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:

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