Anthropomorphism and the Smiling Ibis

Why is this Ibis smiling?

Why is this Ibis smiling?

Does it seem to you that this White-faced Ibis is smiling?

It isn’t, of course. At the physical level a semi-rigid bill, four times the length of your head, doesn’t lend itself to the human rictus we call a smile. And that tiny head doesn’t have a lot of room for much intellect, let alone a sense of humor.

The “smile” we see is our projection of human behavior onto an animal. The scientific term is anthropomorphism, the attribution of human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human entities. It seems to be intrinsic to human cognition. Anthropologists have found indications of anthropomorphism in stone age peoples. Classical mythology is largely anthropomorphic. Children’s fables and myths are chock-full of anthropomorphic animals.

Nor have modern cultures escaped anthropomorphism’s charms. Even as modern a gadget as a computer can “read,” “write,” “catch a virus” and “get sick.”

There are psychological theories around why humans have these tendencies, but none of them make much sense to WC. It may be nothing more than the human tendency to see patterns where they don’t exist and an unconscious tendency to apply our social skills outside of their context.

Among scientists, anthropomorphism is something to be scrubbed out. It leads to false conclusions and false inferences. It’s the biological equivalent of Percival Lowell’s martian canals. Objectivity and empiricism are science’s tools to avoid – or at least minimize – anthropomorphism.

In this case, the Ibis was startled by the sound of WC’s camera shutter, interrupted while looking for breakfast, and turned with it’s bill still open from foraging to see whether WC was a threat.

But it does look like a smile.