Anthropomorphism and Alien Species

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia anthropomorphism is

A term used in its widest sense to signify the tendency of man to conceive the activities of the external world as the counterpart of his own. A philosophic system which borrows its method from this tendency is termed Philosophic Anthropomorphism. The word, however, has been more generally employed to designate the play of that impulse in religious thought. In this sense, Anthropomorphism is the ascription to the Supreme Being of the form, organs, operations, and general characteristics of human nature. This tendency is strongly manifested in primitive heathen religions, in all forms of polytheism, especially in the classic paganism of Greece and Rome. The charge of Anthropomorphism was urged against the Greeks by their own philosopher, Xenophanes of Colophon. The first Christian apologists upbraided the pagans for having represented God, who is spiritual, as a mere magnified man, subject to human vices and passions. The Bible, especially the Old Testament, abounds in anthropomorphic expressions. Almost all the activities of organic life are ascribed to the Almighty. He speaks, breathes, sees, hears; He walks in the garden; He sits in the heavens, and the earth is His footstool.

Beyond religion and philosophy, we find the term also used for any tendency to give non-humans the attributes of humans, i.e. to act as if animals have emotions, attitudes, intentions, goals, and characteristics of human beings. In folk tales, myths etc. we find crows, foxes, other animals being given voices, and they talk and act like humans.

In science, especially the study of biology and animal behavior, anthropomorphism is something to be avoided---biologists should not act as if they find human-like behaviors among animals, i.e. the vervid monkey is not resenting certain treatment, or does not feel shame etc. or remorse because these are human emotions. Biologists must avoid, in other words, attributing these motivations to the animals, because we cannot know what their thought process is.

Anthropomorphism is common, however, in popular culture, and we often find animals (in advertising etc. as well as in cartoons, etc. ) acting with human attributes, and of course, with language . In fact, in many cartoons, animals are depicted as having language with which they communicate with each other, but either they deliberately conceal this from humans (for self-protection or whatever), or humans are too stupid to figure their language out. We also have another kind of anthropomorphism, which refers to primitive hominids (Neanderthals etc.) and their ability to communicate, and our inability to judge how much language and/or technology they actually mastered. There are also jokes and cartoons that make fun of wild men like Tarzan, and his 'primitive' linguistic and communicative skills. And there are also ads in the media that use sounds of animals to simulate speech, as in the Budweiser commercials, where frogs and other swamp creatures seem to be asking for Budweiser beer. One of my favorite types is the one that makes fun of the `my dog ate the homework' excuse many students (used to) use to explain why their work is late.

In science fiction, non-human creatures (extra-terrestrials etc.) from other planets are often depicted as having some human-like attributes, including language, but with differences.

According to an article by Kurt Andersen in the New Yorker, July 7, 1997, there are six basic types of aliens. What we are interested in is what kind of language abilities the different types have, i.e. is there a correlation between body type and linguistic proficiency in human language (especially English; what other language is there?)

Andersen's six types:

  1. Clones of living breathing people.

  2. Hulking humanoids with enormous bald heads.

  3. Small, grey, hairless, chinless, big-eyed waif.

  4. Comic-relief plush toy. ALF.

  5. Swamp Creature.

  6. Hypertrophied arthropods, i.e. really, really big shellfish and insects.

In the scale of humanness, these range from very human-like to extremely un-human, and the less human they are, the more disgusting and evil they usually act. The clones, however, may be evil but are using a human form and language to deceive us and with an intent to do us in. Being able to speak American English may be proof of their clever evilness, not their benign niceness.

This scale of humanness goes along with a scale of language, with the more human ones having language indistinguishable from "us" with a gradual shading off into less-and-less human language (more robotic or electronic sounding) such as the character R2D2 (who also can sound `cute' or `upset') in Star Wars, and then finally complete gibberish, or perhaps with no vocalization at all---communication takes place by some other method, e.g. mental telepathy.

As you do your studies, look for these correlations, both for animals in Disney movies (etc.) and for creatures, including humans, in other genres of movies. Remember that the point of showing disgusting creepy shapes, and horrific kinds of language is often to demonize the creature in question, allowing us free rein to destroy the creatures because they have no human attributes. They're just some slimy insectoid thing from outer space.,
last modified 10/3/05