The special bond that often forms between people and both domesticated and wild animals may be, paradoxically, part of what makes us human.
My home is unusual. Why? It’s not because the kitchen floor is painted blue or because it’s littered with the latest technological gizmos. Compared to other homes in the US, we’re unusual due to the simple fact that we own no pets: That puts us in a 37 percent minority. My wife and I have even had people tell us we were “cruel” to our children because we never let them have pets. To us, it never made sense to have pets: We’re busy people, and pets just seemed like an added expense and hassle. Yet most Americans own pets. Even though our society is no longer rural and pets are not needed for security or pest control, clearly a lot of people see them as essential. What motivates so many people to have pets?
New York anthropologist Krystal D’Costa wrote last month about a paper by Pat Shipman arguing that our special connection with animals is one of the key traits that distinguish humans from all other creatures on Earth. Anthropologists, philosophers, and others have ruminated for centuries on what defining characteristics make us “human.” Traditionally, the big three traits of humans have been sophisticated communication, tool use, and domestication of animals. Shipman argues that the fact that people take domestication one step further and adopt pets as family members is a fourth distinguishing trait of human beings.
Shipman calls this close bond with animals the “animal connection,” and says it unites all the other human traits. Unlike other animals, who can only communicate via a limited set of signals, humans have languages capable of expressing complex concepts—and we share our language with our pets, treating them as if they understand our words (even though in many, if not most cases, they do not!). While some animals such as chimpanzees do make and use tools, no other animal utilizes so many tools in such complex and varied ways as humans do. We even use animals themselves as tools—from rodent bomb-sniffers to carrier pigeons to police dogs. In nearly every case where humans work with animals, they form close bonds. Animal abusers like the infamous NFL quarterback Michael Vick are treated with scorn seldom heaped on criminals who prey on human victims.
Despite the potential for abuse, the most common reason parents cite for acquiring pets is the belief that it benefits their children. Graduate student Jason Goldman writes frequently about pets and studies the psychological development of children, but in September he noted that few studies have focused on the interaction of children and pets. Presumably parents get pets for their kids because they think pets are good for them, but what evidence do we have that this is so? Goldman points to a review by Gail Melson of the relevant research on children and animals. Very young kids are certainly more interested in live animals than they are in other things like stuffed animals, or even adult humans. Young children are much more likely to interact with real animals than they are to play with realistic stuffed animals. And a study in Japan showed that children who took care of a pet goldfish did better than other kids on tests of basic biology.
Kids also develop important emotional bonds with their pets. When researchers asked them to identify ten individuals who were most important to them, seven- to ten-year-olds typically named two animals. Older children report relying on their pets for emotional support at very high rates: One study found that 75 percent of pre-teens gained comfort from their pets when they were upset. In another study, children who cared for pets were found to be more empathetic towards their peers than children without pets.
Goldman is careful to note that these studies don’t show that pets cause the positive behaviors in children; the studies only measure correlations. It may be, for example, that parents who buy their kids pets are also doing something else that promotes empathy. Or it could be that empathetic children are more likely to want pets.
The latter argument is bolstered by other correlative work finding that homes where animal cruelty occurs are also likely to be scenes of domestic violence. If having pets caused people to be more empathetic, it seems to me that we wouldn’t also find that people who are cruel to animals are cruel to humans; a more plausible explanation is that people who are more empathetic are more likely to have pets.
Of course, not everyone who is empathetic will decide to have pets—and some non-empathetic people will get pets. Perhaps that variance, too, is part of what it means to be human.
Dave Munger is editor of ResearchBlogging.org, where you can find thousands of blog posts on this and myriad other topics. Each week, he writes about recent posts on peer-reviewed research from across the blogosphere. See previous Research Blogging columns »
Originally published December 1, 2010ore
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