On Anthropomorphism

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[This show will record at 5pm EDT.]

With their parallel lives, animals offer man a companionship which is different from any offered by human exchange. Different because it is a companionship offered to the loneliness of man as a species. What were the secrets of the animal’s likeness with, and unlikeness from, man? The secrets whose existence man recognized as soon as he intercepted animal’s look.

John Berger, Why Look at Animals?, About Looking, 1977

From Aesop’s Fables to Disney, from Orpheus to Dr. Dolittle, we have tried to draw ourselves closer to the unknowable animal. Animals were the first gods and the subjects of the first paintings. They were our first food and our first companions. And as John Berger suggests, they confront us with one of the many profound questions about our place in the universe: how are we humans both alike and unlike other animals?

Anthropomorphic cow "hunter" getting a hunting license from a bald eagle/park ranger

What, do you think, is he hunting?[Nathan Smithe / Flickr]

Aristotle took up this question, as did Descartes, as did the Scopes Trial. Today the question still resonates in the halls of science. Researchers in the newly emerging field of animal personality are exploring how livestock, finches, giant octopi, and spiders all display a range of consistent, predictable behavior you’d be hard pressed to describe as anything other than personality. And zoologists in Africa are starting to argue for a kind of “cross-species empathy” after observing what looks like post-traumatic stress disorder in elephants. This all despite the fact that anthropomorphism – attributing human characteristics, behavior or emotions to our non-human friends – has long been considered the ultimate scientific taboo.

In literature, Orwell found it useful, but Paul Theroux finds it abhorrent, even when taken up by the great E.B. White. Werner Herzog devoted an entire film essay to exploring its dark side. Is it because, as John Berger proposes:

In the last two centuries, animals have gradually disappeared. Today we live without them. And in this new solitude, anthropomorphism makes us doubly uneasy.

John Berger, Why Look at Animals?, About Looking, 1977

Why is anthropomorphism so beloved in art and literature and so hated in science? What can we learn from the exceptions to those rules? As we become more distant from animals, do we sentimentalize them more? What does it mean to acknowledge our uniqueness as a species, and conversely, to acknowledge ourselves as animals? Why is it threatening or uncanny to recognize traits we think of as human in other species?

Update, 4/10/07, 3:03pm

As David mentioned in his notes last week, the pre-interviews I’ve done for this show have been interesting — and varied — enough that we now plan on doing this show as a two-fer. The first will still be about anthropomorphism. The second will focus on new research in animal personality, behavior, morality, etc. Essentially, what we know about animals now and what we know about how they are both like and unlike humans. It should be a nice complement to the upcoming Meaning and Morality show. Stay tuned for dates as I wrangle our guests to appear on our show on the same date!

Paul Theroux


Author, The Elephanta Suite (forthcoming)

Marc Shell

Babbitt Professor of Comparative Literature, Harvard University

Recipient of a MacArthur “Genius Grant”

Author, Animals That Talk; or, Stutter

Lorraine Daston

Director, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science

Co-Editor, Thinking with Animals: New Perspectives on Anthropomorphism

Extra Credit Reading

Heather Watts, That Underground Sound, The Fine Art of Heather Watts, 2006: “The beauty of using an animal in art to tell a human story is that an animal is naturally a more universal character . . . while my assessment of a human character/subject might be coloured by subconscious thoughts like: “this person is a stranger to me” or “hey, that guy looks like my Uncle Bob” my assessment of an animal character/subject would be informed more by the animal’s expression, body language, and surroundings.” (via Heather Watts)

Henry Kisor, The Gozzard of Is, The Reluctant Blogger, November 30, 2006: “[E.B. White] dealt not with the Is, as Theroux does, but the Ought to Be. White’s view of geese, pigs and spiders as fellow denizens of the barnyard was a deep reflection of his humanity, not just a wallow in treacle, as Theroux sniffs.”

Shruti Ravindran, Celebrating Anthropomorphism Day, Shrutified, September 11, 2006: “Here’s two 18 c. French painters who used this wonderful device (painting monkeys painting) to poke fun at the art world’s pretensions…”

DeCordova staff, Going Ape: Confronting Animals in Contemporary Art, DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, September 2, 2006 – January 7, 2007: “The current interest in animal imagery, as expressed by both artists and viewers, seems intensified by our increasingly uneasy relationships with the natural world and its denizens. Our positions vis-à-vis animals are marked by confrontation and confusion. We gaze with wonder at them in the zoo, yet try to avoid them on the street.” (via rahbuhbuh)

Frans De Waal, Are we in anthropodenial?, Discover, 1997: “Popular culture bombards us with examples of animals being humanized for all sorts of purposes, ranging from education to entertainment to satire to propaganda.” (via Djiezes)

The Cheshire Cat song from Disney’s Alice in Wonderland:

Halas and Batchelor’s animated version of Orwell’s Animal Farm:

Related Content

  • hurley

    I’m glad you picked up on the rogue elephant story. Again, Mark Shand, a thoroughly engaging figure, has written and broadcast on the subject. He likely would make a good guest.

    Levi-Strauss: Animals are how we think.

    This on tits and the Queen:


  • Doesn’t Theroux realize that White wasn’t writing about animals who behave like humans, but about humans being represented by animals? Did Orwell mean for us to believe that the denizens of Animal Farm were really meant to “be” animals? I agree that real antropomorphism is to be eschewed, in nature films, for instance, but that’s a whole nother realm.

  • hurley

    Ted Hughes the great modern poet of anthropomorphism. Have a look if you haven’t already.

    Lovely idea for a show. I look forward to it.

  • jazzman

    Brendan et al,

    Can someone fix this 7.5 bold font?


  • Now, I for one, would like to work “mammalian protuberances” some how into the comments. Thank you for your consideration.

  • jazzman

    From the questions above:

    Why is anthropomorphism so beloved in art and literature and so hated in science?

    Because generally people who express themselves through art & literature have more flexible boundaries regarding reality than those who express them selves scientifically. Scientists are narrowly focused (the discipline demands it to a large degree) and generally dislike that which challenges or doesn’t comport with their preconceptions regarding the “real world.” Quantum physicists are a notable exception to the rule – the boundaries tend to be non-existent. The general public suspends credulity when it comes to A & L because they know that it isn’t real so they can safely indulge the fantastic and free their imagination from the quotidian.

    What can we learn from the exceptions to those rules?

    Consciousness has infinite premutations – some psyches are more rigid than others. As the psyche expands, common ground expands among the proponents of each expression of creativity.

    As we become more distant from animals, do we sentimentalize them more?

    How are we becoming more distant? By extinction? By having fewer pets? Absence tends to foster romanticization or nostalgia for that which was viewed with positive emotion and metaphorical distance also smoothes out negative associations in many cases.

    What does it mean to acknowledge our uniqueness as a species, and conversely, to acknowledge ourselves as animals?

    All species are unique and all members within a species are unique. That Homo sapiens meet the arbitrary definition of belonging to the zoological Kingdom Animalia means absent extenuating constraints by definition we are animals. Our uniqueness in the Animal Kingdom is due to the particular way consciousness manifests itself in the human experience.

    Why is it threatening or uncanny to recognize traits we think of as human in other species?

    It is probably more threatening to those whose conscience is disturbed by the degree of empathy (or lack thereof) with which one interacts with other species. The more common traits we humans share with other entities in our experience (with the notable exception of members of our own species) the less likely we are to be indifferent to their innate rights and exploit them for labor, food or sport. The symbiotic relationship with domestic animals is an example of mutually beneficial anthropomorphism.

    I tend to anthropomorphize ALL things animate and inanimate as I believe them to be multidimensional extensions of my consciousness although they are conscious in their own right. It is the COOPERATION of consciousness that enables physical laws and the orderly existence of EVERYTHING.

    Peace to Everything,


  • chilton1

    “As we become more distant from animals, do we sentimentalize them more?”

    Makes me think of post-colonial cultural resuscitations…it can easily become a bit contrived.

    Zoos and Attenborough TV shows. In NZ primary schools we divide the children in groups and give them names of extinct birds like Huia, or Moa – or sometimes some endangered bird such as a Kiwi (not a fruit)–that most of us have never seen.

    “What does it mean to acknowledge our uniqueness as a species, and conversely, to acknowledge ourselves as animals?”

    The sooner that we acknowledge ourselves as PART of the animal kingdom the better. We are just too good at declaring our uniqueness -we need to get in touch with our sameness.

  • In the late 90s I took part in a Council of All Beings with John Seed. The Council was developed by John Seed and Joanna Macy to “help end the sense of alienation from the living Earth that many of us feel.”

    We camped out on Orcas Island for a few days and went through a series of rituals. We mourned for natural places we have lost. That was surprisingly moving. We all had them. Places gone to “progress” that we have repressed sorrow for. At one point we were taken through the entirety of evolution in a guided meditation from the big bang to ameba to reptiles to mammals to us (much slower & poetic). Then we went out into nature by ourselves to “become” the animal that we would represent in the Council of All Beings. It was a warm sunny day and I was sitting by a stump wondering if I was a furry mama bear. I was pretty sure I wasn’t the industrious ant busily moving bits of old stump. The lake was too inviting so I dove in and decided I was a Salmon.

    At the Council we spoke for the animal we represented. I spoke about all of the challenges a Salmon faces from over fishing to polluted rivers and dams. In spite of all this they swim upstream to spawn and die in their original home.

    Chief Seattle warned us that we would be lonely without the animals. Thinking of them as “resources” instead of “relations” numbs our connection to them. I think giving animals human characteristics is our way of recognizing them as our relations. Seeing animal traits in ourselves may be an attempt to weave our alienated selves back into the fabric of life.


  • During that same visit John Seed & Dana Lyons recorded At Night They Howl At The Moon

    Environmental Songs For Kids


    by Dana Lyons, Copyright 1987


    I am an animal, you are an animal

    We both are animals, We eat like animals

    We dance like animals, we love like animals

    We all are animals, we all are animals

    The reptiles have some class,

    They slither about in the grass

    They like it when the weather’s damp,

    They party deep in the swamp

    They’ve got smooth and shiny scales

    Long tongues and longer tails

    The birds do it all with their beaks

    They eat and they clean and they speak

    Their wings take them high in the air

    And who knows what they do up there

    They’ve got dances that can’t be beat

    With their feathers and rubber feet, tweet tweet

    The insects have some pride

    They wear their skeletons outside

    They can live anywhere

    Hot or cold they do not care

    With antennas and many eyes

    They eat, reproduce and they die

    The mammals are a wild bunch

    They eat each other for lunch

    They’ve got fur as soft as silk

    They feed their babies milk

    They sing all the latest tunes

    At night they howl at the moon

    The fish dig a whole nother scene

    Their whole world is aqua marine

    Some are thin and some are fat

    Some of their faces are flat

    They take trans-Atlantic trips

    They do strange things with their lips

    But lets not forget the plants

    The plants have so much fun

    They don’t eat anyone

    They just soak up the sun

    They rub their branches in the breeze

    Dandolions tickle the trees


  • katemcshane

    I read Jazzman’s comment with great appreciation. I agree with it, and I wish I could articulate my own views as elegantly.

