relationships (Genesis 2:24) is a long way from establishing who is going to control the group in which they live. The “agape” love which humans are capable of, goes far beyond sex. In John 17:24-26 Jesus spells out agape in terms of God’s love for His son. Animals are not capable of that kind of love.
Is there an evolutionary connection between apes and humans? Many years ago in a youth rally, a young lady asked me, “If we didn’t come from apes, how come my brother looks so much like an ape?”
It is true that we share many physical characteristics with the apes. Apes and humans both have stereoscopic vision, necessary for depth perception. We both have opposable thumbs, necessary to hold a tool or a club. Apes and humans have noses immediately above our mouth to detect and analyze flavor. Naturalists who want to explain everything on a chance basis suggest that apes and humans share a common ancestor.
Those naturalists frequently ignore the fact that there are many things humans do not share with apes. These are not physical characteristics, but they are what separate us from all other forms of animal life. They include our capacity for worship and our ability to create music and art. Only humans have the ability to think and reason in abstract terms. Apes do not share our capacity for guilt and sympathy, including our ability to have an “agape” kind of love that isn’t survival based.
We would think that with our genome being so similar to the apes some of these characteristics should show up to some degree in the apes. In spite of attempts to show such connections, it is increasingly obvious that such attempts are complex exercises in anthropomorphism.
The question then is, “Why do we see such an enormous collection of fossils of primates which is expanded daily by paleoanthropologists?” In The September 2, 2017, issue of Science News Bruce Bower reviewed some of the evidence and current theories about ape evolution.
The bottom line is that there are connections between specimens like oreopithecus, modern day gibbons and recent finds like Nyanzapithecus alesi. The capacity of life-forms to change is a fact that no one can deny. The various races of human beings indicate that humans have changed enormously since the beginning. The Bible tells us about our human spiritual nature, and that nature has not changed throughout our history. Our physical makeup has changed a great deal during that time, and apes have changed even more.