Anthropomorphism Essay

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Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human qualities-specifically, complex emotions, reasoning, and motives-to anything that is not human. Most religions describe the divine in human terms, even though divinity is defined as something inherently beyond the human. The tendency to put a human face on celestial bodies and on features of the topography dates to religious beliefs that deities had assumed those forms. Other deities were said to have assumed animal forms, and myths have reinforced totemic associations of certain animals with particular characteristics-for instance, owls with wisdom, foxes with cunning, and swans with elegance.

In popular culture, the sun and the moon are still often represented not only as having features, but also as being capable of emotive expressions. Enduring features of the topography such as mountains and rivers are often described as old men. Some pet owners may believe that their dogs and cats enjoy being dressed in hats, sweaters, and booties. Other pet owners may believe that a dog or cat is capable of smiling or frowning in response to events. Some plant owners may truly believe that their plants not only are responsive to soothing or harsh sounds, but also are capable of feeling happy or sad. This sort of anthropomorphism occurs even when natural phenomena are destructive for instance, Atlantic hurricanes that are given human names such as Katrina and Rita.

Anthropomorphism has become a point of contention when it has been used to heighten the impact of arguments about environmental choices or about what constitutes humane treatment of other creatures. For instance, describing a logging or mining practice as the “rape” of the environment stigmatizes that practice. Likewise, describing orphaned animals as being overwhelmed by sorrow or grief following the deaths of their mothers transforms natural selection into a heart-rending melodrama. However, the survival of adult bears (or any adult carnivore) often depends on their being able to find easy kills among orphaned animals. Even the use of the term “orphaned” illustrates the pervasiveness of anthropomorphism that prevents many from thinking clearly about how other species may be very different from humans.

This lack of clarity has muddied issues such as what constitutes the humane treatment of wild and domesticated animals harvested for food or clothing, of animals used in the testing of medical treatments and cosmetics, and of animals kept in zoos and other exhibitions. Traditionally, the sense of the urgency of these issues has intensified the more closely related the species has been to man. Primates are most likely to be described in anthropomorphic terms, as are almost all other mammals. At the other end of the spectrum are insects, fish, and reptiles none of which provoke much sympathy. Interesting exceptions are amphibians and birds, which, despite having eyes with the flat, inhuman aspect associated with fish and reptiles, are capable of producing sounds that appeal to the impulse to anthropomorphize.

Knowledge of the ways in which other species perceive the world is very limited, and it may always be limited by the inability to completely transcend human perceptions. Some investigators who have been especially concerned about human mistreatment of other species have argued that other species do not respond to experiences in a manner comparable to human emotions, but they may still be capable of feeling. The newest type of anthropomorphism involves the attribution of human qualities to machines, in particular to thinking machines such as computers that may someday be capable of artificial intelligence.

Bibliography: 

  1. Eileen Crist, Images of Animals: Anthropomorphism and Animal Mind (Temple University Press, 1999);
  2. W. Mitchell, N.S. Thompson, and H.L. Miles, eds., Anthropomorphism, Anecdotes, and Animals (State University of New York Press, 1997);
  3. Margot Norris, Beasts of the Modern Imagination: Darwin, Nietzsche, Kafka, Ernst, and Lawrence (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985).

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