Monday, November 9, 2009

Anthropomorphism is Sixteen Letters of Positive

It's human nature to anthropomorphize. We do it with almost everything we come into contact with, often times without an awareness of the act. I'm sure it's an offshoot of our social natures. Seeing ourselves in others helps us relate to them. But anthropomorphism isn't just a social construct, or, at its worst the ultimate act of vanity. I think anthropomorphism is the root of empathy and compassion, and it's nature's ultimate evolutionary behavioral accomplishment.

It goes like this. We care for ourselves. We look after ourselves. Our survival instinct makes sure we protect ourselves from harm. We don't vary too much from every other species on the planet in this, especially our mammalian cousins. But what sets us apart is our ability, almost our compulsion to project onto other's our own traits, fears, desires and behaviors. Even, and especially non-human creatures and inanimate objects. And, as we protect ourselves from harm, we tend to protect those we consider similar to us. Kin and friends alike. If you are one of us you are part of the protected fold. Anthropomorphistic behaviors allow humans to extend their circle of protection beyond themselves and their close kin groups. They grant us the ability to feel empathy in general, and specifically toward creatures and objects completely unlike ourselves. We can even extend the empathy to concepts like justice and freedom. We see ourselves everywhere, and everywhere we see ourselves we have the innate desire to protect.

This gets short-circuited often, no doubt. But at its root, apart from other external factors, anthroporphism is the foundation of human ethics. Treat others as you would be treated. Look at ancient animistic religions. Their adherents saw spirits and gods in everything. In plants and animals. In the cycles of the seasons. In the sun, stars and moon. Why? Because they saw themselves in everything, and therefore everything became sacred to them as they were sacred to themselves. Everything around them was an extension of their culture, their circle of community. And they protected it as best they could.

Next time you find yourself imbuing something external to you with human attributes try and catch your motivation. Are you trying to understand it better? Are you trying to forge a connection? Attempting to get inside its mind (or imagine it has one)? Generally speaking I think you'll find that whatever your motivation is, it's a positive one. It's all about extending your sphere of connectivity within the world. Making positive attachments to meaningful things.

Anthropomorphism isn't a human failing, and it most certainly isn't a human vanity. It's the doorway to inclusiveness, kindness and acceptance of everything around you.

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