Oct 29 2008
The memorable nymphs and fairies and goblins and demons that crowd the mythologies of every people are the imaginative offspring of a hyperactive habit of finding agency wherever anything puzzles or frightens us.
- Daniel Dennett (7)
It is a fact; confronted with abstract stimuli people anthropomorphize: they tend to find human features — particularly facial feature. When viewing a prototypical abstract image, the Rorschach inkblot, what do people see in the ultimately meaningless shape? They tend to see people. Second on the list is animals (8) – other potentially important agents, at least in an evolutionary context. While a talking herbivore, if so able, might report seeing types of vegetation and predators, we see people.
Seeing forms is one thing, inferring behaviors another. When confronted by “abstract” (uncertain) events, surprise! people tend to not see but infer the meaningful (intentional) work of agents: human, human-like, and animal. “The most literal anthropomorphism in daily life is mistaking some nonhuman thing or event for a human. We may hear a door slammed by wind or a branch tapping at a window as human action, or hear water in a brook or gurgling in plumbing as a voice.” (9)
We naturally and habitually err on the side of agency. Better to perceive too much intent in the events we witness than too little. So a blur of light in the dark of night becomes a ghost, a shadow on a lake, a monster, a flash of form in the sky, a UFO piloted by aliens.
Humans very readily conclude (perhaps too readily in our more informed age) that behind the events we witness there always exists an agent “pulling the strings,” so to speak.
In terms of religion, upon witnessing an event too abstract to comprehend, but felt as significant, the common propensity, even today, is to attribute (10) the event to the mysterious work of a deity.
Scientific studies confirm just how much humans tend to personify and anthropomorphize. “Efforts by marketers to anthropomorphize products may be viewed as shifting the category of evaluation from product to human, and more specifically, to particular human categories such as friends, helpers, families, or spokespeople.” (11)
Scientists themselves are not exempt from manifesting this human tendency. Consider this headline from a scientific website: “Clever Plants ‘Chat’ Over Their Own Network.”(12) Sure, the author deliberately draws attention to it by highlighting “chat” with single quotation marks. They know they do it, yet can’t resist. Within the article we find this string of words: “’runners’ allow plants (e.g. strawberry) to ‘share’ information that its ‘enemies’ are nearby.”
My question: Do we have a deficit of more suited words in our language, words that don’t imply that plants have intention and are thus thinking and scheming agents? Are words that imply agency simply more interesting to us, and thus we opt for them? Why are they interesting?
The same science website coined this article title: “Evolution: When Are Genes ‘Adventurous’ And When Are They Conservative?”(13) Furthermore, the writers speaking for the researchers (or the researchers themselves) choose these words to discuss their topic: “Taking a chance on an experiment – this is one of the impulses that drive evolution.” And, “Evolution, it seems, discovered this principle millions of years before Wall Street.”
Just who is taking a chance? It seems that genes are taking a chance. Can evolution discover something?
Shall we chalk up this type of language use to poetic license? Of course genes don’t take chances, nor are they selfish, for they have no self to be “ish” about. Genes lack intention in any sincere sense of the word. Nonetheless, the language is evocative. What does it evoke in us? (14)
My hunch is that our brains are naturally inclined to think in terms of subject and event (15). The nativist perspective on language has long recognized how children the world over develop language in a remarkable similar, cumulative fashion. The child flexing it’s newfound ability with speech may say, “Mommy up.” It wants mommy to lift it into or out of its highchair. “Mommy” is the subject, or agent. The event the child wants his mother to cause is lifting him or her up.
Perhaps by nature we are inclined to think and speak in terms of events and what subject caused them. But is there always a single subject we can identify as the cause?
(7) Dennett, D., Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Viking, New York, 2006, p.123
(8) Guthrie, S. E. Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion, Oxford University Press, New York, 1993, p. 107
(9) Guthrie, S. E. p.92
(10) In the general psychology course I teach we cover such concepts of attribution theory and fundamental attribution errors. Human beings habitually attribute the behavior of other humans to either dispositional characteristics or situational characteristics. Upon witnessing someone drive their car erratically, we don’t simply think, “Hey, someone is driving erratically.” As thinkers with a fully-developed theory of mind, we speculate about the cause. Is that person driving erratically because they are a moron (dispositional characteristic) or because they are drunk (situational), etc. We infer the cause or motivation of behavior. Without evidence of any kind.
(11) “That Friendly Car Is Smiling At Me: When Products Are Perceived As People”
(14) One final example from a book about time-keeping devices: “Although there are over a dozen heavier man-made elements, nature herself stopped making atoms with uranium” [italics mine] (from, Barnett, J. E., Time’s Pendulum: From Sundials to Atomic Clocks, the Fascinating History of Timekeeping and How Our Discoveries Changed the World, Harcourt Brace, New York, 1999, p. 240). “Nature” frequently serves the same purpose as “god.” It is an all-purpose subject we may designate as the cause to an otherwise orphaned event.
(15) Ordinarily we hear the phrase, “subject and object.” But when do we encounter word strings like, “Joe pond?” Instead, we read that Joe swam . . . in the pond. Subject, event.
[This post first appeared here.]