Are You An Anthropocentrist?


animal intelligence, anthropocentrism,

Paradise, by Gillis d’Hondecoeter circa 1575

When I was growing up we were taught humans were at the top of every chart, far superior to all other living beings. Our textbooks, illustrated with stereotypical images of “cave men,” proved the assertion with a long list of what our species could do that others could not. The list was so smug that I was a bit embarrassed on behalf of my fellow homo sapiens. A skeptic even then, I thought the list was somewhat prejudicial. Worse, it didn’t acknowledge what feels obvious to young children, that we are all things and all things are us.

I don’t for a moment dismiss our many human accomplishments—among them language, science, the arts, and shared rules meant to advance mutual compassion. I simply mean to point out that we’re not better, we’re different.

Besides, what I was taught as a kid doesn’t really hold up. Here are some reasons why.

Tool use was a biggie on that list. It’s true, animals haven’t developed the smart phone (thus are spared walking into traffic while texting) but they naturally incorporate tool use when it makes sense for them.

  1. Crows make tools like hooks and rakes out of twigs, leaves, even their own feathers to obtain items just out of reach and can use three tools in sequence.  They also will drop pebbles into a container in order to raise the level of water, understanding cause and effect as well as a seven to 10-year-old child. Other examples of tool use by crows? They’re known to drop nuts on a roadway so cars will crack the shells, then wait for a break in traffic to retrieve the nutmeat. Interestingly, they’re more proficient when they grow up watching adult crows fashion tools. (Crows might wonder why we segregate human kids away from the interesting work-a-day world of adults.)
  2. Naked mole rats dig with their teeth, but to keep from inhaling dust and dirt they’re known to position wood shavings in their mouths as rudimentary face masks.
  3. The octopus is more closely related to clams than to people, yet these invertebrates plan ahead, tool-wise. For example they’ve been seen carrying coconut shell halves they can hide under later in order to grab unsuspecting prey as it passes.
  4. Orangutans fold leaves into a usable “musical instrument” that modifies their calls, making them sound lower and therefore more threatening to large predators.

Math was another obvious difference. We were taught that numerical sense is evidence of higher order thinking. Yet the animal kingdom uses math when necessary.

  1. Bears can count. Although they don’t benefit from the intelligence-boosting effect of living in social groups, research shows bears can estimate quantities just as well as primates. One particular study taught bears to discriminate between dots on a touchscreen computer, a situation about as far removed from relevant bear smarts as possible. Their abilities in natural habitat are likely to be far more impressive.
  2. Elephants have substantial numerical skills, outperforming primates and even human children when tested for their ability to find the difference between two quantities. A study found elephants can discriminate between one and two as well as between larger numbers.
  3. Baby chicks can not only count, they can even can add up numbers based on groups of objects they can’t see at the moment.  And that’s when they’re a few days old!  By two weeks of age, chickens can take into account the sun’s height and position to navigate. Plus they’re able to draw inferences and plan ahead, for example choosing to delay gratification in order to reap a greater reward. And who’d have guessed, but chickens prefer to count from left to right.
  4. Pigeons are able to learn abstract rules about numbers and order pairs. Aside from humans, only rhesus monkeys have been able to perform at this level.
  5. Insects also use math. Honeybees can distinguish between and remember quantities up to four. They can also match patterns. Ants operate with a collective form of intelligence, able to use complex problem-solving strategies to optimize time and energy spent feeding the colony.

People, we were told, communicate in complex ways while animals are, well, just animals. Again, not true.

  1. Elephants communicate sophisticated ideas in a variety of ways including low-frequency sounds from 1 and 20 Hz that can travel over miles. So far, researchers have identified nearly 200 expressions and gestures, along with nearly 100 vocalizations. Elephants can recognize at least 100 other unseen elephants by voice alone.  Their remarkable ability to understand communication isn’t limited to their own species. African elephants can differentiate between languages, gender, and age of human speakers.
  2. Dolphins remember one another, without contact, for at least 20 years. In fact, researchers have found that dolphins call each other by name (in this case, distinctive signature whistles).
  3. Koko, a western lowland gorilla, has been taught American Sign Language and, according to her trainer, understands about 1,000 signs along with nearly 2,000 words of spoken English. Sometimes, when there’s not a relevant sign, Koko invents her own signs. For example, she “compounded the sign for scratch with the sign for comb to mean, “brush” (scratch-comb).”
  4. Alex, an African gray parrot, learned well over 100 words that he used appropriately in unique contexts, demonstrating the intelligence of a five year old human child. He died suddenly in 2007. The last thing he said to his trainer upon going to his cage for the night was, “You be good, see you tomorrow. I love you.”

