Illustration by Eline Veldhuisen

Can humans empathize with animals? Recognizing our limited view in understanding animals' intelligence

Gabriëlle Bruggeling


As an anthropologist I believed that ‘culture’ is what makes humans exceptional compared to other living beings. Research on social learning and cultural traits among animals, however, shows that ‘human abilities’ are found among animals as well. It states that humans and animals are more alike than different. These findings invite us to learn to understand animals’ intelligence through the setting of their ecology, instead of from the human point of view. But are humans capable of empathizing with animals in that way? It is an instinct of human evolution to attribute human-like traits and behaviors to animals. This tendency is what is called anthropomorphism. Furthermore and in extension of this, we define animals through stories and life experiences, which often has a direct effect on how animals live. It is evident that these human traits can have -and already have- a negative effect on biodiversity. I therefore propose that, in recognition of our limited human view, we can move towards a perspective that is more inclusive of all life on this planet. The first step of doing so is to open up to different stories, like creation stories of indigenous people. Stories and beliefs of indigenous people offer us a holistic approach to the value of life. By seeing all life as part of a ‘storied world’, we can move past our anthropomorphized views and use the human strength of story-telling for the betterment of our environment.

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Gabriëlle Bruggeling

Author / Voice

Gabriëlle Bruggeling is a cultural anthropologist and entrepreneur. She is the founder of Anthroconsult, an organization that applies anthropological methods to help initiatives and organizations gain insights into their target group. Next to that, she works at The Beach in Amsterdam, a neighborhood hub for co-creation and co-design. The main interest in Gabrielle’s career is what she calls ‘minority perspectives’; perspectives that are rarely heard, but add wisdom to mainstream views. To understand bureaucratic systems from the local lived-experience, she worked with refugees and homeless people. More recently, in understanding what a ‘sustainable society’ entails, she turned to indigenous perspectives. She believes that storytelling is a strong means to generate healthier human behavior and restore our relationship with our natural world.

Eline Veldhuisen


Eline Veldhuisen (1999) is an illustrator from the Netherlands. She graduated with a Bachelor of Design in Illustration, from the University of the Arts Utrecht in 2020. She works on commissioned projects and makes personal work.Within her work, she tries to portray stories in a clear way, with as few resources as possible. She often draws inspiration from her immediate environment.

“Humans are a unique species. Unlike other species, we build complex societies, develop multiple languages and invent all kinds of products that make our lives easier. We evolve through our ability to learn from others, copy other’s behaviors, and invent new approaches to doing things. 
We are fascinating because, unlike any other being, we possess the phenomenon known as ‘culture.’”

This is a statement I wrote soon after graduating as an anthropologist. I was convinced that ‘culture’ was – next to one of the most interesting things to study- a unique phenomenon of humanity. Basically, culture is the whole way of living, the customs we create, the shared belief systems, behaviors and habits. All of these things are part of social learning: learning through seeing other people behave. Today, I still agree that humans are fascinating beings to study, but I am doubtful whether the characteristics that fascinate me are unique to humankind. Until now, I wasn’t very aware of animals’ cognitive and emotional abilities. In a society where we struggle to keep our natural environment in balance with human needs, I believe it is important to consider how we define the place other living beings hold next to us.

In this article, I would like to challenge the belief that humans are a unique species in the animal kingdom. I will first look at the possibility of cultural traits -like social learning- being present among animals. I then explore where our views about animals arise from. Drawing from indigenous perspectives, I conclude with a suggestion for redefining the meaning animals hold in our lives.

Ripples of intelligence in the living world

My belief of culture being unique to humans changed when I read Frans de Waal’s [1] book titled: Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are? De Waal is an ethologist and prominent primatologist famous for emphasizing cognitive and emotional similarities between animals and humans. In his book, he offers many examples of social learning among apes and other animals, which makes it hard to uphold the claim that culture is a human phenomenon only. He, for instance, refers to the father of Japanese primatology, Kinji Imanishi, who was a pioneer in proposing something like ‘animal culture’ (1952). Imanishi studied a juvenile female of the Japanese macaques on Koshima Island who was the first of her society to start washing sweet potatoes before eating them. This habit spread at first to her mother, then to her peers, females and eventually all apes. The macaques’ society is very hierarchical; males are therefore the first ones to consume food and were thus the last ones to learn potato washing. This is a famous example of learned social tradition among apes. It opposes the idea that animals live by instinct only and are born with their habits.

