Constructive anthropomorphism: A functional evolutionary approach to the study of human-like cognitive mechanisms in animals

Michal Arbilly, Arnon Lotem

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Anthropomorphism, the attribution of human cognitive processes and emotional states to animals, is commonly viewed as non-scientific and potentially misleading. This is mainly because apparent similarity to humans can usually be explained by alternative, simpler mechanisms in animals, and because there is no explanatory power in analogies to human phenomena when these phenomena are not well understood. Yet, because it is also difficult to preclude real similarity and continuity in the evolution of humans’ and ani-mals’ cognitive abilities, it may not be productive to completely ignore our understanding of human behaviour when thinking about animals. Here we propose that in applying a functional approach to the evolution of cognitive mechanisms, human cognition may be used to broaden our theoretical thinking and to generate testable hypotheses. Our goal is not to ‘elevate’ animals, but rather to find the minimal set of mechanistic principles that may explain ‘advanced’ cognitive abilities in humans, and consider under what conditions these mechanisms were likely to enhance fitness and to evolve in animals. We illustrate this approach, from relatively simple emotional states, to more advanced mechanisms, involved in planning and decision-making, episodic memory, metacognition, theory of mind, and consciousness.

Original languageEnglish
Article number20171616
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1865
StatePublished - 25 Oct 2017


  • Cognitive evolution
  • Emotions
  • Empathy
  • Episodic memory
  • Language evolution
  • Metacognition

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Immunology and Microbiology(all)
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Environmental Science(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)


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