Which brings us to emotion and personality. Yup, non-human types are brimming with it.

  1. Chimps not only create social traditions, they’re interested in what’s trendy. Researchers are just now catching on (academic types are not known for fashion forwardness) to the latest thing, chimps wearing grass in their ears.
  2. Stressed-out honeybees show an increased expectation of bad outcomes. In other words, they become pessimists. The bees also showed altered levels of neurochemicals associated with depression. Other invertebrates, such as crayfish, can exhibit anxiety and respond well to medications that relieve anxiety in humans.
  3. Dogs traumatized by military service or abuse exhibit signs of canine Post Traumatic Stress Disorder 
  4. Rats feel regret after making poor choices.
  5. Crows will eat nearly anything, but prefer French fries from a McDonalds bag to the same fries in a plain brown sack. They not only hold grudges against specific humans who have done them wrong, but will teach other crows to react badly upon seeing them as well.
  6. And play? There’s plenty of it. Crows like to ski down icy rooftops and snow-covered slopes holding sticks or boards in their talons. River otters, elephants, and whales are known for playful behavior.


Let me push it one step farther, to compassion and even spirituality. We’ve been told that only humans have evolved beyond survival-based selfishness to establish ethics and morality. We’ve been taught we’re the only species to perform rituals as we mourn the passing of our departed, the only ones to meditate in silence, the only ones to experience a sense of awe akin to reverence. Apparently not true either.

  1. Altruism? There’s plenty of evidence. A dolphin saving a beached whale and its calf. Gorillas working together to dismantle dangerous poachers’ traps. A pod of sperm whales adopting a disabled dolphin. Rats gnawing through cages to help other imprisoned rats. A bear assisting an injured crowLions chasing away an Ethiopian child’s kidnappers and guarding her until human help arrived.
  2. How about awe? Chimps are known to ritualistically dance at the advent of thunderstorms and dance at waterfalls. They’ve also been observed dancing (rather than fleeing instinctively) in the face of wild grass fires.
  3. Meditation? Baboons have been observed performing a sangha, sitting in silence for over a half hour gazing at a stream of water, even the juveniles remaining quiet.
  4. Love? Probably yes according to research with cats and dogs who seem to be tapping into fields beyond our conscious awareness to know when their owners are coming home.
  5. Funerals, those too. Elephants weep in sorrow and grieve their dead. They’ve also been known to sense the death of humans important to them, even from great distances, as two tribes of African elephants did when they walked for hours to mourn at the home of a conservationist who’d once rescued them. Ritualized behavior to mourn death is common in animals including foxes,  magpieswolves, dolphins, and gorillas.
  6. Maybe even religion. Cetologist Hal Whitehead‘s research indicates that sperm whales not only transmit culture to their young, they may have have evolved a form of religion to make sense of their purpose.


Even these terribly incomplete examples have probably taxed your patience although there are thousands of other fascinating proofs out there. Let’s remember, all these observations are human-centric, further evidence that we judge animals against one species—-us.

We wouldn’t have particularly good scores if tested according to the abilities of our fellow creatures. It’s not as if we can age in reverse as a jellyfish named Turritopsis dohrnii does, possess a snake’s infrared vision able to assess the difference in temperature between moving prey and surrounding area on the scale of milliKelvins, emit a protein that neutralizes nearly every poison as an opossum does, regrow limbs and organs as the salamander can, or are able to hear as well as the wax moth Galleria mellonella which is capable of detecting frequencies of up to 300kHz, (we humans at best hear to about 20kHz).

According to evolutionary biologists, we humans aren’t better than animals, just different. Researchers in fields like comparative psychology and language study, say there’s an “emerging consensus among scientists that animals share functional parallels with humans’ conscious metacognition — that is, our ability to reflect on our own mental processes and guide and optimize them.”

