In my too-recent somatic experience of really feeling like a part of a mutualistic, interdependent world of plants, animals, and the constant exchange of electrons, anthropomorphism has come to mean something quite different than it used to. I don’t know if it’s the wider acceptance of Buddhist and Indigenous philosophies or the climate crisis or something else, but I’m also seeing more blurred lines in recent non-fiction books, including pieces about how the brain works, ecology, health, and others.
Here’s my supersimple explanation, based on nothing but my own education, of the evolution of anthropomorphism in Western culture. In the Romantic era across Europe and elsewhere, there was a shift in the intellectual classes towards an appreciation of nature and the other living things in it (some of them, anyway). You see this all over the English and European poetry of that era (late 18th-early 19th century), and the influence on American, especially Transcendentalist, literature as well. In a culture of hierarchies and human supremacy, granting human thoughts and feelings to “lesser” animals seemed a conciliatory and respectful practice. More recently, the ascription of human characteristics to non-humans has been considered childish and aspirational – something fanciful that we do to pretend that animals are more like us and force affinity where there is none. It is this position that is showing some much needed deterioration.
Unfortunately, some of the most habitual line-drawers between humans and others have been scientists. Much of the non-Right in this country is very rah-rah about science these days, and with good reason. But we’re deluding ourselves if we think that the purported objectivity of science precludes the field from prejudicial framing and, thus, prejudicial conclusions (see Braiding Sweetgrass for more on all of this). Naturalists, biologists, and other scientists of the living world have often been the first to dismiss talk of plant intelligence or the attribution of “human” emotions to non-human things. I understand how highlighting shared traits could be perceived as anthropocentric, that we should let animals just be animals. However, we can only understand the world in a context we recognize, and we are not just observers of the natural world, but participants in it. In order to participate we have to connect. In order to connect, just as with humans, we find things in common. If every emotional or motivational or intellectual connection we discover is dismissed as projection, it makes it very difficult to feel an affinity with other life forms. We are a part of this world. And other things in this world think and feel and act in ways similar to us. Trees have elders who help out younger trees, elephants perform ritual goodbyes for dead community members. Many animals hug each other with affection, or for consolation or conflict resolution.
Scientists employ […] technical language to distance ourselves from the rest of the animals. They call ‘kissing’ in chimps ‘mouth-to-mouth contact’; they call ‘friends’ between primates ‘favorite affiliation partners’ [….] if an animal can beat us at a cognitive task […] they write it off as instinct, not intelligence. Primatologist Frans de Waal terms this ‘linguistic castration.‘Why Fish Don’t Exist. Lulu Miller. pp 181-2
We’ve hung onto this hard line between human and non-human life as if Darwin and his ilk never existed, as if we still didn’t know that humans are just animals that evolved in a distinctive way. We have been so enamored of our “superior” intelligence that we couldn’t even acknowledge that intelligence is a characteristic shared with other living things, let alone that others might be more intelligent than us in any area. But we are finally starting to give non-human life the credit it deserves, finally starting to talk about the way trees send messages through forests to protect each other, the way octopuses and grouper work together to hunt, or a crow manipulates tools, as intelligence.
When we have acknowledged non-human intelligence, we have judged animals based on how well they can do what we have classified as “human” talents – recognizing themselves in a mirror, performing tricks, remembering where items are placed, etc. Anything that is not an area wherein humans excel is classified as instinct. This overused quotation is still sound:
If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.
Or we will believe it is stupid. It’s even harder to get people to recognize the intelligence of non-animal life. How can something without eyes or what we call a brain think? Calling trees or fungi smart is almost embarrassing.
We have also held our species up as emotionally superior, capable of a wider range of feelings and sympathies than other animals, despite the at-least-equal amount of evidence that we are less compassionate, more cruel, and indubitably more destructive than any creature that ever lived. We see ourselves as more individually distinctive as well, less of a type and more of a solo creature, even though we are perhaps less able to independently care for ourselves than any other plant or animal, less able every year, it seems. Plus, anyone who’s had more than one dog knows that there is no such thing as a “dog personality”. Every dog I’ve had has been at least as distinct as each of my friends.
Indigenous cultures have had little trouble recognizing and respecting our species’ essential and interconnected place in the natural world, because to do otherwise would be to put your life and the health of your community at risk. The only way to live off the land is to live with the land, to recognize what was required of us and what could be expected of and negotiated with other species. The religions that emerged out of this life reflected that mutualism, just as European religions, placing the idle and intellectual above and apart from farmers and hunters and those who worked with the earth, created religions of hierarchy and separation. We have long dismissed indigenous knowledge as mythical and unscientific, because the science used was not recognized as legitimate. But it is science, based on generations of observation and experimentation, and with conclusions rationally drawn therein, just as with non-indigenous science.
