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Animals Have Personalities? No WAY!

When I started blogging in May of 2006 I was very snarky. Snark defined blogging back then. And of course, as a (pop) culture whose sensibility has been formed by The Onion and The Daily Show, it's no wonder.

My snarkiness increased, and turned into ranting, but then ranting for some reason got old. It's very, very easy for me to use language as a weapon; I've done that my whole life. While other people might trade barbs or even turn to fisticuffs, I'd dig deep for the most hurtful thing I could say, in the fewest words, and deliver it without even raising my voice.

Not a great quality, but dreadfully effective. It comes from a desire to not waste time. Whatever it is, I want to get it over with and move on. I'm a bit of an efficiency junkie.

The husband and I took the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) a couple of months ago and received the most unremarkable results. He is, in fact, an extrovert (five minutes with him will tell you that), and I am indeed an introvert (ditto if you can catch me, as I will cross the street to avoid talking to you). The personality characteristics we were both deemed to have can all be found by observation as well as a 500+ question test.

Riddle me this: Why would any human animal use as a default position that nonhuman animals do not have personalities as rich, distinct, obnoxious, obsequious and varied as human animals? Have they not ever observed nonhuman animals?

I'm going to try hard to have this not become a rant, but "Even Among Animals: Leaders, Followers and Schmoozers," by Natalie Angier in yesterday's New York Times begins with "even." Why "even?" Why is it surprising that nonhuman animals have personalities when human animals do? We're all animals, aren't we? We're sentient. We think, we plan, we make choices. Why can't some of us be daredevils? Or "even" obnoxious?

Angier writes:

"Scientists studying animals from virtually every niche of the bestial kingdom have found evidence of distinctive personalities — bundled sets of behaviors, quirks, preferences and pet peeves that remain stable over time and across settings."

Look, I think it's great that scientists are observing the nonhuman world and reporting back to us that we are in fact all animals and as such we all have personalities (though I don't really get that vibe as the angle). This is great news for animal rights because it's one more piece of evidence that humans aren't as exceptional as we like to think we are.

Inevitably, there's this:

"Some critics complain that the term 'animal personality' is a bit too slick, while others worry that the entire enterprise smacks of that dread golem of biology, anthropomorphism — assigning human traits to nonhuman beings."

That's the kind of nonsense that makes me want to scream. No one is assigning human traits to nonhumans. They are saying (and at least I am saying, and Marc Bekoff has said): "It isn't that we set out looking for humanlike traits in animals and hope to find some. Rather, we set out to understand what animals are like, and use the language and concepts that come closest to describing what we see" (Wild Justice, 41). At least there is a similar response given by the scientists in this article who study animals.

A bit of what I would consider bad news for animal rights is:

"Reporting in this month’s issue of the journal Animal Behaviour, researchers from the University of Glasgow addressed the widespread concern that the findings of animal personality studies, so often performed on captive subjects, may be laboratory artifacts, with scant relevance to how the creatures behave in nature."

Researchers conducted experiments in a lab, then released the animals into the wild, making sure to note that "This was a much harder part of the study, and involved lugging around of batteries," and found similar results. Angier can't resist writing: "A bird in the lab worked like a bird in the bush." So working outside of the lab is more difficult and yields the same results. That's the perfect argument for keeping animals in a lab if your priority is you and your research rather than the animals and what's best for them.

I'd be remiss, snark-wise, if I didn't bring attention to a hypothesis of the scientists:

"Scientists suspect that small inherited predispositions are either enhanced or suppressed by experience, and computer models show that tiny discrepancies at the start can become enormous over time, through feedback loopings of positive reinforcement."

Methinks scientists would express the same suspicion of humans, and they might even use the similar language.

The end of the article stumped me:

"Highly sensitive pigs squeal a lot; highly sensitive people feel a lot. Sure, it’s painful at times. But just switch on some Bach and I’ll squeal my thanks for thin skin."

The attempt to be cute notwithstanding, I'm confused. Highly sensitive pigs squeal, yet highly sensitive people feel a lot. Does that supposed to mean that the pigs are "vocalizing" for no reason? Isn't there any feeling at the origin of that squealing? "Sure, it's painful at times," for Angier, so she switches Bach on. What about the pig? Didn't she just provide support for how acutely pigs feel? Little help, here?

Angier mentions neophobia, which, as you might imagine, is the fear of novelty. What's the word for fear that human animals aren't all that much different from nonhuman animals and humans' continuous attempts to not recognize the obvious?

