If anthropomorphism works, use it

I have mixed feelings about this article about wolf behavior. It goes out of its way to cast its subject, a specific wolf called Twenty-one, as a heroic leader and kind of a male ideal: fierce but gentle, always victorious in battle but merciful to the vanquished, playful and affectionate with his cubs. It’s a lovely story, but I wondered how much the author was reading into the wolf’s behavior, and whether it was actually doing a disservice to the nature of the wolf. Then I read this, about the consequences of sparing a rival:

Wolves can’t foresee such plot twists any more than people can. But evolution does. Its calculus integrates long averages. By sparing the Casanova wolf, Twenty-one actually helped assure himself more surviving descendants. And in evolution, surviving descendants are the only currency that matters.

Yeah, I don’t think Twenty-one had been reading Hamilton about inclusive fitness in his spare time, and awareness of evolution is a recent (and often resisted) human phenomenon, so I’d suspect that there was more proximate thinking involved than long-term strategic consideration of Casanova’s potential contribution to the survival of Twenty-one’s offspring. I know, the author is saying that Twenty-one couldn’t foresee that, but then why throw in all this stuff about evolution? That would matter if we were discussing the successes of Twenty-one’s progeny, but this article doesn’t.

There’s a lot of stuff in the story that is all about imbuing this one wolf with the attributes of a human mythological ideal. They come right out and admit it.

“And if ever there was a perfect wolf,” Rick says, “it was Twenty-one. He was like a fictional character. But he was real.”

This is why scientists strive for a measure of objectivity in observing animal behavior. There’s always the potential for reading into it something that is not there, or missing something that drives the animal’s behavior that is not present in the observer’s species. Or being selective and untrustworthy in your observations because you want to preserve the Myth of Twenty-one. It’s the Great Man version of history written into the story of a wolf pack, and just as I don’t trust that model in people, I don’t trust it in wolves, either.

But then again…

The second most common cause of wolf death in the Rockies is getting killed by other wolves. (Getting killed by humans is first.) Twenty-one distinguished himself in two ways: He never lost a fight, and he never killed a vanquished wolf.

The story is about the Yellowstone wolves who live in a protected reserve, yet it’s full of incidents of wolves being illegally shot and humans are the primary cause of death in wolves, who almost always die violently. Maybe a little anthropomorphizing is necessary to get humans to be a bit less stupidly destructive.


  1. stroppy says

    Somewhere between Jack London and primary scientific literature, I guess there’s a place for philosophical essays.

    And who’s to say that canids can’t appreciate a good story?
    (can’t remember if I already posted this)

  2. PaulBC says

    There needs to be a distinction between anthropomorphizing in contrast to acknowledging sentience when it can be reasonably inferred from behavior.

    “April is the cruelest month.” is anthropomorphism, because a month cannot have feelings (which doesn’t make is a “bad” thing to say either, but it’s poetry, not science.)

    “My dog misses his companion.” (e.g. after one pet dies) could be a very reasonable observation inferred from behavior and the fact that your dog’s brain has a lot in common with your own.

    Wolves can’t foresee such plot twists any more than people can. But evolution does.

    is interesting, because it anthropomorphizes evolution. Wolves foresee or fail to foresee within the limits of their cognition, so this is a literal claim. To talk about evolution this way makes me uncomfortable the same way it does to say a computer “knows” the answer. Unfortunately, it may involve verbal backflips to avoid it (and I will defer to biologists for coming up with a way to make the same point about evolution in better language).

  3. jrkrideau says

    @ 2 stroppy
    I believe the bulldog was criticizing the bad plot and action. Some dogs are worse that a human movie reviewer.

  4. stroppy says

    That would matter if we were discussing the successes of Twenty-one’s progeny, but this article doesn’t.

    Or at least explain the presumed mechanism. My guess would be that it has more to do with the success of the pack as a whole when it comes to hunting, which as you suggest may or may not do much to assure Twenty-one surviving descendants. You have to wonder about the success of Casanova’s back-door behavior in that regard.

  5. stroppy says

    @ 4 jrkrideau

    I don’t know about dogs and movies, but my cat was an opinionated music critic and not shy about yelling over some of my selections, and resorting to nipping if his demands weren’t met.