    I once worked in a group home with teenagers; I lived with them every weekend for almost five years. A psychologist conducted psychological testing on the kids early one Saturday morning and wrote that one manifestation of their “disturbance” was that they were more identified with animals than with human beings. Their great “disturbance” involved being abused with such cruelty in their families that the State was given legal custody of them. Often, the kids had an enormous capacity for empathy, while the adults who cared for them, both in their families and in DSS custody, did not. For many of them, as small children, the only warmth in their lives came from animals — interactions in which they could be at ease and safe. As teenagers, they were some of the most interesting people I’ve ever known, and some of the most comfortable people to be around.

    Many people who have endured prolonged cruelty know how powerful it can be to look into an animal’s eyes. And, once, when I visited a barn where three llamas were kept, the baby llama leaned out over the fence, to within an inch of my face, and stared into my eyes for almost four minutes. I don’t know what that was, but it felt thrilling.

    Generally, I’ve found that I would rather identify with a group declared to be inferior to “man” — animal, woman, emotional, intuitive, artistic, even, to some degree, irrational and illogical, i.e. someone ruled less and less by thought, and particularly by someone else’s (superior) thoughts.

  • JohnS

    when serpents bargain for the right to squirm. . . .

    then we’ll believe in that incredible

    unanimal mankind(and not until)

    — e e cummings

  • Tom B

    Interesting that so many folks refer to ‘animals’ and to ‘people’ as if humans were not animals… What are we, plants?

  • sorry, I guess I’m responsible for all this italics hopefully this will stop it.

  • Artists and writers have inherited shamanic traditions of adopting other creature’s characteristics that is as deeply ingrained into our own evolution as language. Science on the other hand likes to think of itself as objective. Layering our own desires onto other creatures may be gratifying but may also foster delusions regarding the reality of the other beings. Objectivity requires a certain amount of dispassionate distance. When the amoeba in the microscope starts winking at the scientist it is a threat to her objectivity. Science observes. Art participates. What I think is exciting is when science provides artists & writers with new material. The work of scientists like James Lovelock, The Gaia Theory, inspired the book Thinking Like a Mountain by John Seed and Joanna Macy.

    “Dive me deep, brother whale, in this time we have left. Deep in our mother ocean where once I swam, gilled and finned. The salt from those early seas still runs in my tears. Tears are too meager now. Give me a song… a song for a sadness too vast for my heart, for a rage too wild for my throat.” Joanna Macy

  • joshua hendrickson


    I liked your answers to the questions posed. Nicely put.

    In general, I think we cannot help but anthropomorphize. Our minds may have developed more fully, but they remain at bottom animal minds, and our bodies are fully animal. We have the power of imagination, but it is a power that is nonetheless caged. We cannot really escape that cage, but within it we are capable of exquisite refinements of possibility, including imagining the minds of other animals; it isn’t impossible, since we are animals.

    The science fiction editor John W. Campbell once said that he wanted his writers to create aliens that thought as well as a man, but not like a man. Now that is a serious challenge. Very few sf writers have risen to it (some would say that none have), but those who have are among the very greatest thinkers, in my opinion.

  • inkgod

    “he wanted his writers to create aliens that thought as well as a man, but not like a man.”

    None have risen to it because it’s impossible; as soon as the writer thinks the thoughts for the alien to think, they first and irreversibly become the thoughts of a man.

    And I agree with Tom B.

    “Man thinks he is better than grass.” -W.S. Merwin

  • bft

    The “us” in “octopus” is part of the Greek word for “foot”, not a Latin noun ending; it should not be changed to “i” in the plural. I know dictionaries say you can, but you shouldn’t!

  • joshua h’: “he wanted his writers to create aliens that thought as well as a man, but not like a man.”

    inkgod: “None have risen to it because it’s impossible; as soon as the writer thinks the thoughts for the alien to think, they first and irreversibly become the thoughts of a man”.

    You forget that women do write at least as well as men, do think differently and have often been just as alienated as much as they are a part of the world of men. So, I would say it is not impossible to write as well as a man without being one. It makes sense that female writer’s would have more natural empathy for the “other” be they space aliens, earthly creatures other than male humans, or even grass.

  • dear me… there should be no apostrophe in “writers”

  • I think one of the reasons I call my dog “Margaret” is because it lends a feeling of respectful anthropomorphism, a kinship to animals, a recognition that we are all in the same boat.

    And speaking of animals and boats, one of my favorite books this year, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, deals with many of the issues posed by Robin. It is, possibly, story of a South Indian teen trapped in a lifeboat for nearly a year with a tiger named Richard Parker. Or it might be the story of a harrowing ordeal in a lifeboat that has been reimagined as the former–an inverted anthropomorphism.

  • rahbuhbuh

    Douglas Coupland was typically glib on the difference between humans and animals: “we smoke cigarettes.” Do any other species act in knowingly self destructive ways for pleasure?

    The DeCordova museum’s “Going Ape” exhibit explores contemporary art’s fascination with animal imagery: “Our positions vis-à-vis animals are marked by confrontation and confusion. We gaze with wonder at them in the zoo, yet try to avoid them on the street. Meanwhile, our pets are practically people, since we ask them to be life-long companions and child surrogates.”


    I don’t see close human and animal comparisons being “hated in science,” considering the careful study of DNA showed us how genetically similar we are to certain primates. Now we just bicker over whether that evidence elevates animals closer to human status or degrades humans to animal status.

  • Although I can’t profess to be an expert on anthropomorphism in literature or science, I can perhaps offer some insight into its use in visual art. I’m a full-time professional artist, and the word “anthropomorphic” appears in my bio with regards to the characters in my paintings (I use the word “characters” here rather than “subjects” because storytelling is so central to my work.)




    The beauty of using an animal in art to tell a human story is that an animal is naturally a more universal character. By this I mean first that visual cues of race, sex, age, etc. aren’t normally inherent in animals (though they can be added by the artist) and second that for the viewer of animals in art, the subconscious mind is less focussed on sorting out one’s relationships with the characters and more focussed on the characters themselves. In other words, while my assessment of a human character/subject might be coloured by subconscious thoughts like: “this person is a stranger to me” or “hey, that guy looks like my Uncle Bob” my assessment of an animal character/subject would be informed more by the animal’s expression, body language, and surroundings. In a sense, this allows the artist greater control over how the painting is read.

    At the same time, my use of anthropomorphism in art definitely predates any deep thoughts I may have had on the matter, and has not been the result from any logical decision on my part. Rather, in seeking to represent a range of human emotions, I experienced a natural desire to paint my animalistic characters. Animals stimulate a sense compassion, curiosity, openness and wonder that is maybe just a little harder to find in the human world. What could be better when approaching a piece of art?

  • rahbuhbuh: Or, recognizing that we are the species who smoke, one might say evidence elevates humans to animal status or degrades animals to human status. Regarding your question: though I’ve never heard of creatures other than humans smoking I have heard of critters eating overipe fruit and getting drunk .

    I think this the crux of the whole argument between bible believers who like to deny their own animal nature and evolution which demonstrates that we humans do belong to the animal kingdom. I myself love being part of the animal kingdom and have a hard time understanding why others find it so threatening. Is it because evolution pokes a hole in the whole biblical thing turning believers into doubters? Why would anyone NOT want to be an animal?

  • Heather, Thanks! those are beautiful images. I’d been thinking of Beatrix Potter’s work too. Do you illustrate books? It looks like a good story. I want to know more about the girl and the Mountain Lion listening to jazz together.

  • Robin

    Hi guys. LOTS of interesting stuff up here, awesome thread. Heather, thanks for sending those paintings along. They’re really interesting. But does anyone else find them, um, a little creepy? Or at least uncanny. I’m talking specifically about the one I think is a “black panther” (harhar) as opposed to a mountain lion. It reminds me of another thread in all this, namely, anthropomorphic cross-species “romance”. There are so many historical and pop culture example of it. Tank Girl’s boyfriend was an anthropomorphic punk rock kangaroo. Zeus transformed himself into all sorts of animals to woo the women of his choosing. There’s the now-infamous double-tailed siren of Starbucks coffee, and who could forget all the dirtier psycho-sexual implications of Little Red Riding Hood?

    I don’t think it’s as simple as saying, ew, it’s about bestiality, gross. I think there’s something else that’s more interesting and deeper rooted that I hope we can piece apart in the show. Thoughts?

  • Robin,

    I LOVE Tank Girl! Gosh, I’d forgotten about her and the Kangaroo People. I went to WSU so I’m used to anthropomorphized Cougars. Heather’s painting looked like a hipper version of the WSU mascot and reminded me of my collage dorm room.

    There is a Northwest Coast Native myth about a girl who marries a Bear and another who marries a frog. And don’t forget the Princess who had to kiss a Frog before he became a Prince. I’ll see if I can find references online to the Northwest stories. Do these myths speak to our evolutionary history? The girl who marries the frog has to go live with him under the water. Is this in our cellular memory? There is also a story about a girl impregnated by swallowing seeds dropped by a raven. There are similar Celtic myths. Seems like it is always female humans who are mating with non-humans. I can’t think of any myths were it is male humans mating with non-humans.

    I wish I could remember what Clarissa Pinkola Estes, author of Women Who Run With The Wolves had to say about Red Riding Hood. Estes would be a fabulous guest for this show.

    At the initial screening of Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast Greta Garbo stood up at the end (when the beast had been replaced with a Prince) and cried out, “Where is my beast? Give me my beast!”

  • Gary Snyder’s Practice of the Wild contains an essay, The Woman Who Married a Bear

  • hurley

    ANTHROPOMORPHIC CROSS-SPECIES ROMANCE: Robin, have a look if you can at David Garnett’s beautiful and touching novel Lady Into Fox (1924?) in which an English country gentleman’s beloved wife turns into a fox, and he tries desperately to accomodate the metamorphsis.

