Anthropomorphism

anthropomorphic-landscape-1274-midAnthropomorphism is another subject I’ve always found fascinating. While the term comes up most often in discussion of the proclivity of most pet owners to attribute human characteristics to their animals, it has other connotations, most notably the landscape pictured above.

The word is derived from a combination of the Greek ἄνθρωπος (ánthrōpos), “human” and μορφή (morphē), “shape” or “form”, so it’s most immediate definition is “to take human form”. Alternatively, the dictionary defines it as “attribution of human motivation, characteristics, or behavior to inanimate objects, animals, or natural phenomena”. The Greek gods, such as Hera, Zeus, Diana and Apollo, were often depicted in human form exhibiting human traits, though the proper word for gods in human form is anthroptheism, which encompasses the idea of gods as deified human beings, a belief held by Mormonism.

Many of the Greek philosophers, however, heaped scorn on the anthropomorphism of their fellow citizens and had no time for the gods. The philosopher Xenophanes has been quoted as saying “the greatest god resembles man neither in form nor in mind.” Similarly, anthropomorphism of God is rejected by the principals of Islam and Judaism. They both believe that God is beyond human limits of physical comprehension. Christianity, on the other hand, embraced it from medieval times onward, largely due to the anthropomorphism prevalent in the Bible, wherein gods were often referred to as jealous and wrathful and the assertion that Jesus was the physical manifestation of God. Also, Genesis chapter 1, verse 27: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” probably had a lot to do with it.

The ideas that humans are created in the image of God, or that gods have human characteristics were explored in Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion, by Stewart Elliott Guthrie, who theorized that anthropomorphisms originated from the human brain’s tendency to detect the presence or vestiges of humans in natural phenomena.

Anthropomorphism has a long, time-honored standing in literature. Probably the most famous example would be Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, though it goes back at least as far as Aesop’s Fables, and further still in oral traditions, one notable example being the depiction of death as as the Grim Reaper.

Getting back to the subject of humans anthropomorphizing their pets, I find it peculiar that so many people find it distasteful. Those would, of course, be mostly people who choose not to have pets in the first place. There is no doubt in my mind that my cats love me, and while I am inclined to attribute what would be called human characteristics to them, I am quite certain they are capable of emotional responses toward me in the same vein that other humans are. The ability to notice this does not strike me as being the same as anthropomorphizing them. The same is certainly true of dogs, perhaps to an even greater degree. Now when it comes to dressing pets in human-like outfits and such, that’s where I personally draw the line, and such behaviour would definitely qualify as anthropomorphizing, and I can understand the reaction many people have to it, but recognizing the our pets bond with us does not. At least not in my estimation.

Another form of anthropomorphism, I’ve just realized, relates to a previous post of mine on the subject of Pareidolia, the inclination to see faces in everyday objects, such as clouds, door knobs, still life paintings and many other objects. I wonder if those who are most inclined to attribute human characteristics to their pets are also inclined to Pareidolia. I’m guessing there would be a high degree of crossover.

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