Next to learned social traditions, the use of language is an important phenomenon that anthropologists like to study, but is it unique to our kind? Well, what about birds? Songbirds and humans share at least fifty genes specifically related to vocal learning. In fact, birds are not the only ones to use verbal language; multiple other species use it as well. An intriguing case of language among animals is the so called ‘signature whistles’ of dolphins, which could be associated with the ‘human-trait’ of name-calling. Every dolphin develops a unique whistle that – when meeting fellow dolphins- functions as an identification of itself. The structure of these whistles varies from one dolphin to another, much like the way ringtonesvary. Dolphins whistle their melody when they meet other dolphins, but also have a great memory of whistles from their peers and families. Whenever dolphins are lonely or miss their peers, they mimic their whistles. Furthermore, male dolphins adapt their whistle to that of another male dolphin they form an alliance with. Finally, let us not underestimate the power of body language; since for many animals that is the only language they have. They can therefore read bodies better than humans. To name one unique example: bees can communicate the direction, distance and quality of food sources’ locations via dance [2].

Through presenting many interesting facts about animals’intelligence, De Waal illustrates that we as humans aren’t that exclusive. Humans might be the only species that have extensive linguistic abilities and can build complex societal structures, but even those abilities can be found as – what De Waal calls- ‘cognitive ripples’ among other beings. He thus proposes that “[e]very cognitive capacity that we discover is going to be older and more widespread than initially thought.” This means that humans might be unique, but so are other being. Despite this, we are more alike than different. This approach recognizes the extraordinary abilities of other species as well: like determining the distance and direction of an object through the use of sound and echo (bats) and changing color to camouflage yourself in the environment (octopus). Can we really compare human intelligence to that of a bat or an octopus when their body, environment and abilities require a different approach to understand their intelligence? Can humans empathize with abilities we have never acquired? The approach De Waal is suggesting, is that “instead of making humanity the measure of all things, we need to evaluate other species by what they are.” This approach invites us to learn about animals’ intelligence in the setting of their ecology and to be somewhat modest about thinking we know what animals think, need and feel.  

When I look at the way animals in my surroundings are living, it seems as if we fail to understand their intelligence through this approach. For example: pigs have a higher (emotional) intelligence than infants, people with mental impairment and people with dementia [3]. Despite that, we do not have the same emotional response thinking about a pig in a slaughterhouse like we would have for a human in that situation. Isn’t that curious if you think about it? Most of us probably know that pigs are intelligent beings, yet we do not feel the same kind of empathy towards them as we do for humans. Or maybe we lack interest in learning about their intelligence. Whatever it might be, the overarching question for me is: what makes us humans think of animals in a way that enables us to interfere with their natural habitat?

Story-ing animals

As mentioned before, humans have the most extensive linguistic abilities; we can frame our world through words and imagine it through stories. Knowing the importance of storytelling in the field of anthropology, I wonder if this ability is also the reason for our capacity to interfere in animals’ lives. Psychology teaches us that in trying to understand animals, we attribute human cognitive processes and emotional states to them. This is what is called ‘anthropomorphism’[4].

Anthropomorphism is not something we apply to animals only, but also to any other entity in our environment. For example: “my car is not feeling well today” or “my plant is happy with me”. This tendency is not just there because we like to put ourselves at the center of the world, it is an actual instinct in evolutionary history to select appropriate data from the exterior world [5]. From the moment we are born, our brain focuses on human faces in the environment. We learn the meaning of various facial expressions and apply that knowledge onto every other human face we observe. We extend this interpretation to the faces of animals, other beings and objects, whether it is applicable or not.  Furthermore, this tendency makes humans more empathic towards animals that ‘look’ more like a human (e.g. four legs, similar facial features like dogs), than animals that do not (e.g. multiple or no legs, no facial features like a centipede). For this reason, wildlife conservation organizations like WWF, portray the panda on the cover of their donation folders, instead of the endangered Chinese giant salamander.