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Mr. Peabody #

    I’m not sure in what sense Angier is using the term “highly sensitive," but I think that what I am about to write still applies. Since learning in depth about Highly Sensitive People (HSPs, as defined by Elaine Aron), I have noticed that other animals also have distinct HSP traits. But that is not surprising at all. I agree that it is very strange that so many humans are not aware of the fact that other animals have distinct personalities and traits just as humans do…and yes, they also can be sensitive in a variety of ways. The lovely thing about nonhumans – both free-living and “domestic” – is that they more often just accept their own traits/personalities without apologies, whereas a vast number of humans tend to beat themselves up excessively for not “fitting in” (the pig squeals and lets others know that what is happening to her is not okay with her, while the human often just suppresses her anguish in order to fit in). Hence all the drugs that humans (particularly in the U.S.) take to force/repress themselves (i.e., their personalities and resultant behavior) to fit the model of what is considered socially “normal.” That is one of the ways in which we humans may actually be exceptional. That is not to say that other animals do not have their own culture or complex social rules (many do), and on occasion some animals in certain species find themselves ostracized from social groups for their differing behavior. But today there seems to be an epidemic of humans who take mood drugs in order to alter their inherent traits or natural behavior. A few months ago I read an article (and I forget who wrote it…Chris Hedges maybe?) that touched on the notion that the drug industry is preying on millions of people who have reacted in a perfectly normal and understandable way to a culture that sucks the life out of them (why would depression, sadness, anxiety, extreme anger, etc. *not* be the expected reactions/behavior to what is being done to them?).

    April 6, 2010
  2. Oikeios #

    Is this the same Natalie Angier who rocked our world with "Sorry, Vegans: Brussels Sprouts Like to Live, Too" in the NYTimes? Perhaps this latest article is her attempt to cover-up that previous embarrassment, notwithstanding the anthropocentric prejudices that continue to plague her writing.

    April 6, 2010
  3. Wow, that last sentence is a puzzler. Is she thanking the pig for her thin skin, which allows her to appreciate Bach (as if her skin was inherited from the pig?) Or is she expressing gratitude that she's a human being who can appreciate Bach and not a pig (who apparently squeals without actually feeling)?

    This was my favorite duh moment, when she defined animal behavior research as "the effort to understand why individual members of the same species can be so mulishly themselves, and so unlike one another on a wide variety of behavioral measures."

    Yeah, let's take millions of dollars and thousands of man hours to find out why *individuals* insist on acting like them*selves*.

    April 7, 2010
  4. On descriptions that begin with "even" animals… They bother me as much as hearing that a violated person was treated "like an animal". Both stem from the (arrogant) notion that there's nothing of less value than "even" animals.

    And about animal personalities, I'm no expert here, but having observed on a few occasions, the introduction of a new member into a flock of chickens… I can say the diverse dynamics are obvious. The tendencies of a more dominant hen might be usurped – She's then more apt to socialize with a group she once "bullied". Oddly those in that group do make her pay her way… They may snub her for days until she's forgiven. Likewise a more reserved hen might pal up with the new "queen" and consequently get to share the best spot on the roost. Some enjoy each others company and "gossip" together, while there are those who are loners and don't care to mingle at all.

    All of these traits are echoed into our "complex" human condition. How anyone can deny it, or give these (animal) structures any less significance than our own is just (deliberately?) narrow minded.

    "What's the word for fear that human animals aren't all that much different from nonhuman animals and humans' continuous attempts to not recognize the obvious?" I wish I knew… Or better still, I wish I knew how to change it. 🙁

    April 17, 2010
  5. "What's the word for fear that human animals aren't all that much different from nonhuman animals and humans' continuous attempts to not recognize the obvious?"


    OK OK, speciesism is the result of that fear, not the fear itself. But it sounded good.

    "It isn't that we set out looking for humanlike traits in animals and hope to find some. Rather, we set out to understand what animals are like, and use the language and concepts that come closest to describing what we see" (Wild Justice, 41).

    I think this language comes closest to describing such traits because they are the same traits as in humans; it's just that we recognized them first in ourselves, and only belatedly in other species. (of course this is not universal; some traits are probably uniquely human, just not nearly as many as people used to think).

    And regarding Bea's comment about the phrase "like an animal" being applied to a violated individual; what I hate worse is having it applied to the violator!

    May 21, 2010

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