Since I was little, I have often felt closer to animals than to others of my own species. This month, in honor of the ninth anniversary of my blog here on Psych Central, I have decided to spend the month featuring some of my first-ever mentors and teachers with a mini-series called “Animals Are Just Like Us! I hope you enjoy it. 🙂
Do birds fly for fun? Are crocodiles capable of play? Can elephants get depressed without friends to enjoy life with? What do you think?
It wasn’t so long ago that any species other than homo sapiens (aka us) was given short shrift in the emotional life department.
Play? Fun? Friendship? Oh, surely that is stuff only people need.
Why do we think this way? In a word: anthropomorphism.
Anthropomorphism as a term comes from the Greek words “anthropos” (human) and “morphe” (form). There is no uniform agreement on just when the term was first used, but everyone agrees it refers to assigning human-like qualities to non-human entities.
In religious circles, anthropomorphism through the ages has been alternately embraced (idols, anyone?) or vilified. In scientific circles, it is a definite no-no on account of how personal bias tends to invalidate research conclusions.
And yet the tendency towards anthropomorphism itself is regarded as one of the fundamental tenets of human psychology. Hmmm. Perhaps those psychologists are on to something, especially since the 2003 human genome sequencing breakthrough proved we share oh-so-much more in common with other species than was previously assumed.
In other words, when it comes to animals and people, and even plants and insects, we now know we are more alike than different in nearly every way.
Guess how much DNA we share with a fruit fly? If you guessed “60 percent,” you now understand why fruit flies are used as human research models for studies on everything from alcoholism to Parkinson’s disease.
How much DNA do you think we share with bananas (yes, the actual fruit)? More than 60 percent! And when it comes to chimpanzees, our closest living genetic relatives, we find a jaw-dropping 96 percent DNA match.
On top of all this, we share at least one part of our brain with the oldest surviving species on Earth. Did the “reptilian” brain just spring to mind? Scientists now know we’ve all got one, regardless of the temperature of our blood. In humans, it is called the “limbic brain” and it works pretty much the same in us as it does in every other being – by regulating our fight-flight-freeze response.
All I’m really getting at here is: when we share this much in common with every other organism on Earth, why on earth would we think we are the only species who is capable of having fun, playing, enjoying friendship?
How else can we explain how videos of a crocodile playing with a ball or a panda romping in the snow go viral and stay viral, if not that something in us is resonating so strongly with something in them?
Why do we insist on researching questions like “do birds fly for fun?” nearly to death, when deep inside our own shared genes and brains, we already sense the answer, because we already know what we would do first if we woke up one day to discover we had wings?
Here, I guess maybe our greatest strength is also our greatest weakness, and if we are ever going to develop compassion, to (as author and physician Rachael Naomi Remen often says) “grow in wisdom and learn to love better,” we must first do battle with our stubborn, objective, truth-seeking, fact-finding brain.
And so the battle rages on.
Our brain insists that we can’t assume animals play, get lonely, fly for fun, because animals can’t talk to us in people language and confirm this is the truth. Meanwhile, our heart as fervently insists that of course (other) animals play, get lonely, run or jump or fly “just” for fun, because we are animals too and we do all these things and miss them when we can’t.
You know, when my redfooted tortoise, Malti, was still a hatchling, she was so curious.
Just like any human baby, she explored the world around her with her mouth. If anything new crossed her path, she wanted to bite it, mouth it, shake it, drag it around.
I will never forget the day I looked down to see a baby Malti sitting next to me, young sharp beak snapped firmly onto one of my gold….keys.
She shook my key ring like any baby would, but was too little to drag the whole ring of keys around more than an inch or two. It was utterly uh-dorable.
Malti is now five years old, and she still plays with stuffed animals just like any other young being.
Every room in our casa includes one or several stuffed animals and floor figurines (most are turtles or tortoises) and I will often wander by and see her just hanging out with others of her kind.
I see very similar behaviors with Pearl, my 20-year-old cockatiel, Bruce, my rescued 3-toed box turtle, and Flash Gordon, our standard wire-haired dachshund.
From Pearl’s warbled shrieks when he hears my dad strum the guitar strings to Bruce’s games of peek-a-boo and hide-n-seek (he particularly loves my reflective iPhone camera for these) to Flash’s exuberance at the sight of his favorite chew toy grasped firmly in my hand, it is beyond clear to me that play, fun, joy cuts across all barriers of language, age, species, providing us with a new way to communicate that is pure and trustworthy.
But what most amazes me is that when we are all playing together, it is impossible to tell who is enjoying it more! Play, fun, joy, friendship – if these life-giving experiences act to erase differences at the species level, think what they have the potential to do for forging new bridges of connection, collaboration and love within our own species as well.
It’s kind of mind-boggling, really.
With great respect & love,