    Also John Collier’s extraordinary and very funny His Monkey Wife (1931), wherein our hero falls in love with a very bright chimp indeed

  • Djiezes

    I haven’t had time to read all the comments yet. But I did a quick CTRL-F here on the site & searched for “Frans De Waal” & didn’t found what I wanted to share with you.

    Frans de Waal wrote a very interesting piece & challenge on anthropomorfism overhere:


    It’s a quite extensive article, but truly worth the time.

    If you don’t feel like reading the whole thing, I clipped a few interesting paragraphs here:


  • Djiezes: Thanks, just read your quick quotes and look forward to reading the article. As an ecofeminist I find the likes of Rene Descartes annoyingly self-absorbed. Did he think he wasn’t a mammal? He said, “I think therefore I am” but really, his mom had sex and then fed him… that is the real reason he existed. Thinking had nothing to do with it. In fact, had she given it much thought he might not have existed.

    Then there is a Buddhist Koan that asks the question, “Does a dog have Buddha nature?”

  • rahbuhbuh

    “As we become more distant from animals, do we sentimentalize them more?”

    The notion of dreaming rats, something investigated in this MiT study, makes them much more endearing:


    I know little about Temple Grandin’s “Animals in Translation” or her credentials in ‘animal science,’ but she compares her autism to a ‘way station on the road between animals and human…’


    Sounds interesting at least, and probably intersects the New York Times subject matter somewhere.

    I half-heartedly attempted to track down impartial dietary research (most found polls were funded by vegetarian organizations) in order to look at annual vegan statistics. I didn’t find much. If more people are electing, secularly, to not harm animals, then we are obviously sentimentalizing them at an increasing rate. This could be a unique human trait: omnivores wholly abstaining from meat in order to avoid inflicting pain. It all makes me miss my farm-y friends whom could birth goat kids then raise them as entertaining organic lawn mowers, feed and eat chickens, affectionately leave milk out for the mouser outdoor cats, indulge the indoor cat lap warmers, and love their dog as a dog — not an infantile and blameless family member. Each species to its own little niche and the family with a workable knowledge of what the food chain and coexistence can look like (including all the barking, blood, and stink of a zoo).

    “Why is it threatening or uncanny to recognize traits we think of as human in other species?”

    It is threatening because quacking animal psychics (pardon me, “intuitionists” as one once corrected me) and “psychologists” gouge a market of dupes into translating their pets’ remarkably human-like insecurities and needs for a hefty price, then recommend repeat visits to monitor progress.

  • RaggedRobin

    peggysue:Seems like it is always female humans who are mating with non-humans. I can’t think of any myths were it is male humans mating with non-humans.

    Actually, there are quite a lot – here’s a Selkie story from Scotland, for example, a fox-wife story from Japan, and a Frog-bride story from Russia.

    I’ll see if I can find references online to the Northwest stories.

    This page collects quite a few brief tellings of Native N American Animal Bride/groom stories, including several bear stories from the NW. Probably not exactly the one you’re looking for, but they should make an interesting read in this context.

  • RaggedRobin: Thanks, I totally forgot about the Selkie. I didn’t have much luck finding NWC stories on the web so thanks for that too.

  • Now that you mention it Sirens and Mermaids are a similar male human to female non-human relations.

  • hurley

    RaggedRobin mentions a Selkie story from Scotland. Until not too long ago, Selkies were part of the living mythology of much of coastal Northern Great Britain and Ireland. A very beautiful book, The People of the Sea, was written on the subject (one David Thomson was, I think, the author). The last reprint had a glowing introduction by Seaumus Heaney.

  • re Selkies: And there is that wonderful film The Secret of Roan Inish .


  • Daniel Finlay

    I think we’re talking about three kinds of anthropomorphism, and I’d like to address them:

    Why we see ourselves in animals (and other things):

    Mirror Neurons are cells in the brain that allow us to experience what we see as if it were happening to us. This seems to be the cellular manifestation of empathy, and allows us to experience surrogate emotions for just about anything we observe. I saw an art piece on a NOVA episode on mirror neurons, in which a piece of string were made to dance around in a way that we could empathize with it. So as far as assigning our emotions to animals, it’s something we do automatically.

    Why does science resent anthropomorphization?

    To apply human characteristics to an observed animal is to assume the animal has similar motives. If you showed a meiser who’d never seen a cat before a trick where you enchanted it by waving a gold string, the meiser might think the cat was economically motivated. Having seen cats before, I might instead hypothesize that they compare strings to mouse tails, and this is unlike any emotion I have. For the sake of scientific integrity, the scientist must observe each animal with as objective an eye as possible, and build our understanding of the animal’s world on its own terms.

    Lastly, why do we use animals in the role of people?

    I would just point to movies that use animal protagonists to get us to empathize with wildlife in ways that the average person may not. (Bambi, Finding Nemo, Over the Hedge) Each animal has its own personality, and they really do fill our world with color and spunk. The animators of Over the Hedge were having trouble making cute enough animal characters, and so they ended up using animals for inspiration.

    (from that article) Johnson affirms, “To actually get hands-on with our animals was a remarkable perk. It showed us that they have completely distinct body language, movement, faces and personalities. Although we are familiar with these species, there were still many discoveries: the inquisitiveness of the raccoon, the quickness of their fingers and how they want to touch everything; the roly-poly quality of the porcupines, which were adorable—nobody expected them to be like spiky little bears; the wisdom in the turtle’s face; and even the squirrels…we’ve all seen them before, of course, darting around campus or in our yards, but to get close enough to see the electricity in their eyes… It was all incredibly inspiring. It was a chance for all of our people to appreciate the spirit and uniqueness of these animals, and it translated into the way we approached not only the character design but also the characters’ personalities and their individual story arcs.”

  • Looking for Christmas ornaments I found an old poetry notebook. This love poem to a bear was published in the Winter 94 Wild Earth Magazine.

    Bear Charm Love Poem


    owl woman dropped her basket

    blackberries rolling


    helter skelter

    down the rocky path

    love charm

    bear magic

    then the moon was honey

    turning again…

    the moon was a swan’s wing

    beneath glistening blankets

    of star bright snow

    an ancient cave of dreams

    holds two hearts beating

    smooth skin

    nestled deep

    in thick warm fur

  • nother

    Hey Peggysue, great stuff as always. When I saw the subject was animal related though, I was especially excited to see what you would throw out there. Over time you’ve had me thinking more about animal rights.

    A thought I had was that non-human animals don’t get to laugh so hard they cry, but a trade off is they have been spared the disease of conceit and the doldrums of guilt that consumes so much of our human conscience.

  • nother

    Whoops, I’m still working on that link thing. Anyways here is the link to the Dylan song that could never be written for a non-human.


    But “guilt” sucks too don’t you think, and we are stuck with that crap.

  • OliverCranglesParrot
  • nother

    It occurs to me that humans are the only animals to use toilet paper, that counts for something doesn’t it?

  • nother, good points, (nice to see you here)

    re TP: we two legged creatures eat such a variety of foods. I wonder where it was in our evolution that we found those broad soft leaves an asset to our grooming habits. Did it correspond to a change in diet? If we pooped like goats or rabbits in tidy little pellets we wouldn’t need TP as an accoutrement.

    PS When I was doing my tree-hugging thing people used to give us tree huggers a lot of shit (so to speak) for using TP as if people who care about ecosystems shouldn’t use any paper products. I never thought of using an evolutionary defence.

  • mynocturama

    Here’s a bit of anthropomorphism, or animal appropriation, that I especially like, from filmmaker Chris Marker:

    A cat is never on the side of power.

  • branalli

    Some suggestions:

    1) Like others above, I enthusiastically endorse Temple Grandin’s ANIMALS IN TRANSLATION.

    2) A century and a half ago, John Ruskin looked at anthropomorphism in poetry, and decided that it was the mark of second-rate art. In a landmark essay, he dubbed it the “pathetic fallacy.” (http://www.ourcivilisation.com/smartboard/shop/ruskinj/)

    3) To talk of the origins of anthromorphism, it’s necessary to get into animism and shamanism. Maybe include a guest like Michael Harner from the Foundation for Shamanistic Studies? (http://www.shamanism.org/)

    4) Tying together some of the topics above, my own humble offering, a defense of the pathetic fallacy of anthropomorphism in life (if not in art): http://mysite.verizon.net/vzev0aqy/sitebuildercontent/sitebuilderfiles/becoming_indigenous.pdf

  • Chimerical man

    Winged serpent of the heavens

    Soulful earthly beast

  • Potter
  • Arjen Kamphuis

    Something everyone in IT knows:

    Don’t anthropomorphize computers …

    … they don’t like it.

  • hurley

    Japanese proverb: When the sun is shining through the rain, the foxes have their weddings.

    How lovely is that?

  • Sopper14

    How about the flip side? The opposite end of the spectrum? Why is it that humans have such a dang-hard time recognizing that we are animals? We eat, we poop, we reproduce, we are born, we die . . . Yes, we have a suite of characteristics that set us apart from other species, but so do dogs, gulls, tuna, dung-beetles, and nematodes. I’m an ecologist (that’s a science, not a public policy philosophy), and the most puzzling species I have to work with are Homo sapiens. Why? Because almost to a man, they (we) are in such profound denial about who and what we are. I, for one, find that knowledge the root of wonder, peace, and affirmation.

  • Robin

    Hi everyone –

    I just wanted to let you know that it looks like this show will most likely go on the air sometime in March. Paul Theroux has agreed to join us, but he’s traveling in Siberia and Japan through February. Sucks to have to wait, I know, but we can keep talking here in the meantime.

    peggysue, I’ll add Clarissa Pinkola Estes to my list of people to call, and check out that Gary Snyder essay. And I’ll see if I can track down those films and novels hurley. I take it David Garnett and John Collier are no longer living…?

    Djiezes, Frans de Waal is DEFINITELY on my list; I’m fascinated by the notion of anthropodenial: “a blindness to the humanlike characteristics of other animals, or the animal-like characteristics of ourselves.” It’s like the opposite of anthropomorphism, right? (As alluded to by Sopper14.) I was going to pre-interview de Waal last week, but I had to put it on hold to work on shows that were coming up quicker. But we’re in touch, and hopefully I’ll be talking to him soon. Thanks for the links.

    rahbuhbuh and branalli, you’re not the first to mention Temple Grandin to me re: this show (my roommate beat you to it). She’s pretty amazing, and I bet she would have a lot of good things to say on this subject. But there’s a whole American Radio Works documentary about her, so I kind of feel like she’s had her say on the radio. Maybe? I don’t know. Feel free to convince me otherwise.

