Tonik, a Shih Tzu/poodle who some say has a remarkably humanlike face, is up for adoption at a shelter in Indiana. Why is it that Tonik appears so human to some people?
Tonik, an 11-pound, 1-year-old dog available for adoption from the Homeward Bound Animal Welfare Group in Mishawaka, Ind., is looking for a loving and responsible household, preferably without children. He is part poodle, part Shih Tzu, and, if his photo is any indication, part human.
Yes, it's true: Tonik's face, at least in this photo, looks very much like that of a mildly peeved Homo sapiens. Indeed, the resemblance is striking enough to prompt a writer for The Huffington Post to lead a story with, "It's just one of those things that are like, 'Whoa, dude.'"
But how, exactly, did Tonik's face get so ... dude-like? Well, it's true that humans and dogs do share some genes: Our two species likely have a common ancestor dating back to the Cretaceous period. And it's also true that Shih Tzus have been bred for their flat faces (many Shih Tzus have trouble breathing because of this). But Tonik's humanoid visage has much less to do with canine physiology than it does with human psychology.
Anthropomorphism, the tendency to ascribe human traits to animals and objects, was first described by the traveling Greek poet Xenophanes of Colophon. Xenophanes, who lived in the 5th and 6th century BC, criticized the polytheism of his contemporaries, noting that Ethiopians described their gods as snub-nosed and black, while the Thracians described theirs as blue-eyed and red-haired. If horses and oxen could draw pictures, Xenophanes scoffed, they would draw deities that resemble horses and oxen.
Anthropomorphism is universal. Even the most hard-nosed rationalists among us cannot stop themselves from doing it. But in 2007, psychologists Adam Waytz, Nicholas Epley, and John T. Cacioppo found that people who feel socially isolated are more likely to anthropomorphize. They write:
"From the elderly person who treats his or her cat as a bit too much like a spouse to cinematic depictions such as 'Cast Away' in which the shipwrecked protagonist (Tom Hanks) anthropomorphizes a volleyball (named Wilson) after being marooned on an island, those who are lacking human connection appear to seek it out in nonhuman connections."
Perhaps even more universal than our tendency to ascribe human traits to nonhumans is our tendency to detect human faces in all manner of things. Anthropoid mugs constantly present themselves to us not just in all phyla of animals, but also in clouds, tree stumps, coffee stains, the moon, grilled cheese sandwiches, and anything else that can plausibly display a pair of ovals for eyes and a line for a mouth.
Psychologists use the term "pareidolia" to describe our tendency to perceive random stimuli as significant, and when it comes to faces, pareidolia is deeply ingrained. In fact, our brains have a specific area (right near the bottom, in case you were wondering) specialized to recognize faces. Brain-mapping studies show that it is one of the first parts of the brain to get to work when presented with something that looks like a face, but not with other objects. Neurons in this area fire in well under a fifth of a second, well before the conscious mind can begin to process the information. We are also adept at very quickly determining the emotions of the face, and we tend to pick out faces with threatening expressions faster than those with benign ones.
All of this is the result of eons of hard-won evolutionary programming, and it was in our ancestors' best reproductive interests not to be overly strict in excluding would-be faces. The costs of missing a human face are far greater than the costs of seeing one where none exists.
That brings us back to Tonik. Chances are, with all this media scrutiny, he's already got plenty of prospective adopters. But, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, about 5 million to 7 million cats, dogs, and other pets enter animal shelters nationwide each year, and approximately 3 million to 4 million of them are euthanized. If a little bit of evolutionarily ingrained cognitive misattribution will render these animals worthy of your compassion, and if you can responsibly take care of a pet, then feel free to anthropomorphize away.