What is the relation between human and nonhuman animals? As adults, we construe this relation flexibly, depending in part on the situation at hand. From a biological perspective, we acknowledge the status of humans as one species among many (as in Western science), but at the same time may adopt other perspectives, including an anthropocentric perspective in which human characteristics are attributed to nonhuman animals (as in fables and popular media). How do these perspectives develop? The predominant view in developmental cognitive science is that young children universally possess only one markedly anthropocentric vantage point, and must undergo fundamental conceptual change, overturning their initially human-centered framework before they can acquire a distinctly biological framework. Evidence from two experiments challenges this view. By developing a task that allows us to test children as young as 3 years of age, we are able to demonstrate that anthropocentrism is not the first developmental step in children’s reasoning about the biological world. Although urban 5-year-olds adopt an anthropocentric perspective, replicating previous reports, 3-year-olds show no hint of anthropocentrism. This suggests a previously unexplored model of development: Anthropocentrism is not an initial step in conceptual development, but is instead an acquired perspective, one that emerges between 3 and 5 years of age in children raised in urban environments.
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