It is not just our psychological wiring that decides our relationships with animals; we also tell stories, whether it’s through research, religion or life experiences. A theory that had a big influence on how we frame the intelligence and abilities of animals compared to humans is the Darwinian theory (1859). It claims that humans alone possess rationality, language, consciousness and emotions [6]. Many researchers believe that this way of thinking contributes to a hierarchical way of thinking about both animals and humans. The Darwinian theory implies dichotomies between wild and domestic, savage and civilized.  People who were considered primitive were in this sense more related to animals than other humans. Early anthropologists- unfortunately- also played a part in this thinking and, as we all know, this imperialist thinking had a great impact on the lives of enslaved and indigenous people. The way in which we have categorized nature has also scaled ethnicity. The consequences of these frames on our current world, show the power of storytelling and framing.

In a case study on the ritual and everyday practices of a family of buffalo-keeping Yadavs in  Uttar Pradesh India, Kathryn Hardy [7] describes how cows, compared to buffaloes, receive exclusive treatment based on their religious value. In Hinduism, cows are seen as a “source of all goodness, wealth and knowledge”, while buffaloes are associated with the God of death (Yama) who rides on a ‘buffalo demon’ (Mahishasur). In her research, informants often described buffaloes as “wild, ungainly and brainless”. To be compared to a buffalo is therefore an insult. At the same time, when it comes to economic value, the dairy industry in North India prefers buffalo milk over cow’s milk because of the higher yield and grams of fat in the milk. As a result, buffaloes are commodified while cows are revered, even though they are genetically very similar species.

Similarly, in the Netherlands, a cow breed called Blaarkop is considered an imperfect cow according to Dutch dairy farmers [8]. The Holstein breed, however, is considered the perfect cow due to its milk production. In the early twentieth century, this originally Dutch cow was exported to the United States where people managed to improve its milk production. Back in the Netherlands, the cow replaced every other cow in the Dutch dairy industry. Meanwhile, the Blaarkop breed had become an endangered species because of its lack of milk production. Through its ‘appealing physical features’, however, people have developed a special kind of liking towards this breed and are trying to protect it from extinction. Where the Holstein breed would be working over-time to provide the dairy industry with milk, the Blaarkop lives a more autonomous life because of its appearance and milk output.

Both of these examples show (1) the influence stories and human interests have on animals, and (2) how the same species live different lives based on spatial and cultural circumstances. I think we are all familiar with animals that would not live the same life if it wasn’t for humans. We story and categorize animals into pets, cattle, zoo animals, laboratory animals, pests and you name it. This is a problem because our interventions have a massive effect on the biodiversity of our ecosystem. For example, the meat and dairy industries have completely unbalanced the variety and ratio of species: the earth consists of approximately 700 million tons of cattle, while there are only 100 million tons of wild animals [9]. Similarly, many animals have become extinct and the loss of certain species like bees will have a tremendous effect on our ecosystem.

Back to the origin: recognizing the place of animals in human lives.

Is our limited anthropomorphized view going to be the cause of the extinction of other beings and eventually ours? Well, our knowledge is limited, species-specific and site-specific: it is based on what we have learned, experienced with our senses and are told. Nonetheless, the most hopeful thing I learned in anthropology is that culture (the system that encompasses ‘our way of living’) is ever-changing and that we can actively contribute to a different way of looking at the world. Similar to how animals have adapted themselves to cities, humans can adapt themselves to a world in which we regard animals in a different light.

To suggest a first step in re-defining the position of animals in our lives, it can be helpful to look at how we have narrated our place in the world. What better stories than creation stories can give us insights on that? We are all familiar with the biblical story of Adam and Eve, but did you know that there are many more creation stories that offer new perspectives on the relationship humans have with any other living being? For instance, In the creation story of Potawatomi people (Native Americans of the Great Plains) animals play an important role in the creation of the world. Below, I have attempted to summarize this story:

The story begins with a woman falling from the sky (Skywoman) and taking a ray of light with her. Geese noticed the falling woman and one of them caught her. Since there was no suitable place for the woman to live (after all, there was only water), the water-animals discussed what they could offer the woman. When the woman walked from the goose’s wings to the turtle’s shell, the animals realized that she needed land. All the animals attempted to scoop up mud from the bottom of the sea, with some succeeding and others failing. In the process, one animal gave its life. The woman did not come to earth empty-handed; she brought gifts with her from the kingdom of heaven. She demonstrated her gratitude to the animals by scattering various seeds over the collected mud on the turtle’s shell, creating a green land. Since the animals now had enough to eat, some of them came to live with her on the land. Besides that, the woman was pregnant and the creation of the land was not only motivated by her gratitude towards the animals, but also by her sense of responsibility towards future generations.