As naturalist Henry Beston wrote in The Outermost House,

We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate for having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein do we err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.


animal capacities, Eden,

“Paradijs met dieren” by Jan Brueghel the Elder, 1620

Response to Kids’ Misbehavior: “Good Old Days” vs. Now

older generation of kids, historical comparison of children,

Learning from earlier generations. (CC by 2.0 SimpleInsomnia)

Unable to find a job in my field after college, I ended up working as a nursing home activity director. It was the best job in the place. Unlike overworked staff in other departments, I had time to form real relationships with the residents. This was 25-some years ago (yes, I’m that old). Our 100 bed unit was brimming with people too frail to care for themselves but most were otherwise mentally acute. (Not one patient with today’s unnecessary plague, Alzheimer’s disease.)

These elders were in their 80’s and 90’s, born around the 1900’s or slightly before, and always happily reminisced with someone willing to listen. They were extraordinary teachers and gave me perspectives I could have encountered nowhere else. One angle new to me was how differently childhood was viewed by adults back when they were growing up.

Kids worked hard then. They were expected to do heavy chores at home as well as work on the family farm or family business. Some even held jobs in factories. But when their obligations were over they were entirely free. They roamed the streets or woods with their peers, improvised games, put on their own skits and plays, made playthings like twig whistles and soapbox cars, built forts, swung from vines into swimming holes, and indulged in make-believe well into their early teens. They skirted around the adult world in a realm of their own, as children have done throughout human history.

criminalizing children, school-to-prison pipeline,

Costumed kids, skit to come. (image: Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries)

I’m not implying that childhood was remotely easy back then. Aside from hard work there seemed to be very little recognition of a child’s emotional needs. Worse, it was a time of blatant racial, gender, ethnic, and class discrimination. But I’d like to point out that when these elders were kids back in 1910’s and 1920’s many of them caused real trouble. Here are a few of the more extreme stories they told me.

Halloween was a holiday with no real adult involvement or interest. That night kids of all ages went out trick-or-treating, knowing they weren’t likely to get a treat (cookie or apple) from most neighbors. Preteens or teens often played tricks to retaliate. Soaping windows was the mildest trick they described. Most were much worse. Wooden steps were pulled away from doors, gravestones left in yards, pigs let out of pens, fires set in dry cornfields ready for harvest, water pumped into basements. One man told me he and his friends put an elderly widow’s buggy on top of her back porch roof. It wasn’t till a few days later that her plight was noticed and someone strong enough to help could get it down. A common Halloween prank was lifting an outhouse a foot or so to the side. In the dark, an unsuspecting person heading out to use it was likely to fall into the hole.

A 14-year-old stole whiskey from a bootlegger and got shot at as he ran off. Another bootlegger was blamed and never seen again.

A 15-year-old took her older sister’s papers booking passage on a ship to the U.S., saying her sister could better look after their family back home. Once she arrived, she worked as a cook for a family that paid for the ticket, answered to her sisters name, married under that name, and gained citizenship under that name. Her sister used the same name back in Ireland all that time.

There were plenty of other stories. Public drunkenness, fist fights that turned into brawls, runaways who rode the rails and runaways who got married against their parents’ wishes, shoplifting, breaking into school offices to change grades and steal tests, and one story of a school riot over a change in dismissal time.

These people suffered no appreciable consequences from authorities.

Not. One. Of. Them.

Their parents were certainly angry if they found out. The usual punishment? More chores. If police were informed they gave the kids a talking to, in the most extreme cases put them in the back of a squad car for a more serious talking to at the police station. No charges. No jail time. No record of their misdeeds beyond a local cop’s memory. Back then, it was assumed that kids would grow out of it.

All of these people grew up to work stable jobs and own homes. Most were married until death parted them from their spouses. One was a judge, one a career military officer, several were in the skilled trades, several others were business owners, many were homemakers and tireless volunteers, nearly all were proud parents of highly accomplished children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

Yet today’s kids are being criminalized.

I’m not for a moment defending any young person’s impulse to wreak mayhem at home or in the community. I am saying that today’s response to (far less drastic) behaviors common during any child’s growing up years is appalling.

These days armed officers roam schools in thousands of districts. Studies show their presence doesn’t actually improve safety. Instead, children are often treated like criminals for common disciplinary issues such as yelling, swearing, or pushing. Here are a few of the more extreme examples.

A seventeen-year-old girl spent 24 hours in jail for truancy. This honors student works two jobs to help support her family and can’t always get to school.

A six-year old boy and avid Cub Scout was suspended for five days after bringing to school his Cub Scout eating utensil containing a fork, spoon, and knife. Due to public pressure, the school board voted to spare him the other punishment he’d received: 45 days in reform school.

