Anthropomorphism is a mouthful.
Basically, it means “assigning people qualities to non-human beings or things.”
So let’s say I am sitting beside my iPhone and no one is texting me. I might think to myself, “Poor iPhone is sad….no one wants to talk to it.”
(For those of you who are wondering if it would still be anthropomorphism if my iPhone got any smarter and turned into an A.I., I have no idea. But probably it still would be.)
Or let’s say I am in one room in my casa and my parrot, Pearl, is in the other room. He can’t see me so he starts to scream. I think fondly to myself (as I am hurrying back to his side), “He misses me so much!”
When I wrote my second book, “Love & Feathers: what a palm-sized parrot has taught me about life, love, and healthy self-esteem,” I took special care to devote a page in the front to the topic of anthropomorphism.
On this page, I explained why my openly anthropomorphic writing style was on some level necessary due to the nature of the content and yet how I understood that it represented shaky ground at best in humankind’s eternal quest for improved interspecies understanding.
But now I am finding myself backtracking on that sentiment a little….or a lot.
The thing is, as a homo sapiens, I really don’t have any other frame of reference for empathy, understanding, love and respect, whether with my own kind or with other species.
All I’ve got is what is within me – my senses, my brain, my heart, my gut, me.
So if I want to make any kind of connection with the world around me that might inspire compassion, action, connection, some level of assigning “me values” to “not-me entities.”
The ability to anthropomorphize other living beings can help me to detect core needs that all of us share – for example, the need for safe living spaces, appropriate temperature control, food and water, air and the chance to reproduce, contact with others of our kind (a lot or a little), medical attention, help of various kinds and on a myriad of levels.
Where the whole thing falls apart, at least in my humble opinion, is when me-as-homo-sapiens starts assuming that these other, non-human entities need the same kind of living space, temperature, food, community contact and aid as I do.
Here is an example. For the last 21 years, I have shared my daily life with my parrot, Pearl. We both eat, sleep, groom, exercise and communicate every day. But we do it in some very different ways! If at any time I decided Pearl needed to do things my way and in the way of my species instead of his way and in the way of his species, I might irreparably harm him in the process.
I no longer have even a shred of personal doubt that non-human beings have all the same basic range of needs that I myself do. But those same needs look really different on other beings.
Here is another example. My rescued box turtle, Bruce, needs to sleep for several hours each day just like I do. But he prefers to sleep nestled down deep in a pile of soft dirt or hay while I prefer to curl up on my soft and fluffy comforter.
I also fully believe that non-human life forms experience all the same basic life experiences on a mental and emotional level just like I do.
For instance, my redfoot tortoise, Malti, has been with me since she was a five-week-old hatchling. As of this month she is now five and a half years old and she still gets visibly startled whenever detects a shadow or movement overhead. This is a clear demonstration of fearfulness that I don’t need a translator to explain to me.
I know, because I often feel fearful too and especially when I am focusing on something and someone suddenly taps me on the shoulder or speaks to me or walks into line of sight with my peripheral vision.
Without anthropomorphism, I wouldn’t have the motivation to minimize incidents like this for her because I wouldn’t be able to extrapolate from my own fear responses to recognize similar responses in her.
Could I be wrong, about any of it or all of it? Sure. Of course I could.
But I don’t think I am.
After all, somewhere deep down underneath all the exterior differences, we share fundamental similarities right down to our ancient limbic brainstem and our inbuilt fight-or-flight survival instincts.
After decades, centuries even, of focusing on our differences, and often for purposes that served only our kind and harmed all others, it feels like it is time to own up to what our own gut instincts have long been telling us – in the ways that matter most, we are more alike than different.
And in some strange primal way, writing out this statement here makes me feel saner and more connected than I have ever been.
With great respect and love,