In the Christian creation story, humans are portrayed as the ‘cherry on top’; this story, however, emphasizes the co-creation between animals and humans. According to Kimmerer [10], this story inspires Potawatomi people to think modestly about the extent of human knowledge; “We say that humans have the least experience with how to live and thus the most to learn—we must look to our teachers among the other species for guidance. Their wisdom is apparent in the way that they live. They teach us by example. They have been on the earth far longer than we have been, and have had time to figure things out.”

By incorporating indigenous ways of thinking, we can gain a more holistic understanding of our natural world. In this line of thought, anthropologist Tim Ingold [11] proposes to view our lives and any other life as part of a ‘storied world’: “In the storied world […] things do not exist, they occur. Where things meet, occurrences intertwine, as each becomes bound up in the other’s story. Every such binding is a place or topic. It is in this binding that knowledge is generated. To know someone or something is to know their story, and to be able to join that story to one’s own. […] There is no point at which the story ends and life begins. Stories should not end for the same reason that life should not. And in the story, as in life, it is in the movement from place to place – or from topic to topic – that knowledge is integrated.”

Building on this perspective and that of De Waal, means placing ourselves in a realistic environment in which we see other living beings for what they are: other breathing beings we are more similar to than different from and that we are living with, instead of next to. Believing that only humans have culture hindered my understanding of how another being experiences the world. On the other hand, the knowledge we have about humans, could also help us to understand other beings better. Through the insights of De Waal, I realized that the kind of research that is conducted to learn about animals in their ecology is similar to the research we do in anthropology. When trying to understand people, a researcher needs to develop, what Small & Calarco [12], call a high degree of ‘cognitive empathy’: this means to “[…] understand how those interviewed or observed view the world and themselves- from their perspective”. It thus implies that I need to keep questioning myself and asking the research subject whether I really understand how that person sees the world and why; instead of presuming I understand. Likewise, I cannot expect to know what an animal thinks, feels or experiences as long as I haven’t tried to empathize with them in their natural environment. And I should really question if I can empathize with animals like a bee or a bat who have abilities that I am not familiar with.

Language and storytelling are powerful means, we therefore need to be careful with how we frame life through it. It is, on the other hand, one of the strongest means we have to reshape our behavior. The knife cuts both ways. The statement I wrote a few years ago failed to recognize other beings’ uniqueness. In this article, however, the statement was the start of an exploration towards a more inclusive perspective. Similarly, I would love to see how humanity will use storytelling for the betterment of life on this planet and evoke a kind of care that is broader than ourselves.



[1] De Waal, F., 2016. Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are? WW Norton & Company.  
2: A Tale of two Schools
3: Cognitive Ripples
5: The Measure of all Things
9: Evolutionary Cognition
[2] Seeley, T.D., 2011. Honeybee democracy. Princeton University Press.
[3] Bregman, R. 2017. Hierdoor werd ik in een klap vegetariër (en jij misschien ook), De Correspondent.>
[4] Arbilly, M. and Lotem, A., 2017. Constructive anthropomorphism: a functional evolutionary approach to the study of human-like cognitive mechanisms in animals .InProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
[5] Bruni, D., Perconti, P. and Plebe, A., 2018. Anti-anthropomorphism and its limits. In Frontiers in psychology.[6] Jaroš, F. and Maran, T., 2019. Humans on top, humans among the other animals: Narratives of anthropological difference. In Biosemiotics, 12(3), pp.381-403.
[7] Hardy, K.C., 2019. Provincialising the Cow: Buffalo–Human Relationships.South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, 42(6), pp.1156-1172.
[8] Verkaaik, O., 2021. Polder Panda: Imperfection and Love in Dutch Dairy Farming. InStudies in Mistakes, Flaws, and Failures.
[9] Harari, Y.N., 2014. Sapiens: a brief history of humankind.
[10] Kimmerer, R., 2013. Skywoman Falling in Braiding sweetgrass: Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge and the teachings of plants. Milkweed editions.
[11]  Ingold, T., 2021. Naming as storytelling In Being alive: Essays on movement, knowledge and description. Routledge. (The quote is from page 160-161)
[12] Small, M.L. and Calarco, J.M., 2022. Cognitive empathy in Qualitative literacy: A guide to evaluating ethnographic and interview research. Univ of California Press

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