Taken from Eddy, Gallup, & Povinelli (1993)
Why It Is Difficult for Us to Love Amphibians and Reptiles
Puspita Insan Kamil
September 12, 2022
The wide misconception of conservation is that humans are often seen as a separate species from the ecosystem, and our mere contribution to it is just to be responsible and manage conservation species programs. Humans are often argued as sinful creatures for the environment, while in our opinion, humans are parts of the ecosystem web, and that is why every action that we take is actually considered important for the ecosystem. An ecosystem, which is comprised of a web where every living thing works together to form a bubble of life, also includes humans as one of the species inside that bubble. Often we read that all human work is considered “unnatural” or “modern,” while actually, from a more psychological point of view, it is a natural byproduct of the development of our brains.
This perspective actually brings us to a more philosophical and moral question: so is it natural for humans to do whatever they want, as well as to exploit another species? Humans, to this day, are the only known species on Earth that is able to use and domesticate other species on a massive scale. Our domestication efforts in the past centuries have brought us to our ability to get love from our dogs and cats at home and to eat meat or dairy products every single day. So if we talk consider domestication as part of exploitation, most of the time, the likely answer is actually to make our life more efficient, thus increasing our chances of survival. This pattern is actually found in so many other animals, and our brain has been wired to create this efficiency of life, and evolution even has made our brain to be lazier.
As a consequence of this “efficiency-based design,” our brain is designed to simplify decisions by selecting relevant information, and at some level, our brain is able to focus our attention on only selected visual stimuli that are important to us. Now, when we talk about conservation, do you think that conservation efforts across species are fairly distributed and executed? Because we think otherwise. We think there is a significant obsession with charismatic animals, and other scientists would agree with us. Humans are captivated by majestic and beautiful animals - but as the old adage said, isn’t beauty in the eye of the beholder? Then why some specific animals, such as tigers and orangutans, are more popular in a wide range of communities? Do we have some kind of agreement on the definition of “beautiful animals”?
The answer, unfortunately, is yes. An old but gold study by Eddy, Gallup, and Povinelli (1993) found that there are animal groups that are perceived to possess more similarities with humans and also higher cognitive ability, and this is a key finding for anthropomorphism theory development. Anthropomorphism, or a tendency for humans to attribute human characteristics to animals, is a doorway for humans to feel more love and empathy for specific animal groups. The 1993 study found that primates, cats and dogs, and mammals, are the top three groups that have more possibilities for humans to care about, while amphibians and reptiles are in the bottom four. This means the morphological attributes of amphibians and reptiles make it difficult for us to be interested in them, and as interesting as it is, humans also think their intellectual capacity is far from human. The more elaborate explanations of this tendency can also vary, but we argue that because the brain wants more efficient information, humans perceive that species that are more similar in terms of intelligence and morphology are more human, closest to us, easier to understand, or communicate with, and most importantly, important to be saved. This is an irony because an ecosystem needs diversity to establish a balanced bubble.
Despite this dark piece of information, we still have hope for herpetofauna conversation. Some groups are trying very hard to communicate their importance to a balanced ecosystem, and we would say that the easiest way to tell people to save them is to emphasize their importance to human existence. Thus, if we want to benefit from how our brain is wired, so to tell people that herpetofauna has some kind of contribution to human life, the brain would say it is important to save them because that will help humans to continue to survive. It’s merely a shortcut to making the conservation message as efficient as possible. We don’t talk about some people that already care about these species, but millions of people out throughout the world who only understands snake as a symbol of poison, and that makes them afraid and kill snakes. The next step is to communicate their intelligence capacity - which they bear in a way different from humans, to make humans believe that they are also intelligent in their own way. As humans are very much anthropocentric, telling them an animal is as smart as a human will create more urgency to save them. It’s a long way to an ideal conservation effort, but it is worth trying.