Beyond Anthropomorphization

3 October 2010


The Cougar (Male) by John Woodhouse Audubon, An illustration from The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America by John James Audubon and John Bachman, originally published in three volumes (1845-1848).

I usually avoid local news, but when I visit my mother she always brings out clippings from the local paper that she has been saving and which she urges me to read, also mailing some of these to my sisters who live elsewhere and therefore don’t see the local paper on a regular basis. Most of these items are of no interest to me, but I was very intrigued by a guest editorial in the Daily Astorian, written by Matt Winters of the Chinook Observer. My mother tells me that she always looks forward to Mr. Winters’ columns.

The guest editorial was titled, “An unforgettable scream in the night,” and opens with the motif of a cougar scream. As I have myself heard a cougar scream, I know how blood-curdling it sounds. It isn’t really possible to explain it, but it is a sound that inspires instinctive fear. And it is probably a great evolutionary advantage to all primates to react with this instinctive fear to the sound of a big cat, as, if you get caught by one, you will be killed and eaten. To a mountain lion, we are mere prey.

Mr. Winters describes the scream of a cougar as a “hate-filled screech” and goes on to reflect:

There is much in the minds of other species that we can make no pretense of understanding.

In writing it is often regarded as an amateurish stunt to anthropomorphize — to attach human characteristics to animals. To say that a cougar is expressing hatred or that a raven is amused by is own reflection is to risk a figurative pat on the head, as if you are too simple-minded to know the vast difference between we suave humans and those buffoonish beasts.

More and more, I suspect that they are more like us and we are more like them than anyone wants to acknowledge. Maybe our snobbish attitude grew up to salve our consciences about treating so many creatures with such wanton cruelty…

While I disagree with Mr. Winters that a cougar’s scream sounds “hate-filled” (though it certainly is a fear-inspiring sound), more importantly I agree with the implied criticism of anthropomorphization, and this got me to thinking. The idea that anthropomorphization is a fallacy is itself a fallacy, and it is a fallacy based on an assumption of discontinuity between human beings and nature. In other words, the critique of anthropomorphization is a relic of the nature/culture dichotomy.

In The Continuity of Civilization and Natural History I made the following argument:

“…in so far as civilization is entirely the product of a set of behavioral adaptations that have made it possible for human beings to thrive in any habitat, we can view civilization as being continuous with the behavioral adaptations of natural history and therefore as exemplifying no historical novelty whatsoever. Thus the advent of human civilization does not represent historical discontinuity and no historical period is originated with the advent of human history.”

The continuity of civilization and natural history is, of course, only a special case of the continuity of human beings with the natural history that produced us. Darwin repeatedly appealed to what is sometimes called the saltation principle: Natura non facit saltum, i.e., nature does not make leaps. While modern science made many of its early gains by rejecting the authority of Aristotle enshrined by the Scholastics, the saltation principle is essentially a corollary of Aristotle’s dictum that nature abhors a vacuum. The absence of a vacuum means natural continuity, and this is also expressed by the uniformitarianism of geology before Darwin, and especially in Lyell, who profoundly influenced Darwin. For all our intellectual revolutions, there is a great deal of continuity here as well.

The continuity of of our ideas through history is an expression of the stability of what Braudel called the structures of everyday life. I have made this point in several posts, starting with Life and Landscape, and more recently coming to the formulation that, “…the landscape a people comes from shapes the life and character of that people, and this way of life in turn shapes the ideas of that people. Thus ideology is a highly derived form of geography.” (in Fifty Years of Brasília), further elaborated the next day as, “…ideology is the higher geopolitics, and philosophy is the higher ideology.” (in How the World Works: Philosophical Version)

A humorous take on the Aristotelian-Scholastic principle that nature abhors a vacuum.

If the critique of anthropomorphization is in fact a fallacy derived from suspending the continuity of the world, i.e., introducing a leap into nature, what then is the alternative? There are at least two alternatives, and I suspect that each is appropriate in its own context, whatever the appropriate context might be. Firstly, there is the possibility of validly inferring human qualities in other species, which then simply becomes an extension of the ancient philosophical puzzle of other minds (which I briefly considered in The Eye of the Other, inspired by an experience in Astoria, and so it ties in neatly here). Secondly, there is the possibility of non-anthropomorphization, which would be something like the objectification of human qualities (this isn’t the best formulation, but hopefully I will hit on a happier phrasing at some time in the future).

This second alternative bears some intuitive resemblance to the recent philosophical phenomenon of object-oriented ontology, which I have briefly discussed in several posts. To employ the non-anthropocentric discourses of the natural sciences to describe the human condition might be construed as a dehumanizing form of objectification, but it can also be liberating to take leave of the tendentious histories of the past. And one needn’t be an object-oriented ontologist to assume this perspective: William McNeill’s deservedly well-known book Plagues and Peoples adopts a natural historical approach to human history, and this is also the central task of the naturalistic conception of history.

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