Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

What Makes Anthropomorphism Natural: Intuitive Ontology and Cultural Representations

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

What Makes Anthropomorphism Natural: Intuitive Ontology and Cultural Representations

Article excerpt


In most cultural environments, one finds representations concerning the lifelike and human-like features of non-living or non-human objects: trees that protect people in exchange for sacrifices, animals that have marriage ceremonies or funerary rituals, mountains that breathe, rivers that talk, statues that listen or divining wands that predict future occurrences, not to mention gods who have meals and fall in love or spirits that live in invisible villages. Such representations are central to religious ontologies, although they are certainly not limited to the religious domain. The problem, then, is to provide a precise description of the cognitive processes that make animistic and anthropomorphic assumptions so 'natural'. There is no clear, psychologically plausible answer to this question in anthropology, despite a long tradition of reflection on animism as a core process in religion.

In this article I discuss the widespread theory that people have a spontaneous tendency to extend human attributes to non-human domains, a tendency that can be observed in an especially clear way in children's thought processes. The Piagetian tradition in particular described the child as applying an overwhelmingly 'animistic' concept of causation even to mechanical effects. Children were also described as interpreting many events in clearly anthropomorphic ways. Four-year-olds, for instance, seem to use an intentional vocabulary to account for the course of the clouds in the sky: the clouds 'want to go' somewhere or 'want to stay put' (Laurendau & Pinard 1962). All this would indicate that the child makes extensive use of a default assumption that things are alive and intentional unless there is direct evidence that they are not. If this is the case, it would seem that the widespread occurrence of such representations is hardly surprising. It is just the expression of a 'mode of thought' pervasive in children's thinking.(1) According to this 'continuity' hypothesis, anthropomorphism is widespread because it is intuitive.

As we will see, however, the experimental evidence seems to go against this hypothesis. Indeed, developmental studies show that spontaneous ontologies clearly exclude, from an early age, the animistic and anthropomorphic projections we are considering here. So we need to describe the cognitive processes whereby representations which are not part of our intuitive ontology, and in fact go against the grain of intuitive ontology, become culturally widespread. The solution to this apparent paradox will illustrate the relevance of a general framework presented elsewhere (Boyer 1994), according to which universal cognitive dispositions account for the cross-cultural recurrence of certain kinds of representations.

The evidence: anthropomorphism as counter-intuitive

In order to understand what is implied by 'childhood animism' or anthropomorphism, it is necessary to have a broader picture of the child's ontology, particularly of the intuitive ontological categories and principles with which children and adults construe their experience and make inferences. In the last twenty years, the topic has seen considerable advances, both in terms of experimental techniques and of theoretical frameworks. On the whole, the evidence seems to cast doubt on several important assumptions of the Piagetian approach. In particular, there is now considerable evidence that (i) ontological categories are clearly represented from the earliest stages of conceptual development, and (ii) even young children acquire knowledge on the basis of quasi-theoretical understandings of the various ontological domains.

Let me first consider ontological distinctions between such domains as PERSONS, ARTEFACTS, ANIMATE BEINGS, EVENTS and ABSTRACT OBJECTS. Beyond the clear distinctions between con-specifics and other types of beings, and between different con-specifics (Morton & Johnson 1991), infants seem to make a distinction between ANIMATE and INANIMATE objects (Bullock 1985; Gelman et al. …

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