    That’s super interesting stuff, Daniel Finlay. It’s interesting how even in the way the animators talk about animals they anthropomorphize them: “curiosity” in raccoons, “wisdom” in turtles,” etc.

    mynocturama: I’m obsessed with Chris Marker. Definitely my favorite artist and big inspiration for my radio work. I’ve always been curious about how the cat and the owl are Marker’s “totem” animals. When journalists request pictures of him, he’ll often send pictures of owls and cats instead (he’s never allowed himself to be photographed). Sans Soleil is full of footage of the Japanese and how much they love, even worship cats. And his new film brings the cat back into focus again, this time as a jumping off point to talk about French politics post 9/11. I can’t wait to see it, hopefully this weekend!

  • herbert browne

    Re …It’s interesting how even in the way the animators talk about animals they anthropomorphize them: “curiosity” in raccoons, “wisdom” in turtles,” etc…-

    Is it “anthropomorphizing” to assign familiar names to observable, um “parallel traits” to those that we observe in humans? Are humans the only “curious” animal? Records of animals of species that often mate for life seeming to express grief at the loss of a mate aren’t uncommon. How should we deal with this? The biggest problem with anthropomorphism may be similar to the problem of an Earth-centered solar system, ie it’s all about US… but we weren’t here FIRST. It’s very similar to the conceit that our progenitors resemble us, eg “my grandma has hair just like mine.” The animals have had a lot to show us… and how we name, &/or attribute these things is a function of the expression of our self-awareness… but one mustn’t neglect to credit sources- and inspirations… ^..^

  • rahbuhbuh

    I heard an interview with science journalist Chip Walter about his book “Thumbs, Toes, and Tears–and other traits that make us human.” He may be of use for this show, if only to point out that animals don’t cry.


  • earlyadopter

    Unless I missed it, it looks like nobody has mentioned the furry fandom in this discussion. There is a conference ever year (i went last year in pittsburg- its one of many all around the world) called “antrhrocon” which is a convention of people celebrating anthropomorphism. I”m not a furry myself, but I would call myself a fan of furries. I’ve made a study of this subculture because of my painting. Specifically I paint portraits of fursuiters, people who figuratively at least, BECOME animals. These paintings have yet to be exhibited (i’m working on that) but you can see some photos of them here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/89013128@N00/sets/72157594331115355/

    I’ve gotten to be friends with the people that i’ve painted (I only paint from life, and only people in thier own suits and i try to paint both the spirit of the person inside the suit and the ‘fursona’ that they are portraying) and we’ve had lots of interesting discussions about the nature of animals, the animal in the human, the human in the animal, etc. I think you should get some members of this subculture to speak on your program, they have some really interesting things to say. I met some guys in a ‘wolf-spirituality’ panel discusson once who were really interesting and articulate.

    Just to clear up one misconception that is out there about furries, and that people always bring up when i mention it- fursuiting is not entirely about a sexual fetish- that is only one part of the subculture, there are a lot of people for whom its got nothing to do with sex. That part of the scene is just the one that makes it into TV and Movies.

    For me this subculture is an interesting subject for paintings because it deals with an age-old theme of the relationship between human and animal but its filtered through culture so profoundly. The animal suits are in many cases not realistic but more like cartoon animals. It could be that the whole furry fandom is an out growth of the yearning for ( and imposibility of communion with?) nature in this over-cultured world. Anyway- i could go on forever, forgive me the long post. For a full rundown on the paintings i’ve been doing and more writing about the fursuit project go here: http://www.jayvanburen.com

    Love the program! Keep ’em coming!

  • I have African grey parrots. Unlike many other talking birds, greys mimic/echo/talk in individual voices, and they also seem to understand context for what they learn to say. It is awfully difficult not to anthropomorphize a little bit. For example, I know it’s time to turn the lights out when I hear “Goodnight!’ (in my voice) from my hand-raised grey.

    Greys do much more than mimic, as you will know if you’ve read about Irene Pepperberg’s grey, Alex. I have two wild-caught greys, from the days before the Wild Bird Conservation Act (when importation of wild-caught parrots and other birds into the US was still going on). I was teaching my hand-reared (domestically bred) grey to say “wanna go outside?” or “Want out?” to let me know when she wanted time out of her cage, and during that period, one of the wild-caught greys liked to occasionally climb down and undo the latch and let her out, just for fun, as I would discover upon returning home from work. One evening, I caught him in the act – he climbed down to the latch, looked in at her, and said: “want out?”

  • faithandreason

    The Turing Test posited that if one slipped a paper under a door and got an answer out that you thought is human, that whatever it was that sent that over was pretty close to intelligent. If we see personalities in dogs, why do scientists doubt them?

  • Robin, I’m glad the input gets appreciated.

    I’m looking forward to the interview. De Waal will have some great things to share; especially in this domain.

    He might offer some interesting perspectives from his experience with chimpanzees, bonobo’s etc.

    And since he also focuses on possible evolutionary explanations of morality / social cooperation between humans, animals; I expect his thoughts on anthropomorfism/anthropodenial to be quite clarifying.

    For example, your remark on anthropodenial as ““a blindness to the humanlike characteristics of other animals, or the animal-like characteristics of ourselves’. As an opposite to anthropomorphism” results in some thought-provoking hypotheses & speculations like:

    -anthropodenial as a (evolutionary evolved, internalized) ‘tool’ for morality; an incentive for a selective in-group social cooperation between animals of the same species;

    -anthropomorfism as the other side of the other coin; a selective force for out-group social cooperation between animals of different species; (& for example the link to animal liberties, veg(etari)anism)

    If you’re looking for some information on his work; you can find his publications here:


    Or look here for some audio/video lectures by De Waal:


    (There’s other great stuff there)

    Good luck with the interview.

  • ShlomoLeib

    Why refer to them as human or animal qualities when they can be easily classified as mammalian? Mimickry abounds as a form of adaptation.

    Tai Chi and Kung Fu are based on animal movements i.e. cranes, snakes, tigers, monkeys, etc.

  • GodzillaVsBambi

    On Anthropomorphism…

    A friend of mine once told me that Empedocles lives in Boston now. I said how could that be possible? Open Source is from Boston, I said, and OS is a high brow place where people congregate to discuss the pressing intellectual issues of the day and get at the truth. He said that OS is a front for the Pope. I said why do you say such things? He said after a while it just starts to stink like garlic and tomato sauce. So I looked at him and said America is a very diverse place, we have certain laws here that restore the balance. When Bacchus gets too big for his britches we just take him to court and recalculate the resources. Don’t worry, I said, look at it this way – our job security is guaranteed because he is so reliable. He hasn’t let us down yet, I said. So my friend looked at me with a newfound contentment while we went on to pursue the day.

  • tstone77

    Why is anthropomorphism so beloved in art and literature and so hated in science?

    I for one, still think anthropomorphism is overused in science teaching, especially in teaching the physical sciences and chemical biology. In an effort to make science “exciting,” we put human stories to inanimate objects. I suppose it was teachers of drama and literature who designed such a curriculum, as they thought that their fields were the only “exciting” ones. This practice only adds confusion to science education, especially for children, who haven’t fully grasped the concept of allegory. As a result, children may try to infer psychological traits to natural processes. Scientists too have adopted the anthropomorphic language, i.e., “DNA gives instructions, proteins carry them out,” but this just leaves the actual processes as a mystery to the general public, and further alienates them to science.

    Personally, I think this makes science less interesting than it really is. It takes away one of the grandest and most fascinating elements of our natural world, that great complexity can emerge from simple and understandable processes. The “intelligent design” folks may simply be victims of this misunderstanding of science. We don’t try to teach literature through naturalistic explanations; why do we teach naturalistic phenomena as if it were literature?

    I am a present day lawyer who wishes he had been more turned on to science in elementary and secondary education. I am now fascinated with science and am left to study it in my little spare time. I blame my lack of enthusiasm largely on the methodology with which it was taught to me and a lack of enthusiasm for teaching.

  • fnord

    This made me think of the joke:

    – What did the cat say to the mouse?

    – “The human telling this joke is attempting to anthropomorphise us!”

    I find that anthropomorphism is most useful as a tool to make us consider issues in new ways, by allowing us to distance ourselves from the particularities so to analyze only the few aspects that are relevant for the current discussion. I find this obviously useful when dealing with issues that touch upon complex social problems – but when it comes to the sciences, I believe the scientific process and it’s ideals of simplicity (i.e. Occam’s Razor) are quite able to “Keep It Simple, Stupid”.

    Then again, animals are still useful in science! A physics classic is “Consider a Spherical Cow, with the uniform density of milk”. Are we perhaps missing the value animals give to us by being sources of humour inbetween all the problems we try to solve?

  • heaviest cat

    WEll, that’s noble,fnord. Do animals have to be “useful” to justify their existence? How about the fact that they are just here as we are? hat ,in the big picture are homo sapiens”useful” for?

  • Lumière

    Read most posts. I guess I’ll have to speak for the animals.

    Slaughtered animals on a farm and growing up I had everything from a tortoise to a raccoon for a pet. I miss them, but I would never own a pet again.

    I came away from that experience with the belief that animals should be left alone – nothing should be taken from the wild, no breeding for commerce. I am against zoos, but for open areas with limited access (walk-in only).

    Unfortunately for animals, anthropomorphism is wired into us. That is partly why I think there needs to be a separation: we can’t help but subjugate by projecting personalities, empathies and other feelings that lead to all kinds and degrees of hypocrisy. These ‘feelings’ are not about them – they are about you. Animals don’t need or want your feelings.

    Precisely because I don’t have domesticated animals, my property is a haven for deer, possums, raccoons, skunks, rabbits, birds (including raptors), snakes, woodchucks, and squirrels.

    The animals wante me to ask:

    why don’t you gaze at each other and imagine you are the other?


  • Lumière


    I have a bird feeder, which I rationalize by way of the large number of feral cats on the island.

    There is a Kestrel that comes in low on the side of my house so the birds at my feeder in the back of my house have no clue it is coming. When it hits a mourning dove there is an explosion of feathers. The Kestrel is so good at this maneuver, sometimes it doesn’t have to touchdown after the hit.

    But, let me anthropomorphize that for you:

    General “Buck” Turgidson (George C Scott): Mr. President, if the pilot’s good, see, I mean if he’s reeeally sharp, he can barrel that baby in so low… oh you oughta see it sometime.

    It’s a sight. A big plane like a b52… varrrooom!

