Monday 28 June 2021

Our Impulse Toward Anthropomorphism

Animals in the film Animal Farm
‘Animal Farm’, as imagined in the 1954 film, actually described human politics.

Posted by Keith Tidman


The Caterpillar and Alice looked at each other for some time in silence: at last, the Caterpillar took the hookah out of its mouth and addressed her in a languid, sleepy voice.

    ‘Who are YOU?’ said the Caterpillar.

    This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, ‘I--I hardly know, sir, just at present  at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.’

    ‘What do you mean by that?’ said the Caterpillar sternly. ‘Explain yourself!’

    ‘I can't explain MYSELF, I’m afraid, sir,’ said Alice, ‘because I’m not myself, you see.’


Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll, is just one example of the book’s rich portrayal of nonhumans — like the Caterpillar — all of whom exhibit humanlike properties and behaviours. A literary device that is also a form of anthropomorphism — from the Greek anthropos, meaning ‘human’, and morphe, meaning form or shape. Humans have a long history of attributing both physical and mental human qualities to a wide array of things, ranging from animals to inanimate objects and gods. Such anthropomorphism has been common even since the earliest mythologies.


Anthropomorphism has also been grounded in commonplace usage as metaphor. We ‘see’ agency, intentionality, understanding, thought, and humanlike conduct in all sorts of things: pets, cars, computers, tools, musical instruments, boats, favourite toys, and so forth. These are often items with which we grow a special rapport: and that we soon regard as possessing the deliberateness and quirkiness of human instinct. Items with which we ‘socialise’, such as through affectionate communication; to which we appoint names that express their character; that we blame for vexing us if, for example, they don’t work according to expectations; and that, in the case of gadgets, we might view as extensions of our own personhood.


Today, we’ve become accustomed to thinking of technology as having humanlike agency and features — and we behave accordingly. Common examples in our device-centric lives include assigning a human name to a car, robot, or ‘digital personal assistant’. Siri pops up here, Alexa there… This penchant has become all the more acute in light of the ‘cleverness’ of computers and artificial intelligence. We react to ‘capriciousness’ and ‘letdowns’: beseeching a car to start in the bitter cold, expressing anger toward a smart phone that fell and shattered, or imploring the electricity to come back on during a storm. 


Anthropomorphism has been deployed in art and literature throughout the ages to portray natural objects, such as animals and plants, as speaking, reasoning, feeling beings with human qualities. Even to have conscious minds. One aim is to turn the unfamiliar into the comfortably familiar; another to pique curiosity and achieve dramatic effect; another to build relatability; another to distinguish friend from foe; and yet another simply to explain natural phenomena.

Take George Orwell’s Animal Farm as another example. The 1945 book’s characters, though complexly nuanced, are animals representing people, or perhaps, to be more precise, political and social groups. The cast includes pigs, horses, dogs, a goat, sheep, a raven, and chickens, among others, with human language, emotions, intentions, personalities, and thoughts. The aim is to warn of the consolidation of power, denial of rights, manipulation of language, and exploitation and control of the masses associated with authoritarianism. The characters are empathetic and relatable in both positive and flawed ways. Pigs, so often portrayed negatively, indeed are the bad guys here too: they represent key members of the Soviet Union’s Bolshevik leadership. Napoleon represents Joseph Stalin, Snowball represents Leon Trotsky, and Squealer represents Vyacheslav Molotov. 

Children's stories, familiar to parents having read to their young children, abound with simpler examples. Among the many favourites are the fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm, The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi, The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling, The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter, and Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne. Such stories often have didactic purposes, to convey lessons about life, such as ethical choices, while remaining accessible, interpretable, and affable to young minds. The use of animal characters aids this purpose.


More generally, too, the predisposition toward anthropomorphism undergirds some religions. Indeed, anthropomorphic gods appear in assorted artifacts, thousands of years old, unearthed by archeologists across the globe. This notion of gods possessing human attributes came to full expression among the ancient Greeks.


