Do all cultures anthropomorphize?
September 25, 2006 7:38 AM   Subscribe

Are there any cultures that don't anthropomorphize animals and other things (living or otherwise) in their myths, legends, folktales, etc.? Is this a universal thing? And if it is universal, are there any layman accessible books or articles on why?
posted by PinkStainlessTail to Society & Culture (20 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
PinkStainlessTail posted "And if it is universal, are there any layman accessible books or articles on why?"

Quick and dirty answer: as a social animal, as a primate, and even more so as a human, you have a number of brain "modules" devoted to understanding other humans (and recognizing their faces, detecting when they cheat, etc. It can be very bad for you to not engage those modules, as treating a fellow human as an object without emotion or intent will make it impossible for you to divine the other's wants vis-a-vis you, and will lead to conflicts or at least non-cooperation. (Again quick and dirty, you'd react like an like an autistic.) Since much of mankind's advantage is small-group cooperation, humans who don't engage the "other mind" module tend to be weeded out by evolution.

The cost of the contrary fallacy, treating animals and inanimate objects like humans, isn't so high, so it's a good and likely evolutionarily imposed strategy to tend to anthropomorphize rather than not to.
posted by orthogonality at 7:48 AM on September 25, 2006

Christianity - because animals do not have souls. Most other cultures treat animals as thinking and feeling.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 7:58 AM on September 25, 2006

However, even Christianity has a talking snake.
posted by teg at 8:00 AM on September 25, 2006

And a talking donkey.
posted by RobotHero at 8:17 AM on September 25, 2006

Talking snake? That's not all. Some would argue that Christianity has (wrongly) anthropomorphised "god."
posted by bim at 8:17 AM on September 25, 2006 [1 favorite]

While I havent read the book The Golden Bough yet, I think that you may find it interesting. It was recommended to me by a friend.
posted by bim at 8:35 AM on September 25, 2006

And a talking dog.
posted by TonyRobots at 8:44 AM on September 25, 2006

And a non-talking but remarkably expressive wolf.
posted by Iridic at 8:57 AM on September 25, 2006

In my experience, people a little more over toward the autism end of the human spectrum actually tend to be much more prone to be able to empathize with animals and to recognize them as fellow concious, feeling beings (Temple Grandin and the author of Songs of the Gorilla Nation: My Journey Through Autism are cases in point). In fact, I know a few such who found their way to a deeper capacity to love other human beings through a prior love of animals.

Recent studies have sought to attribute deficits of autism to deficits in 'mirror neurons,' and I think it's tempting to carry this a bit farther and argue that mirror neurons, under the conditions of our culture, at least, can confer such a special status on other human beings that we are largely blinded to the 'fellow' status of animals.
posted by jamjam at 9:07 AM on September 25, 2006

From David Abram (his book Spell of the Sensuous has an awesome first couple chapters, then he lost me with heady philosophy. Excerpt here):
Our bodies have formed themselves in delicate reciprocity with the manifold textures, sounds, and shapes of an animate Earth; our eyes have evolved in subtle interaction with other eyes, as our ears are attuned by their very structure to the howling of wolves and the honking of geese. To shut ourselves off from these other voices, to continue by our life-styles to condemn these other sensibilities to the oblivion of extinction, is to rob our own senses of their integrity, and to rob our minds of their coherence. We are human only in contact and conviviality with what is not human.
Then there's the only slightly less poetic E.O. Wilson, a Harvard naturalist, in his book Biophilia, and then his co-edited The Biophilia Hypothesis. His hypothesis^ is that humans evolved with animals, so they have a special focus on animals and other forms of life. (I think most people use evolution as their explanation now. And why not? The human eye sees green better than any other color, too, from evolving around all that vegetation.)

The Biophilia Hypothesis has several essays focused specifically on animals. One you might especially like is by Aaron Katcher and Gregory Wilkins -- they talk about how people with various brain differences respond well to animals even when they don't respond in a typical way to human society (like jamjam is saying). Since the response to animals is less often damaged by brain injury or disease, they hypothesize that the response to animals is either "deeper" in the brain or that the pathways are more redundant.

Two other books I haven't personally finished but that like ones that might help answer your question:

George Page, Inside the Animal Mind (" fact, researchers have found that children dream mainly about animals..." p.13). This book is more about how animals think than about how we see them, though.

Paul Shepard, The Others: How Animals Made Us Human. After describing many animal creatures from myth, he writes: "More than monuments to human imagination, the whole panoply of their mythic, fantastic forms is based on a thousand millennia of watching and studying real, wild animals. This creative perception of animals is in us still, a perennial satisfaction and pleasure, one of the oldest human vocations..." p.10.
posted by salvia at 9:37 AM on September 25, 2006 [1 favorite]

Sorry, just found a few typos -- running to work, did not proofread well. :)
posted by salvia at 9:39 AM on September 25, 2006

First off, there's a difference between anthropomorphizing and recognizing the "fellow" status of animals - it's not anthropomorphization to think that an animal has experiences, feels pain, undergoes some version of emotions, etc. It's anthropomorphizing to tell stories about an animal dressing up like the protagonist's grandmother, or convincing the first woman to eat a forbidden fruit.

