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Relating and Respecting



The attribution of human characteristics or behavior to a god, animal, or object.

While earning my degrees in Biology, this word was something I was taught to recognize.  As scientists we are told not to ascribe human characteristics to animals when conducting scientific research or when teaching facts about animals. In science we revere fact and hold reverence for it above all. We study organisms, understand systems and label them to create facts that can be learned by others who also have an interest in understanding science. Learning about what an animal can feel or think is next to impossible since we cannot communicate directly with them. Therefore if it cannot be proven, we cannot talk about it as if it exists. We cannot relate to animals as if they enjoy, suffer, want or love as we do.

Recently a scientist I work with told me that he cringes when he hears other staff members or volunteer educators refer to a shark pup as a “baby shark”. According to him, that’s not just an incorrect scientific term but also crosses the line to anthropomorphic behavior.

Personally, I think the labels we give to plants and animals are not that important. To me a shark pup is a baby shark. For me, trying to teach children (and adults) science when they do not naturally enjoy it, it’s more important that they have a basic understanding of a concept rather than THE perfect memorization of a scientific name. People who are not innately drawn to science find it intimidating and uncomfortable when scientists or teachers recite nomenclature that they cannot relate to because they have no form of reference for it. People tend to have a natural wonder for the world around them, but they don’t always feel it necessary to know that technically, a baby shark is called a pup. My question is, why can’t they just enjoy the experience without the label? As a person who has taught science in many informal settings, I have come across a number of students who will not become scientists. They have a passion, talent and love for something else. And while these kids may contribute to the world of work in another way, the environmentalist in me still wants them to respect the Earth enough to be responsible for their habits and actions. That being said, if I were to stop a random person on the street and ask them two questions; first, would you care if I killed a shark pup? and second, would you care if I killed shark babies? -Which question would have the most visceral response? Which question would activate the environmental steward in that random person?

To me, the correctness of how we label animals takes a back seat to the responsibility of teaching people how to relate to animals and therefore protect them. Because it’s only through relating to something that we actually care about it. This is made evident in cultures that worship nature. Native Americans of the North American plains hunted the buffalo but they also danced and sang respect to the animal that gave them food, shelter and clothing. They ascribed human characteristics to this animal and therefore only killed when necessary and used every part to not waste the mortal sacrifice the animal made. When Europeans settled the Americas, they almost wiped out the buffalo population because they did not respect the animal as a valuable, limited resource. This demonstrates a lack of relating to an animal as a part of the whole ecosystem. The whole to which we all belong. They instead created a divide that made it ok to abuse these animals. So although we cannot know with current science and technology exactly what other animals “feel and think”, it seems to me that it cannot hurt to ascribe “human” characteristics to them if the result is respect, admiration and a responsibility to protect. Because in the end, just as we cannot prove what they think and feel, we also cannot prove the opposite.

“Absence of proof is not proof of absence.’ ~William Cowper