Their pantheon of deities exhibited qualities of both appearance and thought resembling those of everyday people: wrath, jealously, lust, greed, vengeance, quarrelsomeness, and deception. Or they represented valued attributes like fertility, love, war, wisdom, power, and beauty. These qualities, both admirable and sometimes dreadful, make the gods oddly approachable, even if warily.


As to this, the eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume, in his wide-reaching reproach of religions, struggled to come to grips with the faithful lauding and symbolically putting deities on pedestals, all the while incongruously ascribing flawed human emotions to them.


In the fifth century BCE, the philosopher Xenophanes also recoiled from the practice of anthropomorphism, observing, ‘Mortals deem that the gods are begotten as they are [in their own likeness], and have clothes like theirs, and voice and form’. He underscored his point about partiality — modeling deities’ features on humans’ features by observing that ‘Ethiopians say that their gods are snub-nosed and black; Thracians that they are pale and red-haired’. Xenophanes concluded that ‘the greatest God’ resembles people ‘neither in form nor in mind’.


That said, this penchant toward seeing a god in humans’ own likeness, moored to familiar humanlike qualities, rather than as an unmanifested, metaphysical abstraction whose reality lies forever and inalterably out of reach (whether by human imagination, definition, or description), has long been favoured by many societies.


We see it up close in Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament, where it says: ‘So God created humankind in His image, in the image of God He created them; male and female He created them’, as well as frequently elsewhere in the Bible. Such reductionism to human qualities, while still somehow allowing for God to be transcendent, makes it easier to rationalise and shed light on perplexing, even inexplicable, events in the world and in our lives.


In this way, anthropomorphism is a stratagem for navigating life. It reduces reality to accessible metaphors and reduces complexity to safe, easy-to-digest analogues, where intentions and causes become both more vivid and easier to make sense of. Above all, anthropomorphism is often how we arrive at empathy, affiliation, and understanding.



Thomas O. Scarborough said...

I think of 'Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking', which seeks to reduce everything to analogy. Anthropomorphism is then a subset of analogy in general. I myself consider that if any two things share attributes, analogy is possible.

I am not sure whether anthropomorphism is the only tendency. When it comes to analogy, we may be anti-anthropomorphic. ‘That man is a machine.’ We thus convert something, someone human into the anti-human. Or we say, ‘May the Force be with you,’ where everyone fully understands that this is metaphysical.

Keith said...

Thank you, Thomas. There’s no doubt that analogies, like anthropomorphisms specifically, can serve as handy devices for mentally exiting the world of the ordinary and making a point, even quite dramatic point. Your examples, Thomas, show that. Making comparisons, or assigning traits of one thing to another, can be used for great effect. As you suggest, ‘that man is a machine’ is not intended literally, but rather analogously, to exaggerate endurance or strength or force or power or some other machine-like quality, to distinguish that particular man from others.

The several literary and other examples in the essay, like George Orwell’s Animal Farm, underscore some of people’s cleverest uses of the device. British philosopher Gilbert Ryle’s ‘ghost in the machine’ criticism of Cartesian mind-body dualism is another example which, through imaginative, creative analogy, leaves a historically indelible, dramatically descriptive, unmistakable impression of Ryle’s deeper point. Banalities simply wouldn’t have hacked it.

But, all this said, our ‘impulse toward anthropomorphism’ can also, in sharp contrast to the positive uses I briefly mention, reveal a lack of imagination. Leading to the question, Is that the best you can do? One case of the latter is how the ancient Greeks attributed humanlike qualities (behavioural, mental, and physical) to their gods. For me, the latter is an example of the worst (mis)application of anthropomorphic analogy. In my opinion, anthropomorphism degrades the gods, whom one might otherwise like to conceive as transcending such qualities, even as indescribably abstract and unmanifested.

docmartincohen said...

There's many subtleties in the book… The horses are dumb but hard working, the pigs are smart and greedy. The sheep! Ah they do what sheep always do…

Are these "real" characteristics – or just ones we write onto the animals? I think there is some truth to them. Analogy only requires a little bit of correspondence to enlighten. And yes, as Thomas suggests, isn't it ironic that we imainge animals as people, emotional and needy – and people as machines?

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