    Its jet exhaust… frying chickens in the barnyard!

  • What about anthropomorphism in product design? What is the compulsion of designers to make toothbrushes with little feet, and more importantly, what is the compulsion of consumers to buy them? If our brains naturally turn power outlets into little complacent faces, why do we need to force this anthropomorphism on our commercial surroundings?

  • rahbuhbuh

    “why do we need to force this anthropomorphism on our commercial surroundings?”

    a combination of the west taken influence from Japan’s cuted-out pop culture, improved methods of manufacturing (injection molding more pliant and softer materials into more complex shapes for cheaper), and a desire in the US for comfortably familiar safe objects post 9/11.

    I wonder how all those robo-dog toys fit into all of this. I can’t remember the link, but someone runs a workshop modifying those and giving them different operating commands like running in a feral pack.

  • tbrucia

    Interesting that no one has posted a link to the Wikipedia page on ‘anthropomorphism’: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthropomorphism . It’s rather interesting. Not only does it range all over the topic; it’s studded with fascinating links, too!

  • tbrucia

    A short comment on the culture of ‘furries’ in Second Life (thank you, Chris). IMHO it’s a very curious phenomenon. I keep finding myself wondering during my hours in SL “What makes people want to create animal based avatars that look like bats, frogs, cats, dogs, etc?” (Obviously I lack the desire to do so.) To me, and I may be unusual in this regard, creating an avatar based on an animal form is even weirder than creating an avatar that is a rock or a tree. Why weirder? If one’s avatar is a (conscious) rock or a tree, it can observe the world unnoticed, whereas furries are very, very conspicuous. What is stranger than the ‘furry’ phenomenon is my reaction to the thought of ME remaking my avatar into an animal form: it frightens me on some basic irrational level. My fear puzzles me. It’s all make believe, isn’t it?

  • x2ferry

    I think tstone77 really zeroes in on something critical about anthropomorphism: the way it permeates our understanding of abstractions, e.g. “the Selfish Gene.” Recently there was a study about rats which putatively “proved” they have metacognition; in order to explain why the rats made the “choices” they did, the researchers assigned them “human” properties of reflection. This sort of thing is all too common in the life sciences.

    It would be great to have a philosopher of mythology on the show–perhaps Mary Midgley?–to discuss the way the mythic tendency infuses our abstract thinking.

  • Nick DeMarco

    With research like the study of starlings showing signs of grammar and syntax in their songs, anthropomorphism doesn’t seem like such a leap.

    To quote the talking heads,

    I know the animals are laughing at us

    They dont even know what a joke is

    I wont follow animals advice

    I dont care if theyre laughing at us.

  • Lumière

    grammar and syntax in their songs is anthropomorphism

  • babu

    Ever since I heard cartoonist Art Speigelman lecture in Seattle last week (2500 people, s.r.o.) on Comics 101.1, I save been trying to view my world through his lens: ‘With comics I make a Faustian contract to engage the viewer’s lizard brain to appreciate (my) reality before the intervention of the emotions, thinking or any other intellectual hogwash…” (My paraphrase.)

    His point was that cartoonists tap into a highly symbolized set of visual cues which are stored and understood by the limbic or lizard brain and operate in us constantly but way below our conscious radar. Malcolm Gladwell may be getting at the same seat of knowing in ‘Blink’.

    My point is that we are simply symbol-producing animals and anthropomorphism is an artifact of our way of organizing and accessing our eons and eons of animal-based knowledge.

    I think Art Speigelman would be an excellent guest for this topic. In his epic ‘Maus’, he built a whole novel on the unspoken (but visualized) Nazi assumption that Jews were a worthless and nuisance race similar to rodents.

    And why are we so against rodents, anyway? Because they raid the palace grasnary. But that’s what the cats are for. But we feed them and make pets out of them….

  • Lumière

    ///…anthropomorphism is an artifact of our way of organizing.\\\

    Of course it is, but why go back there? sensation? porno? Lizards?

    The question is: does anthropomorphism lead to buggering animals?

    Yes, it lets people remove them from the wild – why they are compelled to do that is unfathomable to me. If it is an identity thing i.e. “I am tiger”, that is anthropomorphism.

  • enhabit


    perhaps a clue can be found in the ancient assumption of animal qualities in preparation for certain actions. also..the really interesting egyptian concept of “simultaneity” where one’s soul exists in two..we’ll say dimensions (21st cent and all). within this paradigm animals could represent spirits from the afterlife roaming around and having an effect on outcomes.

    some of my welsh/druid acestors definetly had a thing for trees.

    we know that certain species “talk” to each other. it is our insistence on anthropomorphisising (what a word to spell! probably wrong though) other beings that is likely prejudicing our ability to understand the conversation.

    i always thought that whale song had a lot to do with place and travel..sounds would have a specific resonance depending on depth and ..is it still called topography underwater?…songs help to navigate, remember and teach as well as explore..just a theory..not a marine scientist

  • herbert browne

    Is “reflection” a “Human” quality, x2ferry? Using language at all seems to limit us to these “human-inflected” media. Does a rat “make choices”? How can we tell? Dissection only reveals a brain & nervous system, similar to ours. DNA studies reveal intracellular structures with forms (and probably functions) similar to ours. Observations provide us with records of activities that resemble behavior similar to ours… or Does it? Do the animals really have “instincts”? Do we? Are we animals? If so, to what degree? I’d second a call for a scholar of myth to give perspective to a show about anthropomorphism…

    (enhabit wrote) ..”anthropomorphisising (what a word to spell! probably wrong though..”-

    I find it interesting that ISIS lurks within your spelling- and that the First definition in my dictionary says: “Representation of God, or of a god, with human attributes..” Bingo!

    (but it’s really all about US, isn’t it?.. ) ^..^

  • enhabit

    isis..prominent egyptian godess..frequently disfigured by post christ/post mohammed graffiti vandals (she was bare breasted..scandelous) also found a lot of graffiti salamanders carved into the reliefs..christian motif sacred beast uncorruptable..could go to hell and back w/o harm..or maybe a gecko?..all over egypt..curiously absent from the iconography as far as i could tell. funny where a thought meander can lead you..mispelling and all.

    is the salamander icon anthropomorphism? or are we just projecting our hopes onto the little beast..they are cool..literally..the projection exercise can be seductive and beautiful. bernini’s altar at the vatican is covered with them (up high out of sight no less). what you say? a christain animal idol? not the only one, lambs etc.. but they REPRESENT others..st mark, christ, the covenant etc….in the case of the salamander..the representaion is of something that we would like to be true.

  • herbert browne

    Some apocryphal note (that has stayed with me, for years, now) was that salamanders (or newts- ever read “War of the Newts”?) became a symbol of Change (and the transmutational effects of Fire) because they occasionally emerged from fireplaces (since they often inhabit fissures in decaying logs)… one of those wonderful associative moments! “Look!.. it came out of the flames! Maybe it is a spirit, escaping from Hellfire, itself! O the Glory of God!”

    I’m waiting for anthropomorphism to broaden its reach to include the occasional tortilla that boldly features the baked-in impression of the Madonna… (“what can she be thinking?..”) ^..^

  • enhabit

    love it!

  • bjking

    This show may already be taped/in production, so this may be moot. I’d like to build on the earlier comments that mention work with primates, including the work of Frans de Waal. This is a good thread, because I think it matters a lot that we separate out the various kinds of animals we might consider in a discussion of anthropomorphism. I study primates for a living, but I don’t mean to restrict that comment only to monkeys and apes– I’m writing right now about whales, dolphins, elephants, etc., as well as primates. It strikes me that there’s a superb reason to use anthromorphism for conscious/sentient beings: NOT to draw conclusions based on assumptions, but rather to sharpen our questions and our hypotheses. I have spent a fair amount of time interacting with apes in captivity (bonobos, gorillas), and I think of anthropomorphism as a scientific tool when applied in combination with rigorous research design.

  • enhabit


    i quote myself from the banality of evil II, what of J.H.Schwartz? and how accurate is this iyo?

    i have long wondered why it is that orangutans..of all the great apes..are the most like humans in their reproductive cycles. they are solitary private creatures. enigmatically intimate in their brief relationships. resentful of hierarchy.

    The Red Ape: orangutans and human origins By Jeffrey H. Schwartz

    why have our systems evolved in a similar way when so many depend on estrus? what is it that coincides here?

    are we over-estimating our social nature? does our private inner life conflict with our public one to so great a degree that, when pocessed by power over others, when social convention recedes, that dark behaviors present themselves?

    one need look no further than a ride on the interstate to find this strange resentment of “the other” presenting itself.

  • Lumière


    I would love to hear about ‘anthropomorphism as a scientific tool’, which would take this thread in another direction.

    The bulk of this thread is about the warm and fuzzy feelings we get by projecting onto, hopefully passive, animals because they are perceived vulnerable by way of their inability to express human emotions.

    Making dogs sing? Their howling is not an expression of joy, but discomfort.

    I am reminded of the possum that smiled at me. I‘m glad that I didn’t go over an introduce myself, but merely smiled back. Come to find out, their smile, the showing of razor sharp teeth, is their only defense.

  • Lumière

    This is the precisely the problem that arises when people get involved with wild animals:

    “What it displays is that people are causing the coyote problem by subsidizing them,” Mitchell said. “It blew us away. It just never occurred to me that people would [intentionally] feed coyotes.”

    In one neighborhood “half the people are freaked out, wondering why coyotes are walking down the street and looking at them pretty boldly. The other half of the people are feeding them.”

    Narragansett Bay Coyote Study


    We can’t thin the deer herd on the island because of ‘bambi’.

    So the coyote pollution will rise. People will feed the coyote – the coyote will attack domestic animals – then people will want the coyote removed.

    bambi will eventually be starving and diseased.

    anthropomorphism is all too stupid….

  • Lumière

    sh be

    coyote population will rise

  • rahbuhbuh

    Not that this will surprise anyone, but anthropomorphising wine sells:

    “Critter wines,” either branded around an animal or containing one on the label, have topped $600 million, according to a report from ACNielsen. Critters appear on 77 of the 438 table wine brands that have launched and sustained sales on the U.S. market in the last three years.

    Sommeliers and viticulture aren’t nearly so intimidating if you put a cute widdle penguin or kangaroo on the bottle. (swiped from “Design,” a Society of News Designers publication)

  • Bobo

    Talk about current relevance. I just read this article today and thought it could be very useful on this show. From the article: “A Brazilian court has already issued a writ of habeas corpus in the name of a chimp.”