A thirteen-year-old boy was handcuffed, arrested, and transported from school to a Juvenile Detention Center although his parents weren’t notified. His crime? He “burped audibly” in gym class.

A twelve-year-old girl was arrested for doodling on a desk with a green marker.

A seventeen-year-old boy who broke up a fight between two girls was shot with a taser by a deputy on duty at the school. The young man suffered a brain hemorrhage, spent 67 days in intensive care, and remains brain injured. The officer wasn’t charged due to lack of evidence.

The Guardian interviewed Deborah Fowler, who authored a 200-page study of the consequences of policing in Texas schools. They report,

…most schools do not face any serious threat of violence and police officers patrolling the corridors and canteens are largely confronted with little more than boisterous or disrespectful childhood behavior.

What we see often is a real overreaction to behavior that others would generally think of as just childish misbehavior rather than law breaking,” said Fowler. Tickets are most frequently issued by school police for “disruption of class,” which can mean causing problems during lessons but is also defined as disruptive behavior within 500 ft of school property such as shouting, which is classified as “making an unreasonable noise.”

Minority students are much more likely to be disciplined, fined, or arrested than white students in what’s being called the school-to-prison pipeline. Huge corporations like Corrections Corporation of America and smaller companies like AIM Truancy Solutions lobby for get-tough policies that bring them big profits in tax-payer money.

In some states tickets are issued, even in primary grades. These citations may compel the student to appear in court to face sentences including fines, court costs, and mandatory participation in remedial programs. This means the child is now entered into the judicial system, with police or court records that may or may not be sealed. If students don’t appear or their families can’t afford the fines, an arrest warrant may automatically be issued when they turn 17. This means childish misbehavior can follow young people into their adult lives. There’s a common question on applications for college, the military, and employment “Have you ever been charged with a crime?”  The answer, for these kids, is “yes.”

Heavy-handed tactics used against children may get worse very soon. School districts in 22 states including Texas, California, Florida, Kansas, and Utah are participating in a federal program which provides military surplus to local law enforcement organizations. We’re talking gear like assault rifles, extended magazines, military vehicles, and other weapons intended for combat.

What happened to free range childhood? Why do we act as if every choice a child makes must be the correct one? That risks are always too risky? That freedom of any kind equals danger?

The goal of creating high-achieving young people through unremitting scrutiny, at times backed up by force, is wrong. But today’s treatment of young people isn’t even based on evidence. Ask any high-achieving adult about their youthful high jinks. Better yet, ask the oldest people still left to us. A long look back may be the cure we need.

“We live in a decaying age. Young people no longer respect their parents. They are rude and impatient. They frequently inhabit taverns and have no self-control.”  inscription in an Ancient Egyptian tomb

“I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless… When I was young we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly unwise and impatient.”   -Hesiod, 8th century BC 

“The world is passing through troublous times. The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for parents or old age. They are impatient of all restraint. They talk as if they knew everything and what passes for wisdom with us is foolishness with them. As for the girls, they are forward, immodest, and unladylike in speech, behavior, and dress.”   -Peter the Hermit, sermon preached 1274 AD

what your great-grandparents did, oral history,

What our elders can tell us. (CC by 2.0 SimpleInsomnia)

Talking During Recess

childhood lies, teacher punishment, child's honestly, truth and lies in childhood, second grade punishment,

collage by L.G. Weldon

“That’s not true,” the girl behind me said in a singsong voice. “You’re lying.”

I turned around and shook my head, hoping she wouldn’t attract the teacher’s attention. Judy’s hair was unkempt and dirty. Maybe her mother didn’t love her enough to take good care of her. I knew I should feel sorry for her, but Judy was as nasty as she smelled.

Rain rolled down the windows during indoor recess. Our second grade classroom was a neat rectangle except for the jutting wall where the door fit in. I preferred symmetry. At seven years of age, my mother’s mindset formed neat geometric spaces in my head. I adhered to her categories: clean and dirty, right and wrong, bad people and good people, truth and lies. Well, I had some trouble with the truth.

My mother often said that she loved us more than any words could say. She told us no one tried harder to have children than she did. Then she would tell us how many babies she had lost in order to have us.

Lost. The word resounded throughout my body.

