Radio Freethinker

Vancouver's Number 1 Skeptical Podcast and Radio Show

Wars and Weddings: Anthropomorphism in Biology

Posted by Jenna Capyk on July 5, 2011

If the human race had an anthem I don’t think there’s any question that it would be “You’re So Vain.” You probably think this article is about you, and you’re right. As a species we have an almost boundless ability to make everything about us. What other being can see themselves in two dots above a curved horizontal line? This anthropomorphic tendency has manifested itself in everything from exploiting all possible natural resources as our right as “intelligent” creatures, to couching our observations of other living things in a context of human emotional experience. Although this is obvious in eavesdropping on any child visiting a zoo, it’s occurrence and influence in mainstream biology is both less obvious and arguably more detrimental.

People are people and snakes are snakes and bacteria are bacteria. It is, however, amazing how often scientists forget the factors that cause these distinctions when they are writing up their work. The extreme example is the field of microbiology, or the study of bacteria and viruses. Although perhaps contested by a fringe few, our neurological framework is generally understood to be the seat of emotional experience. Bacteria do not have nerves, or any of the basic components to build them. In fact, bacteria have only one cell, and even those are a simpler version of each of our own cells. This complete lack of “thinking” and “feeling” machinery, however, does not stop these organisms from being credited with wants, needs, schemes, and even a certain military strategy prowess in the most respected scientific publications. Bacterial populations are often described as being “at war” with their neighbours, or our immune systems. Accounts of bacterial strains “making the decision” to use a specific resource or performing a chemical reaction “in order to” accomplish a task gives these single-celled bags of chemistry some serious intellectual clout.

The argument can be made that this type of language is simply used to make complex interactions easier to understand, by placing them in a framework we intuitively understand. I would argue, however, that such misrepresentation easily becomes engrained and confuses the understanding of the true mechanisms of biology, ecology, and even evolution. It is very easy to start to endow everything with a sense of purpose and intent when otherwise scientific literature presents us with images of thinking and feeling entities in the name of greater understanding. The actual mechanisms by which things interact in an ecosystem, be it the forest floor or your large intestine, are truly amazing and demonstrate the amazing power of evolution to solve complex problems with simple solutions. Evolution is a process governed by random events, unlike those concocted by human brain hardware. We persist, however, in attributing humanoid intent to everything from a bacterium producing a chemical that inhibits fungal growth to a worm acquiring a new gene that allows it to survive cold weather.  In using these anthropomorphized explanations we run the very real risk of understanding biology as operating under a specific plan with a specific purpose, instead of ruled by the random nature of evolution.

We intuitively understand human interactions and things described in these terms because we are exposed to it from infancy. By limiting our exposure to different concepts by constantly framing all biological interactions in our own experience we do ourselves a disservice. Practice makes perfect, and to start to understand the true mechanisms behind the world around us we need to practice discussing things on their own terms and leave our hominid baggage at home.

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