    Check it out: http://science.slashdot.org/science/07/04/04/0031256.shtml

  • “if only to point out that animals don’t cry.”

    see the documentary, “The Story of the Weeping Camel”

    also, see:


  • Rillion

    The anthropologist Stewart Guthrie wrote a book entitled “Faces in the Clouds” which argues that religion is at its root systematized anthropomorphism– that our impulse to see a world filled with agency of a human-like character stems from an evolutionary adaptation toward over-attribution of such. Speaking from a survival perspective, it’s better to mistake a boulder for a bear than the other way around. The psychologist Justin Barrett later labeled this capacity HADD, or a Hyperactive Agency Detection Device. Guthrie’s book is a treasure trove of examples of how we anthropomorphize in advertising, the arts, philosophy, and even science. I think he’d be a great person to have on this show.

  • x2ferry

    We also need to caution ourselves against the opposite fallacy that we are “special.” The biologist C.H. Waddington pointed out that if you accept the theory that evolution proceeds incrementally, it is unlikely that “awareness” (and therefore agency) just showed up sometime in the last 10,000 years. Rather we should say that our consciousness is based upon some prior diminished, but similar, type of awareness. And using this logic, it’s not really possible (since awareness is subjective), to suppose exactly where this trait originated. In fact there’s no reason to say that sponges, microbes, even grains of sand, lack this faculty entirely, though it would obviously be so miniscule in the latter as to be functionally nonexistent. Or would it?

    More recent heretical biology talks about “emergent” evolution, sort of like Gladwell’s tipping point. So perhaps we are special after all.

  • Lumière

    What benefit do the animals derive from human anthropomorphizing ?

    Is it perhaps detrimental for them?

  • Humans are fascinated with humans. Whether its in images, stories, myths, etc. That’s natural and so re-working our perceptions of the animal world into what we can understand seems fairly natural also. The human form has great power to communicate to humans. Endowing animals with this same power is an age-old tradition in in human history.

    Fear of this mental tool for understanding is just another jaded attempt at taking away the romance and mystery of life. Science needs to get over it’s post-modern hangups about seeing life beyond it’s molecular construction.

    Speaking of anthropomorphism, meet artotems: http://artotems.com/meet.aspx

  • Rillion

    “What benefit do the animals derive from human anthropomorphizing ?”

    They’re less likely to get eaten.

  • Lumière

    Culturally arbitrary….

  • “What benefit do the animals derive from human anthropomorphizing ?”

    I think anthropomorphism is mostly just about us and our story not about animals outside of our relation to them. But, our relation to them can be critical. Maybe reading Charlotte’s Web generates respect for spiders in people that might otherwise fear (and kill) them.

    Northwest Coast Native totem poles use stylized animal imagery to record the linage of their clans. Different family groups identified with different animals. This record was critical when it came to marrying outside of your own group. Animal imagery is incorporated into NW native art and religon (dances & masks) and it would be taboo to abuse a totem animal.

  • Hey Babu: re: rodents

    I had a friend who kept pet rats and she went a long way toward changing my attitude toward them. She loved them so. But… I think the scream I let out when one ran up my leg came from someplace pretty deep in my instinctual self. A cat won’t run up your leg.

  • Lumière

    peggysue Says: Animal imagery is incorporated into NW native art and religon (dances & masks) and it would be taboo to abuse a totem animal.

    Culturally arbitrary….

  • What do you mean by culturally arbitrary? is culture always arbitrary? I ask because I used to know someone who would often dismiss something by saying “it’s just a cultural thing” as if cultural things were not real or didn’t matter. Are you looking for something based in biology? I would say that in homosapiens culture and biology are symbiotic.

  • Lumière

    Culture is an arbitrary answer to the question of what benefit do the animals derive from human anthropomorphizing.

    Some cultures deify cows; some cultures eat cows.

    From a cow’s perspective, this is completely arbitrary.

  • But isn’t it still benifical for the cows who do not get eaten due to cultural prohibitions?

  • lptrixiemale

    @Sopper14 Says:

    How about the flip side? The opposite end of the spectrum? Why is it that humans have such a dang-hard time recognizing that we are animals?

    Yes! Quite often. Usually when I see someone in line berating a service worker or watch people fighting for parking spaces. I try to calm myself by thinking “Ok, we’re all a bunch of monkeys.” I imagine the meta-humans hiding inside the false-front ATM blind, filming us–writing the script about asserting dominance in the tribe and competition for resources. I get depressed again because weare monkeys with nukes.

  • You often hear people describe being ill-treated by their fellow human beings as: “They treated us like animals”. I always cringe when I hear that. First of all, we are animals. Secondly, that is not to say we should expect to be ill-treated. It would make more sense to me if a person subjected to human cruelty would be a little more specific and say: “We were treated like factory farm animals” or “We were treated like rabbits in a shampoo testing experiment” or even “She treats me like I’m her lap dog”.

  • tbrucia

    —- “how are we humans both alike and unlike other animals?” — Am I the only one who wishes he had the superhuman abilities of animals? It would be incredible to see infrared and ultraviolet or to hear trans-sonic or subsonic vibrations or to smell odors — as so many animals do! Bats, cats, dogs are just the tip of the iceberg, but while googling about, I discovered this fascinating page entitled “What do dogs see?” http://psychlops.psy.uconn.edu/eric/class/dogvision.html . Enjoy!

  • Lumière

    peggysue Says: But isn’t it still benifical for the cows who do not get eaten due to cultural prohibitions?

    Ask any cow that question and you will get the “thousand yard stare”.

    Reminds me of my cow story….

  • I’d love to hear your cow story.

    Ask a cow the arbitrary question of your choice and I think you will get the same answer. “a thousand yard stare” – with chewing.

  • Lumière

    Climbing Mount Moosilauke from the Glencliff and the great west slide, you pass through a gated pasture just down the street from the former TB sanatorium.

    I started early with the intent of camping on the summit – there is a spring on the summit. Although it was mid-August, it was snowing when I reached the summit. I decided not to camp overnight.

    It was almost dusk when I re-entered the pasture, empty that morning, it was now full of cows !

    As I walked, two things eventually occurred to me:

    the cows had no utters

    something was following me step for step.

    Then a third thing occurred to me:

    Pasturing bulls !

    I could feel the bull’s breath going down the backs of my legs as I walked. I stopped; he stopped. Every bull had stopped grazing – all eye were on me.

    What to do?


    I was halfway through the pasture. I still had to stop to open the gate, if I first got to it without being gored.

    I whipped around, reached out, and patted the bull on the snout – he gave me the thousand-yard stare – the gate was less than that distance away – it was all I needed.


  • tbrucia

    Hmmm…. cows without udders. Reminds me of the time I pointed out to my wife ‘those strange-looking pigs’. After she choked back her laughter, she explained my ‘pigs’ were recently sheared SHEEP. I’ve never lived that one down.

  • Lumière


    mis-identifying nature can kill ya in so many ways

  • Bobo

    I believe x2ferry already mentioned Mary Midgley, but I must give another shout out in her direction. Her classic book “Beast And Man” lit up my imagination with wonder, and I have been a fan of hers ever since. She is a very intense philosopher of science, and never hesitates to critique scientists for being unscientific.

    “Beast And Man” delves into the exact question: why are we the crowning achievement of nature and evolution? She does a brilliant job of critiquing the foundations of much popular biology and evolution using that one simple question. She also discusses much of the false moralization which is caused by anthropomorphism. For example: doves of peace, wolves with amorality and anti-social activity. Yet not only pop-culture, but much ‘legitimate’ science as well, is based on these superstitious, counter-factual views about the human relationship to the natural world.

    I highly recommend Mary Midgley to everyone. Beast And Man is probably the foremost book I can think of on anthropomorphism from a biological standpoint.

  • Rillion

    “Culture is an arbitrary answer to the question of what benefit do the animals derive from human anthropomorphizing.”

    The fact that animals who are anthropomorphized are not often eaten (and that is a benefit to them) is not arbitrary, and I would say that even what animals are anthropomorphized in a culture is not necessarily arbitrary. It seems that to some extent, the attraction to neonatal features that makes babies seem so cute applies to animals as well– we’re much more likely to anthropomorphize puppies than slugs. Also, some animals are anthropomorphized because they are more relevant– if your town is haunted by tigers who are prone to occasional attack, or even (in some African village I fail to remember that I saw on TV) vicious ants that can kill a child in 15 minutes, you are likely to ascribe human-like thoughts and emotions to them. Threats seem to be easier to conceive in anthromopomorphic terms. Maybe it’s easier to deal with something dangerous when you can think of it having intentions– maybe the implication is that it can somehow therefore be pacified or placated.

  • Lumière


    Can’t disagree with most of what you wrote.

    Humans place on the animal world a cultural me/not me-like/not like significance. From the animal’s POV it is arbitrary.

    I have been trying to see things from an animal’s POV on this thread.

    I am alone with this POV….

  • Bobo

    Lumiere: ” I have been trying to see things from an animal’s POV on this thread.

    I am alone with this POV….”

    I’m not sure exactly why, but I feel myself dwelling on this comment of yours, Lumiere. I like the idea.

    Have you read anything by Konrad Lorenz? I highly recommend “King Solomon’s Ring”. The title says it all, King Solomon having been granted the power to speak with animals through the power of a magic ring. That’s what Lorenz aspires to. He doesn’t want to study animals, he wants to carry on a dialog with them, and then maybe try to translate these conversations and report them back to the rest of humanity. Check him out: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Konrad_Lorenz

    Instead of anthropomorphizing animals, maybe you’re suggesting that we should de-anthropomorphize ourselves?

    What would happen to us if we made a conscious attempt to relinquish all those aspects of ourselves which we traditionally label as ‘uniquely human’?

    Would we still be human if we gave up rationality, culture, language, and sentience? Or would we become the ever-famous ‘featherless biped’?

  • mynocturama

    Honestly I haven’t caught up with the whole of this thread. But I’ll throw in some thoughts anyway.

    One of the things that Darwin did, and for which, I think, we should be forever grateful, is reconceive our relationship with the other animals on this planet. Namely, making that relationship more continuous. This is a bit simplistic, I know, as breakages and divergences are also integral to evolution. But, broadly speaking, I think it’s true.

    As far as implications for anthropomorphism in general go, I don’t really know. I think it’s prudent, as with anything, to go case by case. To make pronouncements as to whether anthropomorphism is good or bad in general, isn’t particularly useful, it seems to me. Depending on what info you may or may not have, in each specific case, certain assertions will or won’t be warranted. Insofar as it’s the subject of scientific inquiry, say, trying to understand the cognitive capacities of cats or dogs, science, at its best, proceeds with skepticism and caution.

