When animal characteristics
are ascribed to humans,
let's cut out the monkey business
and call it anthropozooism!
Quite by accident, I discovered what appears to be a missing link in our cultural paraphernalia of linguistics, etymology, and terminology. The omission is one that should have human beings feeling shame-faced about themselves, and ever so worthy of Samuel Clemens' indictment when he asserted that human beings were the only creatures that blushed, or had need to.
I will try to explain. When human characteristics are ascribed to animals, we call it anthropomorphism. Such a practice is abhorred by many people, especially scientists of the old school, who prefer to adhere to their 19th and early 20th century admonitions that birds and animals operate as robots and that everything they do is a result of instinct.
Such folks include those who keep their noses to the grindstones of taxonomy and systematics; the hunting fraternity, of course, for it wouldn't do to ascribe too many characteristics of intelligence to the animals they kill and, finally, as always, the rank and file of all those who profit from those who exploit our wildlife.
As a general rule, people with these mindsets have little time for anything that mildly suggests that birds and animals have lives that might be as important to them as ours are to us. Life history studies of birds and animals such as those pioneered by Konrad Lorenz and Margaret Morse Nice are of little interest to this crowd. To say that they are totally anthrocentric would probably beg the question.
Back to the dispute over anthropocentrism. In The Lost Notebooks of Loren Eiseley, edited by Kenneth Heuer, I came across the following assessment of this old controversy. Listen to what Loren Eiseley said.
"Anthropomorphizing: the charge of my critics. My counter-charge. There is a sense in which when we cease to anthropomorphize, we cease to be men, for when we cease to have human contact with animals and deny them all relation to ourselves, we tend in the end to cease to anthropomorphize ourselves - to deny our own humanity."
Now, I ask, what is the opposite of anthropomorphizing? By this, I mean, what term do we use when animal characteristics are applied to human beings? The answer? Cough-cough. Embarrased silence. A stuttering and muttering of the so-called experts.
Do you mean to tell me that in our antianthropocentic pride and prejudice we have overlooked such a huge and constantly-used category? Well, yes. That appears to be the case. There is no such term. There has been a little omission here. We have apparently never thought it a worthy enough classification to give such usage a name. And, doggone it, there are literally hundreds of examples to choose from.
A person can be lion-hearted, a pig, a wolf, a hawk, a dove, wise as an owl, dumb as an ox, hungry as a bear, weak as a kitten, proud as a peacock, brave as a bull, chicken-hearted, silly as a goose, thin as a rail, sly as a fox, busy as a bee.
We can be up to monkey business, eager as a beaver, hungry as a bear - or a wolf, be hawk-eyed, crazy as a coot - or a loon; innocent - or gentle - as a lamb, messy as a pig, frisky as a colt, happy as a lark. There are hundreds more, but you get the idea. Oh, sure, they are similes and metaphors, but that is side-stepping the issue. All of these sayings are just the opposite of what anthropomorphism is supposed to be, but now the shoe is on the other foot, er, paw.
Somehow, we have never deemed it of sufficient importance to hang a title on this huge linguistic category that is used in kindly and unkindly ways a billion times a day.
One other thing. The term pathetic fallacy applies to the ascription of human traits to inanimate things in nature, as in "cruel sea," and so is more closely related to anthropomorphism and has little to do with our present discussion.
Therrefore, I propose the word anthropozoöism to fill this much neglected category of sociobiological terminology. You won't forget all this, that is, if you have the memory of an elephant!