Anthropomorphism

[T]he animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete… They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.
~Henry Beston, “The Outermost House”

The anthropomorphization of nature is as old as time. It’s only natural that we should see others as if they were us. At the same time, the realm of science strongly advises us to leave such thinking at the door, so to speak. Some people lament this, it creates hordes of problems for ethologists, but all in all, I find the logic sound.

Anthropomorphizing nature, specifically animals, is a dangerous proposition. Often it’s harmless, yes, but if taken to extremes it can be quite dangerous. People see animals the way they want to see them. “Wolves are harmless!” “Wolves are maniacal killers!” Wolves are neither. They are wolves, and to try to classify or pigeonhole them is a fallacy. Timothy Treadwell thought he knew bears. The bears taught him very firmly otherwise. It ended with the deaths of two people and two bears. In trying to help, Treadwell only achieved the opposite.

Anthropomorphizing an animal to extremes isn’t going to save species, either. Trying to gloss over negative attributes and presenting a species as good and wholesome and nothing but harmless is only going to backfire when those negative attributes come forward…as they will. Speaking frankly about the actual animal instead of some imaginary paper doll is the only way to sanely preserve it. And as much as one anthropomorphizes an animal one way, there are others who will anthropomorphize it the other way. That’s when you see bitter fights over prey selection in wolves. One group sees the wolf one way, the other group sees it the complete opposite. In the meantime, the wolves are oblivious to the supposed facts presented by their defenders and aggressors.

To anthropomorphize an animal is to belittle it. To turn it into something it’s not. What you interpret an animal’s behavior as and what is actually happening can be very different. No, that Northern Cardinal is not singing you a song. You might like to think that, but in reality that bird is either saying “Hey, baby, hey baby,” or “GTFO.” And even those can be classified as anthropomorphic.

I believe we can have respect and reverence for nature without having to anthropomorphize it. And when we do anthropomorphize something, we need to realize it for what it is and take it with a grain of salt.

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2 Responses to “Anthropomorphism”

  1. Dargon Says:

    I was hoping this one would have that set of bird photos. Never fails to amuse me.

  2. Hell yes. I am a totemist, but I come at it from a primarily psychological angle–and a physical animal is NOT a totem, nor is it necessarily a super-speshil messenger from a totem. It simply is, and often totemism is the projection of ideas onto other beings.

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