Early “big e” Environmentalism believed that the best thing for humans to do with nature was leave it alone, as if we are not a product, part, and partaker of nature; as if we’ve become so far removed from the source of our very being that we cannot possibly be anything but a scourge to the living world. I’m not mocking. I get it. Certainly, keeping drilling out of the arctic and development off coastlines is understandable. This was a motivation behind our National Parks. Protecting nature from us is perhaps not as self-promoting as some other practices, but it’s just as isolating and unnatural. Seeing ourselves exclusively as a threat to the rest of the world is just as insane as seeing the world exclusively as a threat to us. It’s like labeling your liver as a threat – sure, it can do damage when things go wrong, but it’s also an essential part of the package, one the body can’t live without and one that cannot live without the body.
Why do we insist on drawing these lines? Does it make us feel special? Do we refuse to acknowledge our kinship with other living things for the same reason we refused to acknowledge that the earth was not the center of the universe? Is it some quieter but still extant idea that in order to have our Special Relationship With God, we must be different from everything else? Do we cling to the favoritism of a distant, immortal, esoteric being at the expense of forming meaningful relationships with our mortal kin all around us?
If we do tend this direction as a capitalist, Euro-centric culture, what good does it do us? Does separating ourselves from everything in the natural world improve our wellbeing in any way? If so, how? Because it allows us to destroy entire ecosystems, species, dramatically reduce the livability for most things on the planet, without compunction? Maybe the ease, comfort, and continual newness for which we sacrifice our world does make us happier, in a way. I certainly like central heat and Youtube Alan Watts lectures on demand, but they don’t make me any less lonely. The loneliness that emerged from deciding we were the only intelligent species on the planet may have created our obsession with the things and conveniences for which we sacrifice our only home in order to fill the lonely maw inside us. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle that doesn’t seem very smart.
In the new edition to her gorgeous book, World as Lover, World as Self, Joanna Macy writes that our dependence on and concern for our othered neighbors may not be as alien as we are led to think, and the refusal to recognize our compassion for the world does not serve us.
Many therapists have difficulty crediting the notion that concerns for the general welfare of our planet might be acute enough to cause distress. Trained to assume that all our drives are ego-centered, they tend to treat expressions of this distress as manifestations of personal neurosis. […] “What might this concern represent that you are avoiding in your own life?” In such a way is our anguish for our world delegitimized,
and even mocked, especially when expressed by indigenous groups who have historically and spiritually cultivated and respected a connection to the world they interact with, and thus have felt the pain of detachment more deeply than most of the rest of us.
We are told that we could not possibly feel a true emotional connection to things that are not human, that the only legitimate loss is human loss (the loss of a pet is only considered significant if compared to a human, e.g. it’s a member of the family, it’s like a child). What does this denial cost us? How much less lonely would we be if we recognized our kinship with trees and squirrels and forests? It would likely place us more thoroughly in the world, which would benefit the rest of the planet as well as ourselves.
Going on a hike doesn’t just make us feel better because it “clears our head”. Nature itself makes us better in ways we do and don’t understand. MRIs have shown that
When participants viewed nature scenes, the parts of the brain associated with empathy and love lit up, but when they viewed urban scenes, the parts of the brain associated with fear and anxiety were activated. It appears as though nature inspires feelings that connect us to each other and our environment.https://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/how-does-nature-impact-our-wellbeing
Having a view of the outdoors from a hospital room reduces recovery time and the need for painkillers after surgery. In psychiatric units, studies have found that “being in nature reduced feelings of isolation, promoted calm, and lifted mood among patients.” Just 20-30 minutes in a “natural” environment significantly reduces cortisol levels.Trees emit phytoncides to deter insects, which generate immune responses in humans, increasing and activating the white blood cells that kill tumor- and virus-infected cells in our bodies.
Depression, anxiety, and drug overdoses are higher than ever recorded in the US. Where can we go for comfort? What if we could turn to a river or flock of geese for a sense of connection, endurance, shared struggle, and rest? We can, but we rarely view immersion in the world beyond the one humans have created as a real place of sanctuary, even though it is our collective ancestral home. Is the drama of the human condition the result of us putting our intellect above and apart from everything else?
Could the recognition of non-human cognition make our lives better? Could it make us better neighbors, better tenants? Could changing the language of anthropomorphism tear down the wall between us and the rest of the planet? I truly fail to see the harm in recognizing the humanity, for lack of a better word, in the vibrant & varied lives with which we share the Earth. Unless we are deliberately separating ourselves in order to keep guiltlessly extracting and destroying? Recognizing our kinship on a global scale would force a shift in worldview, one that might put a stop to our extractive and exploitative economy. I dunno. I think it would be worth it, for all of us earthlings.