    Also, on some fundamental level, isn’t our trying to understand anything an attempt to place it in relation to ourselves? To make it at least a little less alien, a little more familiar, to domesticate it, so to speak?

    Following George W’s illustrious intellectual footsteps, I’ve started rereading some Camus recently. This from early on in “The Myth of Sisyphus”:

    “Understanding the world for a man is reducing it to the human, stamping it with his seal. The truism “All thought is anthropomorphic” has no other meaning.”

    But he says this in relation to what he feels is the impossibility of making the universe completely familiar. As I understand him, at least.

  • It occurred to me that the phrase, “to treat someone like an animal” takes on a whole new meaning in places where pets are treated better than most humans on the planet. If only more people were cared for like those well fed, bathed and groomed dogs and cats.

    Maybe the lesson for kids is that they should treat other people on the planet the way they treat Kiki and King.

  • mynocturama

    Also, some thoughts on some traditions that seem to me to influence questions of anthropomorphism.

    First, and pretty obviously, there’s behaviorism. As a school of thought, it’s safe to say, its time has passed. But it’s left its mark in how experiments are designed, and in infusing a general skepticism as to what can be said about the mental states of other animals. According to behaviorism at its strictest, even the human mind is a “black box,” and nothing of any empirical worth can be said about it. I guess you can admire its austerity, but it’s simply too restrictive.

    Second, in philosophy, there’s the “problem of other minds.” The mental states of other people, not to mention other animals, are under extreme doubt. I think this tradition of deep skepticism has helped encouraged wariness concerning anthropomorphism.

    My dog, by the way, is really looking forward to the show.

  • rahbuhbuh

    Sidewalker’s comment made me remember an old professor of mine who hijacked a standard humanities curriculum and turned it into, essentially, “black representation in the media.” Lots of fascinating if not overreaching statements generalizing races, including: “one reason you won’t see a lot of black people with pets or picketing for animal rights is that too many affluent whites in America donate to PETA over other human’s civil rights”

  • Bobo

    mynocturama: I agree with much of what you said, but I would like to cast your Camus quote in a different light.

    –“Understanding the world for a man is reducing it to the human, stamping it with his seal. The truism “All thought is anthropomorphic” has no other meaning.”–

    This is quite true for humanities. However, science aims, or is supposed to aim, or pretends to aim at universal explanations for things. One of the major dilemmas in biology is where to draw the line on anthropomorphic explanations. Perhaps some anthropomorphic interpretations are valid simply because we are made of the same ‘stuff’ as every other living thing. As the creature in question gets closer to humanity (Ravens, Dogs, Chimps), it seems reasonable to assume that more anthropomorphic explanations are valid. So how much anthropomorphism is simply a recognition of our commonalities with the animal world.

    The argument against anthropomorphism in biology comes from the point of view that these explanations are imposing our experience on data that doesn’t clearly show the connection. When we say that Chimps fight and play in the same way we do, how can we ever know that? Or do we say it just because they look like us? Would it be valid to say that bacteria in a colony ‘play’ with each other when they shift positions? Does it exhibit a social hierarchy?

    I would defer to Clifford Geertz on this point. I think that from the field of anthropology, he offers the best way to use anthropomorphism in science. But if we do, we should be very explicit about what we are doing. The key is to not assume that either explanation is right, but that both are valid.

  • Cass

    As far as lolcats are concerned, I’d have to say that I find them extremely revealing (about the “author” that is). You get a quick glimpse of someone’s subconscious, and it can be extra tasty. I’d have to say that the best example of this is the “INVISIBLE DINNER” pic on icanhas. The “buildr” (Gordon’s lolcat buildr) does the same thing, but on a more free level. The lolcats there are more revealing, less refined, and well, pretty immature.

    Also, the personalities we give the lolcats are those of infants. Ok, so maybe 8 year old infants. You get the idea. Oh, by the way, we’re talking about pictures of cats with captions. I just feel like I have to reiterate that. Hilarious!

    I admit, I’m probably not going to find most of tonights show that interesting. I’m not bothered by having to reconcile my ideas about my anthromorphized brethren with those that I encounter who are just my housecats. Part of that may come from being a vegetarian, I’m not sure. Has there been a show on vegetarianism?

    Is there really that large a difference between making a lolcat and making an online avatar (WoW etc.)?

    I’m just excited, wired on caffeine, and throwing ideas around.

  • rahbuhbuh

    regarding lolcats (i didn’t know this is a word now, but I like it): I enjoy how we are reverse anthropomorphizing lazy writers, implying text messaging teens, as dimwitted posturing felines.

  • nother

    “Gosh, I never wealized that being a wittle bird could be so compwicated.”

    -Tweety Bird

    “Thus all the internal principles, that are necessary in us to produce either pride or humility, are common to all creators; and since the causes, which excite these passions, are likewise the same, we may justly conclude, that these causes operate after the same manner through the whole animal creation.”

    -David Hume

    A bowl of soggy Fruit Loops and some Saturday morning Loony Toons…Bugs Bunny and Daffy and Foghorn Leghorn…all brought the animal kingdom to life for me; in the same way that movies like “Pinocchio” brought my inanimate toys to life. As a consequence, I treated my toys better and I treated animals with more care and wonder.

    “I bet you say that to all the wabbits.”

    -Bugs Bunny

    But the best part is, I was exercising my imagination, and that is always a good thing. I gave my toys and the animals outside my house, identities in my world. When they had an identity, I had empathy.

    “No mouse is no match for no cat. And I’m a cat. I think. MEOW!! Yep, I’m a cat. So MUHA HAHA HA HA HA, mouse!!!”

    -Sylvester the Cat

    “The identity, which we ascribe to the mind of man, is only a fictitious one, and of a like kind with that which we ascribe to vegetables and animal bodies. It cannot, therefore, have a different origin, but must proceed from a like operation of the imagination upon like objects.”

    -David Hume

    “Maybe if I stare at this piece of paper long enough, people will think I can read.”

    -Daffy Duck

  • Potter

    Who remembers when there were cigarette ads on TV? They had a camel saying “I want a Camel!”

    ( the news with John Cameron Swayze Camel Newsreel Theater)


  • mynocturama

    Bobo – I liked your bacteria example. It might be useful to think of these issues in terms of respect and humility, recognizing that there are things and beings in the world beyond our immediate understanding, forms of life, ways of experience, that simply aren’t accessible to us. It’s a good check on arrogance. Thomas Nagel’s “What is it like to be a bat?” is a great, classic consideration about this stuff. As far as where along the phylogenetic chain do we start assigning traits like consciousness and emotions, traits potentially and problematically anthropomorphic, again, I think it’s a matter of proceeding with caution, case by case, based on evidence such as how similar are the nervous systems in question, how close is the genome to our own, etc… But even then it’s tricky, as the subjective state of the animal itself is outside our access, alien. And then again there are those who say the same thing about other human minds, as fundamentally inaccessible.

    I get your point about science in relation to the Camus quote, and by and large I agree. But I think Camus’ trying to make a radical point about all of human understanding, whether scientific or mythic or philosophical. That, in coming to understand something, we incorporate it into our conceptual systems, use the human artifact of language to describe and explain it, etc… There are some “post-modern” (an irritating and borderline meaningless term to me, but I’ll use it only to toss it aside) thinkers who carry this too far, claiming that any distinction between fact and value, or objectivity and subjectivity, is impossible to make, that kind of thing. I think it can get tricky at times, but I don’t think it’s impossible.

  • jazzman

    As most people unconsciously view everything through the filter of their personal (human) experience they project their familiar experience of self not only onto other humans (like GWB believing that the Iraqis’ and everyone else’s for that matter, system of logic is the same as his) but onto other entities with intensities directly proportional to the degree of perceived similarity to or identification with the entity.

    The gamut is infinite from primates to viruses, from complex systems (like the “free market”) to “lady luck” to computers. Each person is responsible for relationships with the anthropomorphized entities as it is a joint creation (drama) of the consciousnesses that are involved.

    As I have written here many times before, non-human consciousness is a unique manifestation in its own right and any similarities purported to mirror human nature (other than the consciousness part) are a creation of the projector who models the behavior in personal terms in order to process the experience in terms of one’s particular belief system.

    For example: Frans de Waal observes primate behavior and projects his beliefs regarding motivations and morality onto the behaviors. He believes in DE and views similarities in Great Apes and Humans as “proof” that a common “missing link” ancestor “has to be” the explanation. Because he projects his beliefs that humans and apes have common ancestors he projects common human traits onto primates and is convinced that he is being scientific whereas the scientific proof is a form of “look at it – it’s obvious” anthropomorphism.

    If such “science” results in kinder gentler treatment of other life forms, it serves the joint purpose of the participants (especially the non-humans) and I’m all for it but it isn’t science, it’s projection.

    Peace to ALL entities

  • nother


    “Thus all the internal principles, that are necessary in us to produce either pride or humility, are common to all creators;”

    it was supposed to say common to all CREATURES.

    I hate when I do that

  • whubbard

    Interesting show. We might also consider the ancient cultures, like Mayans or Egyptians who worshipped animals, and incorporated their “power” characteristics into desirable human qualities. Art history in both western and non-western traditions is full of examples of animal imagery and symbolism.

  • Hmmm, another show I wish I heard in real time. I have on previous occasions compared my cat to humans in issues of empathy and morality. On that subject, why can we not elevate some animals above some humans? The animals bring out many of what we think of good qualities in people, while many humans exhibit the worst qualities. My cat certainly holds a higher value and place in my life that a lot of the people I have encountered over the years…

    I am thinking also of how many of us have been terribly worried for our animal companions during the recent pet food recall, while other people very self-righteously complain that too much time and energy is being wasted on this story when so many human tragedies are unfolding…

    Oh, another interesting angle now by Mr. Lydon – the reglious (or perhaps specifically Judeo-Christian-Islamic) separation of humans from animals, that humans are inherently more worthy, more devine, etc., than even our beloved pets. I don’t necessarily buy it…

  • Oh, I’m glad they finally got around to the anthropomorphic genius of Gary Larson! One thing that is great about his animals is that they still maintain their animal qualities and situations while taking on human language. Take the deers lamenting a “bummer of a birthmark” in the shape of a target. Also, humans descend into the animal world. Little chubby boys are perfectly good sources of food for snakes or dragons. I think I quite enjoy his take on the “descent of man.”

