Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Anthropocentrism

I don't read nearly as many blogs as I should--there are really a lot of great voices out there, and I'm finding blogs as good a source as any for finding out a lot of important news in the birding world. But yesterday I found my way to one of my favorite of all blogs, Mike McDowell's Birding and Digiscoping Blog. Mike is an amazing digiscoper--check out the gorgeous shorebird photos he posted this week!

Anyway, Mike recently wrote about Chipping Sparrows, and was taken to task by an anonymous commenter who accused him of committing the unpardonable sin of anthropomorphism -- attributing a human quality ("sweet") to a bird, which the anonymous commenter said was unscientific. I read the original post, and in addition to the usual lovely photos, the text sounded pretty clear-sighted to me:

Wow, do I ever have the Chipping Sparrows in my backyard right now – the most I've observed in four years at our house. A few weeks ago the chattering of begging juveniles was nearly constant throughout the day. Fortunately, I haven't observed any of the adult sparrows bringing food to young cowbirds as I have in past years. Though I'll keep putting birdseed out for the chippies, they almost invariably fight over it - fluttering, grappling and ascending together in violent but remarkable bursts of energy and sound. Oh, it's probably not really the food per se but the fact they're in such close proximity to one another. Still, it's astonishing that such an otherwise sweet little bird is capable of such harsh behavior!
Now of course what sounds to our ears like sweet little call notes may actually be Chippy obscenities, or parental nagging, or all kinds of things we don't understand. Mike's post was actually quite objective, pointing out that although Chipping Sparrows do, indeed, seem sweet to our sensibilities, this behavior he was observing at his feeders was decided not sweet. Being scientific means keeping our minds open to all the possibilities, and Mike's post indicated that he was doing just that. And it's important to remember that Mike wasn't writing for a scientific journal, wherein our word choices are necessarily careful and clearly backed up by specific observations. But being scientific in our thinking means keeping out minds open to ALL the possibilities, even ones that don't appeal to our native human desire to think we're the most important species in the universe, unique among the entire animal kingdom. I posted the following comment to Mike's blog:
Anthropocentrism is the name I use for the scientific error of putting humans in the center of the universe and thinking we are unique on the planet and in the universe in having intelligence, compassion, and other "human" traits. We share a huge amount of our genetic code and biochemistry with other animals. Pretending we're unique simply because we parade about in clothes and squander natural resources more voraciously and unnecessarily than any other animals is grossly unscientific.
Thinking about this today, I also must acknowledge the fact that many people think we're superior in every possible way to animals because a very small percentage of us read and enjoy Shakespeare, many of us enjoy movies and plays, and a disturbingly large percentage of us follow news of Paris Hilton. No bird could create a Beethoven symphony, but then again, neither could any human except one. I think it's time to start calling people on unfair and unscientific accusations of anthropomorphism.

3 comments :

  1. Dear Laura,
    Consider this:
    http://americanbirding.org/pubs/wingingit/archives/vol17no6p2.pdf

    Rick

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  2. Blogger cut off the URL to Rick's essay, which is insightful and beautifully written. So I made a complete link in the next blog entry.

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  3. Those folks who pooh-pooh not only describing birds as "cute" or "sweet" or the use of anthropomorphic terms to describe features or behavior, and also look down at those of us that do, should open their minds and be a little more inclusive.
    Not everyone is a scientist. For gosh sakes, I write a blog on FEEDING THE BIRDS! And I'm proud of it!
    Bottom line, we all enjoy birds, and in our own way, work to protect birds and the world we share with them. Too bad some people belittle others that share the same ultimate goal.

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