When I was very small I worried that I too would be lost, as I often was in the grocery store. When I understood that her babies had died before they were born it didn’t help. My mother talked about the lost babies to express her love for us. She went through eleven pregnancies to have a family with three living children. I did the math. My brother, sister and I were conceived because those babies died. I tried talking to my sister about it once but she didn’t understand.

“They weren’t even people yet,” she told me. “They were probably smaller than a minnow. Don’t get all weird about it.”

But they were people to my mother. And to me.

Sitting at our desks during indoor recess, vying for attention, I casually mentioned to my friends, Jennifer and Stephanie and Julie, that I would have had a big family but lots of the babies died. I knew this wasn’t really true. My parents planned to have three kids, they just wouldn’t have had me. I also knew it was wrong to make family grief into a public tale even if it gave me momentary thrill of popularity.

“Oh, the poor babies,” Jennifer said.

“How many babies?” Stephanie wanted to know.

“Lots,” I said. “Eight babies.” I knew I’d gone too far.

Judy overheard, and she piped up, “I’m telling Mrs. Lauver.”

I felt my fate as tightly sealed as the braids my mother lovingly bound in colors to match my dress. I was in trouble.

After the tattletale got to her, Mrs. Lauver called me up to her desk. My knees trembled when she paid attention to me. I was a good student, but sometimes my teacher called me names and then pointed out that I was blushing. We had moved the year before and rules from my last school, such as rising when called upon, had been hard for me to break for the first week. Mrs. Lauver called me a “jumping jack” and punished me when I didn’t stop standing up right away. That started it. It seemed she was always after me.

But this time I’d brought it on myself.

Everyone watched as I walked up to the front of the room. No one got called up to the teacher’s desk during indoor recess. The teacher normally had that time off, sitting with her friends in the smoke-filled lounge, so she tended to ignore us and read a thick paperback at her desk, her chair turned slightly away from the class as if we weren’t her responsibility. We honored that inattention by keeping the hubbub down. After recess she would read a chapter of Charlotte’s Web to us.  She always threatened that if we got too loud she might deny us that privilege and go right to social studies.

I went up to Mrs. Lauver’s desk as slowly as possible. Anxiety made my senses acute. I could smell the awful geraniums she kept on the windowsill, their brown sickly leaves rotting away. I could feel my classmates’ eager curiosity—-cartoon watchers waiting for the silly wabbit to be shot. As I got closer I could see where the teacher’s too tight sleeveless dress cut into her flesh, the frighteningly hard texture of her hair and the orange-hued makeup on her face. I wanted my mother badly. Her dresses were loose, her hair soft, her face never anything like my teacher’s.

I should have been planning what to say, but a liar sticks to the story, sometimes makes it worse. I made it worse. I stood at the desk, unsure of what to do with my hands that twisted the ends of my braids. I insisted that our family did have lots of children once but they died.

“Oh, and how did that happen?” She had a tight smile on her face.

I thought about it.

I saw them inside my head, my unknown brothers and sisters. They would have been older than me. If they had lived, I would not have been born. To me, their deaths felt like a gift and a burden. Standing there at Mrs. Lauver’s desk I saw their lives pass without breath in the darkness of water, waves breaking over their heads in the distance. I could almost see their faces. So I said simply, “They drowned.”

Despite further questions I couldn’t get another word out.

“I’m calling your mother,” the teacher said. “We’ll see what she has to say .”

That awful outcast’s land. Wanting one’s mama, but being in trouble. Now how could I rush home to a welcoming hug when I would encounter anger? My stomach folded up and I had to remember what my face was supposed to look like the rest of the afternoon.

After school there was a scene. My mother said that only bad people were liars. Liars grow up to commit crimes and go to jail. Over and over she asked, “Just tell me, why would you make up such an awful story?

All I could answer was, “I don’t know.”

I didn’t. What I said about the lost babies couldn’t be explained. I took my spanking and went to my room. My parents had a conversation later and came up with a punishment—write an apology to my teacher for lying. My notebook paper was filled with carefully printed words, but they were just shapes. I didn’t feel anything I’d written.

When I stood there in front of Mrs. Lauver that afternoon I was being honest. I told her what I saw. A child may not have words for what she knows even on the day she begins to understand that there are no neat categories for truth and lies.

I haven’t forgotten those lost babies. I hope I live as a testament to the joys they never knew, like telling stories true as our shared DNA.