Why we do this: I would say initially there's the simple extension of our reflective mind. Once we became conscious of our own selves, we start wondering what it's like to be all those other individual things out there, and the simplest answer is that it's just like being you, but with a different body. Hence, a child imagines that being a rock would be boring 'cause you'd just sit there all day, etc. It's hard for us to think about what it would be like to exist but not know you exist (and philosophers even sometimes conclude that you could not exist at all if it was never known). I think this extends even into the human realm, that people are much less likely to realize that it might be very different to be a different person - we presume consciousness works the same across the board but there is interesting variation, which we have only recently spent much time considering.

But really, mythologies & fairy tales are meant symbolically, so the "anthropomorphizing" in those cases isn't making assumptions about the experiences of other things. It's using the associations we have with the animal or the object to create a character or a conflict. A wolf is a great villain, because he's close to a dog, except wild, savage, and hence, evil. But dogs are loyal and friendly, so the wolf is not pure evil (like maybe a cold blooded reptile could be) but more like a frightening and dangerous potentiality of the uncivilized. etc -
posted by mdn at 9:43 AM on September 25, 2006

I just wanted to say that this is a really interesting question, Pink.

I guess that were talking about animism. And while I can find lots of stuff about animistic cultures online (I searched some journals using a library account) -- where some see animism as a primitive or childlike stage in culture -- I can't find any spedific examples of non-animistic societies. Maybe such a thing doesn't exist.

And while a lot of folks seem to label themselves non-secular or non-religious these days, they still describe themselves as "spiritual." There's probably a heavy dose of animism in there for a lot of folks.

I did run across a book review that pointed out an interesting question of "whether we imagine we have social relations with nonhuman things and events because we animate them or,
as she mostly thinks, animate them because we have relations with them."

FWIW, I think that Daniel Pals Seven Theories of Religion is a very readable and enlightening book.
posted by bim at 10:25 AM on September 25, 2006

Just realized that I missed a key word, "anthropomorphize." When I posted above, I thought you were asking why cultures feature animals in their legends.

About anthropomorphizing, I think Shepard might be the most relevant. He's fascinated by the fact that in some ways we feel kinship with animals, while in other ways, we see animals as "others." But I don't know what he says about why.

Abram is relevant, too. He claims that the job of magic, shamans, etc., in indigenous cultures (the worst thing about his book is that he groups together all indigenous cultures as though they were the same) is to intermediate between humans and other forms of consciousness to keep the human community in balance with the outside world. So maybe that's another reason for anthropomorphic stories.

You might also check out Stephen Kellert. One of his books focuses on something like nine values we get from animals, nature, etc., and -- if I'm remembering correctly -- one of these is the symbolic and another is moralistic value, where he talks about folktales. Since he's gone on to do a lot of work on children, his more recent work might deal even more with these questions.
posted by salvia at 12:30 PM on September 25, 2006

Response by poster: Mdn really nails what I mean by anthropomorphism: animals, trees, sausages*, whatever, demonstrating "human" behaviors.

Hmmm, animism might be part of it, but it seems to be a given in most of these tales that the anthropomorphized entity is there to act like a human, often by exploring human foibles, not just as a "merely" sentient non-human . Anansi, for example, is not simply a very clever spider: he represents the guile and cunning of man. There's certainly reasons why a spider makes a good choice for this, but it's still not spider behavior and spider consciousness that's being explored.

It's a caricature technique if you like, that seems to exist in every culture I've ever had a look at.

*Seriously. Somewhere in Grimm if memory serves.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 12:57 PM on September 25, 2006

Christianity does anthromorphize if you look at Chaucer as being Christian. Also, Unicorns were sort of human like in many ways, and they were to represent Christ.
posted by bohdel at 3:20 PM on September 25, 2006

While we're pointing out Christian anthropomorphosis...
posted by Iridic at 3:24 PM on September 25, 2006

Check out Joseph Campbell. The Power of Myth is a decent one to start with. He covers different myths of different cultures pretty extensively, and has some pretty good ideas as to why.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 3:31 PM on September 25, 2006

I'll stand by my original statement:
Christianity does not anthromprphise
Yes there are a talking snake and donkey. But they only show up once and do not have an ongoing role. One might even claim that they themselves didn't speak but instead God/Satan spoke through them.

It is a whole nother issue about Christians anthromophizing. Gee, they seem to worhip a Bunny during Easter but that doesn't mean that the Bunny is a part of Christianity.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 4:44 PM on September 25, 2006

I'm not talking about animist bunnies or dogs or snakes.

Some would argue that god is unknowable. To borrow from the Old Testament -- "I am what I am" as the burning bush tells Moses. Or more correctly, "I am what I am becoming" as I believe the interpretation more accurately is. So god simply "is."

Christianity has anthromomorphized god into a personal god, into a man (Jesus Christ) and we speak of "god the father" too (the sexism of which has been discussed at length over the last several decades).

Sorry, but I don't buy it. I have no complaints at all with Jesus' message and with Jesus as an exemplary person and all that. But the Christianity/Jesus as "god" thing is just another myth slapped on top of earlier pagan myths which brings us back to animism and a million other things.
posted by bim at 5:09 PM on September 25, 2006

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