  • Tsarena

    I would like to point out that anthroporphization, especially in literature, is generally used as a metaphor. Metaphors are a common way that people understand the world. When we call someone a snake, we are not alluding to the fact that they look like or act like a snake, instead we are using how we view snakes as a metaphor on their personality. Snakes are long and can find their way into tight spaces easily. We use their abilities as metaphors or a person who can find their way around the law, and metaphysical ‘tight spaces’. Metaphors are often used even when we do not realize it. For example: life is a container, we say “life is full” similarly, we say that a person is “foxy” meaning that they are witty or sly.

    I would also like to say that one epistomology deffinition of language is “Intentional communication through symbols and sounds.” Using this deffinition it is clear that some animals have a laguage. For example: The chickedy can communicate the size and threat of a predetor through series of cheeps. The more cheeps there are on the end of the call, the more dangerous the predetor.

  • We should also not discount how bestiamorphic we all are. We drape ourselves in animal skins and hair, model many item after animal shapes and copy their movements in our dances and rituals. But the way we kill our own and trash our living spaces is truly human.

  • Nick

    “For scientists who shudder at such anthropomorphism—defined as reading human attributes into nature—let us not forget that mechanomorphism—reading mechanical attributes into nature—is really no better than second-hand anthropomorphism, since mechanisms are human products. Is it not more likely that nature in essence resembles one of its own creatures than that it resembles in essence the nonliving products of one of its creatures?”

    — Elisabet Sahtouris, Earthdance: Living Systems in Evolution, p.10

    The above quotation’s context:


    …it is the aim of this book to show that (biological application of reductionism, such as sociobiology) (presents) a misleading picture—as misleading as earlier scientists’ one-sided view of all natural selection as “red in tooth and claw,” the hard and competitive struggle among individuals on which we have modeled our modern societies.

    The new view of…evolution shows, on the contrary, an intricate web of cooperative mutual dependency, the evolution of one scheme after another that harmonizes conflicting interests.

    The patterns of evolution show us the creative maintenance of life in all its complexity. Indeed nature is more suggestive of a mother juggling resources to ensure each family member’s welfare as she works out differences of interest to make the whole family a cooperative venture, than of a rational engineer designing perfect machinery that obeys unchanging laws. (unquote)

    — ibid.

    Note: Sahtouris precedes this passage with a warning against conflating descriptive metaphor for the thing or pattern metaphorically described. And she writes:

    “Our intellectual heritage for thousands of years, most strongly developed in the past few hundred years of science, has been to see ourselves as separate from nature, to convince ourselves that we see it objectively—at a distance from ourselves—and to perceive, or at least model it, as a vast mechanism…

    …This mechanical/religious worldview superseded the older one of living nature to become the foundation of the whole Western worldview up to the present…

    …But it has taken time to accumulate scientific evidence that the Earth is a live planet rather than a planet with life on it, and many scientists continue to resist the new conception because of its profound implications for change in all branches of science, not to mention society.”

    — ibid. pp. 2-4

    Geez. It’s mighty heartening to read such out-of-the-box philosophy from an evolutionary biologist. It seems more akin to “Live Long and Prosper” than to “So Long, and thanks for all the fish!” (Much as I love Douglas Adams!) 😉

  • c*eileen

    The whole time I was listening to the broadcast of this subject, I kept waiting for a more pragmatic discussion of why we anthropomorphize. There was a lot of psychobabble and ample discussions on the ancient religious roots of this practice (and way too much talk about cartoon characters). It seemed to me that the guests were digging far deeper than necessary to find an explanation and justification for anthropormorphism.

    Regarding cartoon characters, they are given speech qualities that 1) seemed funny at the time and 2) are a match for the character’s other traits. Mel Blanc has stated in interviews that his interest in developing a particular voice for a character had to do with what would be funny and appropriate for that character. Remember, these cartoons were conceived at a time before political correctness made laughing at speech difficulties taboo. Why we would have found such things funny is probably best explored in a venue which deals with the psychological nature of humor in general, not in a show about anthropomorphism.

    In giving animals a human voice in the first place, it is the best way for us to connect to the subject, regardless of the medium used. In literature (and in film), dialogue is a dramatic plot device that allows the reader to be in the moment, to be present in the action as if they were part of the conversation. Imagine any story in which the dialogue is replaced by ordinary third-person exposition—in effect, merely heresay passed along by the author. This not only forbids the characters from speaking for themselves, but places the reader at an emotional and psychological remove, so that they cannot readily engage the characters and identify with them. This would make for a poor reading experience.

    The story “Black Beauty” goes beyond simply dialogue and tells the whole story in first person from the horse’s point of view. People have accused this novel’s author of extreme and inappropriate anthropomorphism. Certainly, Ms. Sewel could have taken a different approach in presenting the abuses suffered by horses in urban England; she could have accumulated data gathered through hours of coldly scientific detached observation and presented her findings to Parliament or had them published in the newspaper. But how effective would that have been in opening the eyes of the general population to the horrors she was trying to communicate? By giving horses a human voice, human emotions, and human thoughts, she was able to touch the public mind, awaken the public sense of empathy, in a way that was deeper, more emotionally engaging, and more psychologically proactive than any mere scientific report ever could have done.

    Identifying with another is an important aspect of human psychology, and is no-doubt hardwired into our brains. In fact, a lack of such empathy is considered a pathological flaw. Identifying with another member of our own species is relatively easy since there’s an assumption of shared traits (even when there isn’t a shared language). Identifying with an animal, be it our pets or our nonhuman gods, is much more difficult because it is harder to distinguish shared traits (and, of course, there is no hope of a shared language). These creatures are foreign to us, and beyond our ready understanding. To get past this wall of incomprehension, we have to humanize them in some way—give them human voices, human bipedalism, human emotions, behaviours, morals, and intentions in order to embrace them into our lives. In effect, we anthropomorphize members of the nonhuman world in order to better connect with that world.

    That we would choose animals as religious figures is rather obvious, I think. We are symbol-using creatures, our minds deal in symbolic representations of our world and our exerience with it. This may be a trait we share with other animals—what is a lion’ s mane or a bird’s vestments if not symbolic cues to their gender? Wouldn’t there be, in their minds, an abstracted representation (a symbol) of these features that says, “That individual is a male and is of my own species?” In any case, whether we share the ability to create and use symbols with other species or not, we certainly depend upon symbolic representations as a form of shorthand for expressing ideas. We have done this for a very long time, far longer than we have had writing, perhaps far longer than we have had complex speech. The readily visible aspects of an animal’s appearance and behaviour have always provided us with an ample supply of images from which to create iconic forms of ideas such as courage, strength, ferocity, wisdom, trickery, beauty, good and evil. Gods are ideas given form, and if the god in question represents the ideas of strength and leadership, then a good symbol for that might be a lion, say, or a wolf. How the relationship between animal and symbol evolves from there depends, I suppose, on history, cultural personality, and circumstance; the animal itself may become deified, or be given human arms and legs (anthropomorphised).

    Gods which wear an animal’s head and a human body probably have multiple origins going back to the cave. An animal-headed god with a human body may be a symbolic representation of our efforts to identify with or be closer to the god. They may also reflect our early efforts at representing the animal, its symbolic meaning, or its spiritual principle via rituals, celebrations and dances in which our shaman or headman wore the head and skin of the animal. There is also the sympathetic magic idea which holds that wearing the skin or a mask representing the animal bestows upon its wearer the characteristics that are revered in that animal. These origins are probably all interrelated and any one may the outgrowth of any or all of the others. In every case, what the observer experiences or sees is an animal head attached to a human body.

    And let’s not forget that we are like any other creature in how we define the world and its purpose: IT’S ALL ABOUT ME! If anything, we’re probably different from other animals in that we even stop for a moment to consider the feelings, life quality, needs, and futures of other species. I doubt that the blacktail deer here get together to consider the habitat dilemmas faced by their mule deer cousins, or that my neighbor’s dog feels bad when he scares my cat. That we define the world and its other inhabitants according to our own image of ourselves should come as no surprise to anyone. About the only psychological analysis needed here comes straight from a freshman Psych 101 course. No deeper psychbabble is necessary.

    While anthropomorphism may not be “scientific,” may not mesh well with scientific method, it is good thing that we do it. If we didn’t, if we saw everything in the cold objective light of only observable facts, our attitude toward the nonhuman world would be even more relentlessly destructive and cruel than it is now. It is this ability and willingness to project upon the nonhuman those traits that we view as uniquely human which allows us to more easily feel empathy toward that which is “other.” It is this empathy which helps us moderate our treatment of the natural world and its nonhuman denizens. Woe to the planet should we ever forget how to anthropomorphize.

  • jazzman

    Nick I would like to thank you for introducing me / ROS to Elisabet Sahtouris

    She seems to share a remarkable number of my beliefs and I think she’ll eventually come around to my views on DE. In the spirit of détente, I offer you and everyone else a preview of her work in progress.


    and her website:




  • Rillion

    “The whole time I was listening to the broadcast of this subject, I kept waiting for a more pragmatic discussion of why we anthropomorphize. There was a lot of psychobabble and ample discussions on the ancient religious roots of this practice (and way too much talk about cartoon characters). It seemed to me that the guests were digging far deeper than necessary to find an explanation and justification for anthropormorphism.”

    I had exactly the same reaction. It was very hard to keep listening to why “eumans” should view Jesus as being like a minotaur, and on and on. This is what happens when you divorce explanations of human behavior from science, I suspect…it just comes out as so much gobbledygook.

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  • Anyone who has spent time with other intelligent species will tell you they all have unique personallities and communicate in their own ways. Those who can’t see that are unconsciencely experiencing a form of other-species racism. mr. closets

  • GodzillaVsBambi

    Jesus is a strong example of anthropomorphic arrogance. Those with a lack of spiritual sensitivity are more likely to perceive their creator in literalist terms and infer anthropomorphism in everything they do. This has nothing to do with the nature of reality, and everything to do with how we perceive ourselves. If no distinction is made between man and his creator, then man thinks he is capable of anything and culpable for nothing. ‘Man’, must change his parochial relationship to science and religion. A return to matriarchy, if only temporally, may be the hiatus he needs to save himself from the destructive force of his own ego. Genesis 1:27 is still widely misinterpreted. Lord knows you’ve had enough time, Good luck!

  • Pingback: Adam Lyons - Principles Of Attraction. | 7Wins.eu()

  • Now that’s an important point I’ve never heard made quite like that before. Well done! Perhaps a little more detail for noobies?

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