By Virginia Parker Staat
“The way human beings describe and explain the behavior of other animals is limited by the language they use to talk about things in general. By engaging in anthropomorphism – using human terms to explain animals’ emotions or feelings – humans make other animals’ worlds accessible to themselves.”
~ Michael Bekof, Animal Consciousness and Science Matter
We have recently become beekeepers. Last month we purchased a colony of bees and placed the hive in our friends’ pasture. The four of us plan to work the bees together and share the harvest of honey. An Italian queen, christened Lola by my dear friend, leads our bee colony. Why an Italian queen? We are told that Italian queens are less aggressive and more productive, making them perfect queens for new beekeepers. My beekeeping instructor at the apiary where we purchased the hive, however, insists that we need to re-queen with a mite-resistant Russian queen within the next six months. Of course, that means murdering Lola.
As we four friends contemplate the upcoming re-queening, I fear that we may resort to casting lots to see who will become Lola’s executioner. Reared on classics like Beautiful Joe and Black Beauty, I readily admit that I immediately bond to every living creature that I encounter (except, of course, cockroaches and mosquitos). As a nature writer, however, I must constantly evaluate my words to keep my tendency toward anthropomorphic writing in check. Anthropomorphic writing is defined as giving human characteristics to animals, gods, etc. Children’s fables and Greek mythology are replete with anthropomorphic characters.
Few nature writers are as shamelessly anthropomorphic as Jean-Pierre Otte (see his Love in the Garden). Most anthropomorphic nature writing simply uses analogy, metaphor, and simile comparisons to help readers better understand a concept, scene, or object. An example from Thoreau’s Walden: “As it grew darker, I was startled by the honking of geese flying low over the woods, like weary travelers getting in late from southern lakes, and indulging at last in unrestrained complaint and mutual consolation.”
With the use of anthropomorphism in nature writing on the rise, it has recently become a hotly debated topic. Some feel that it is an unorthodox and dangerous approach that diminishes the scientific value of such writing, blurring the line between reality and fiction. More and more conservation writers, however, see it as a powerful tool that allows them to connect more profoundly with their readers. They hope that if readers relate more deeply with a specific creature, public support for that creature will increase.
Unfortunately, unintended consequences may arise after using the anthropomorphic approach. When Disney remade the movie 101 Dalmatians, sales of the often-unfriendly-to-small-children Dalmatian dog skyrocketed. As the result of a more recent nature video showing the baby-like qualities of a Slow Loris, the rare marsupial has become further endangered because people now want to own them as pets. As I write this, I wonder if the unintended consequences of my own anthropomorphic tendencies might keep Lola from her impending death sentence, endangering the entire bee colony and risking its collapse to the feared Varroa mite.
Nature writer John Burroughs succinctly describes the opposing sides of using anthropomorphism: “This sentimental view of animal life has its good side and its bad side. The good side is its result in making us more considerate and merciful toward our brute neighbors; its bad side is seen in the degree to which it leads to a false interpretation of their lives.”
As nature writers, our goal is to communicate to our readers as clearly as possible the intricacies and wonders of our incredible planet and universe. Using a human lens to convey those ideas is often all our feeble language offers us. Keeping our audience and intent in the forefront will help us to navigate through treacherous anthropomorphic waters. Perhaps that is good advice for a novice beekeeper as well.