Thursday, January 7, 2010

Anthropomorphism: Because we can.

As someone who is studying in an anthropological field, when people use the word anthropomorphism it usually follows a lesson in what shouldn't be done. It has been attributed to bad science many times, especially when in the perspective of non-Human hominids and their ancestors. However with the science aside anthropomorphism is a completely natural human trait which we are all guilty of.

Now what exactly is anthropomorphism, besides a long scientific term? It is the act of attributing Human characteristics to anything which isn't Human and includes: animals, objects, and even abstract concepts. In simple terms when a person says that their animal is posing for the camera, it really isn't. Humans make the interpretation and ultimately the decision of what the animal is doing. Thus the essence of anthropomorphism.

Culturally, anthropomorphism is so heavily ingrained that most people do not even notice that they are doing it. It isn't uncommon to see a movie which features talking animals, or names an inanimate object the hero of the story. This is fine and good until it reaches the scientific field.

Science frowns upon anthropomorphism because it can skew studies. For instance in biology, when one isn't aware of biases that can occur from such beliefs, a researcher can mistake an instinctual practice, such as grooming as something which it isn't. This tends to happen a lot in fields like primatology where researchers may mistake certain behaviors as proof of intellect.

As a student of anthropology, I've been warned by professors and text books not to give into anthropomorphism. Avoiding such biases will become imperative and essential to my research, so I will not skew any findings and potentially ruin the study. However, separating oneself completely from this trait is impossible even from the most aware so it will become imperative that I learn to be aware and how to manage my own anthropomorphism.

A recent article from National Geographic about the NASA space rover Spirit is what brought about this idea of posting about anthropomorphism. This rover Spirit, an amazing piece of technology, outdid itself by surviving is expiry date by many years and unlocking many opportunities for further scientific endeavors. It has been stuck for some time now and accumulated dust is blocking its solar panels, this will eventually cause its battery to lose power. The estimated time for expiry, that is if nothing changes, is May.

Currently, I find myself constantly anthropomorphizing this Rover, which reminds me of the little engine that could in many ways. I also find myself hoping it manages to escape and continues its Martian journey. I know that may sound ridiculous at first glance, but I find others also sharing the same sympathy for this machine.

So, I say "Cheers!" to Spirit, to a job well done! Let's hope that it survives another year!

You can find the reference video from the National Geographic YouTube channel below:


Belle Isle said...

Ok, this is going to sound corny, but couldn't there actually be traits that are cross-species? How do we know? Can anybody prove that a dog doesn't feel happy when it gets a favorite treat? Current research shows dogs having some skill in recognizing human facial expressions. What is that about? Why couldn't the evolutionary conditions that produce "human" traits like courage, loyalty, pride, fear etc. produce less "sophisticated" versions of those traits in animals? And your you want to start talking about the Turing Test and artificial intelligence? The Rover is not there yet, but someday....

Scientific method and avoiding bias is critical to research.... but remember your professors and textbooks aren't infallible. The textbooks once said the world was flat.

Thank you for a very interesting post.

Dark Slander said...

Such traits such happiness, and sadness are extremely anthropomorphized in general. Although there has been studies which have have concluded some animals have them naturally. These inherited and genetic traits aren't considered anthropomorphized, they fall outside that category like evidence that Chimps show grief (which is a complex emotion).

Happiness in a dog is a measurable and known thus is not anthropomorphic, as are many other traits that the dog has inherited by way of evolution. True anthropomorphism comes in line when people look at a chimp and say "Hey look it is smiling, when the reality of it is chimps don't smile... that gesture signifies stress.

You're getting into a whole other field here determining what is human, and what isn't... which is something I'm currently studying and I'll make note to touch on it in the future.

I understand that all science can be fallible, however I support the evidence as it is now. If it changes, I will alter my perceptions to correct the fallacy.

I appreciate the comment. :)