  6. rrhain says

    The flip side is when biologists go out of their way to deny the implications of what they are observing such as the descriptions of homosexuality in the animal kingdom. You’d read all about “dominance rituals” and “peacekeeping behaviour” and all sorts of attempts to explain away why two animals of the same sex would have sex rather than the obvious: They liked it and wanted to do it.

  7. chrislawson says

    The wolf Twenty-one is described as being unusual in his repeated refusal to kill his vanquished rivals, which means that far from being an evolution-optimised strategy, it is only one behaviour pattern among many and not even the dominant one among wolves. At best one could claim that Twenty-one’s behaviour is within the bounds of evolved behaviours, but this is true of every animal behaviour ever observed including clearly self-destructive ones like birds smacking into windows.

    What is really happening here is that the author is declaring his moral judgements to be evolutionarily successful — a kind of natural utilitarianism. He even says so directly: “So in strictly survivalist terms, ‘should’ a wolf let his rival go free? Is restraint an effective strategy for accumulating benefits? I think the answer is yes, if you can afford it, because sometimes your enemy today becomes, tomorrow, a vehicle for your legacy.” Not a whisper that sometimes a spared rival comes back later and kills you and your pups.

    I’m all for more restraint and mercy in human behaviour, and I’m fine with the author drawing on this example of successful moderation in an individual from a species seen in the popular imagination as vicious killers. But claiming that mercy is the evolution-preferred strategy is a step too far — and from a moral perspective, irrelevant. Purely from the point of view of descendant-promotion, slavery is an extremely successful strategy. Just look at the continuing discrepancy in life expectations between descendants of slaves and descendants of slave owners, generations after slavery was outlawed. Descendant success doesn’t make slavery any more morally defensible — if anything, it makes it even worse since we can see that the moral harm persists even unto the great-great-great-great-grandchildren.

    Evolutionary theory and wildlife behaviour are not sound bases for moral philosophy and are useful only for puncturing the naturalist fallacy (in which instance they are, I admit, extremely valuable).

  8. John Morales says

    chrislawson, good comment.

    (Also, cherry-picking a species is not a good thing. cf. lion infanticide)

  9. consciousness razor says

    I don’t know about dogs and movies, but my cat was an opinionated music critic and not shy about yelling over some of my selections, and resorting to nipping if his demands weren’t met.

    Music critics, am I right? Typical.

    This one may be of some interest. Other than needing lots more cowbell, in my professional opinion, I think it’s pretty good.

  10. hemidactylus says

    When she was younger my dog was responsive to TV and I used to cue up
    cats meowing on Youtube on my laptop which she loved. But she never did the Lion King emotive response. That was intense to watch.

    The bird vocalizing to various songs is now in my subscription list.

  11. stroppy says

    I have no problem accepting that the simple and highly skilled anthropomorphism of Disney might intersect at some points with the doggomorphism of domesticated dogs tuned to human expression. The lions are furry four-footers with human faces, and the presentation is essentially panto, primal, and easily digestible.

  12. KG says

    I’m currently reading The Sugar Barons by Matthew Parker, a history of slaveholders, slaves and sugar-production in the British West Indies. Life expectancy was of course appallingly low among the slaves, but pretty poor even among the slaveholders – even for the time (17th century, as far as I’ve got), due both to tropical diseases, and general debauchery (alcoholism, gluttony, STIs), and some of their families “died out” (others have very wealthy descendants in the UK elite). But most of the male slaveholders seem to have routinely raped their female slaves, so most descendants of slaves are, probably, descendants of slaveholders as well.

  13. Frederic Bourgault-Christie says

    My friend sent this to me as there is a character in my roleplaying campaign that is a lupine alien who is on the path to being an enlightened, unbeatable hero. I appreciated it. I had no illusions reading the take from the Twitter post about it and the article that this was supposed to be rigorous ethology.

    But I would argue that there is even some scientific merit in this kind of perspective. If scientists can’t have the love for what they study like you clearly do with spiders, then it becomes a deeply impersonal exercise that can rob the object of study of any value. Analysis like this reminds us that these are thinking, breathing, sentient creatures that experience pain and complex lives.

    In any case, more stories like this making the rounds means we’re making a dent against toxic masculinity. Because Twenty One in mythical terms is an absolute badass who is also a leader and lover with great mercy.