Ever since ancient times (going back probably farther than even bear worship and the Egyptian god Anubis), people have put some kind of human attributes into non-human things. It’s easy to do. After all, we have a consciousness (which is in the soul), personality, and character, leading to likes, interests, and traits that can be expressed through a body – ANY body. Pick a body or put eyes and a mouth on something – a planet, a tree, a potato chip bag – and you have a face.
Faces are quite critical in projecting our consciousness and human traits into something else. You could put arms and legs on a tree, but it wouldn’t seem human. But give in a face, and somehow we can affiliate with it.
Why? Communication. When something can see you, speak to you, communicate with you, information can be shared. Emotions can be shared. Thoughts can be expressed. There’s no longer an opaque surface. The vast infinite depth of the being or creature can now be openly expressed.
When the face is focused on, there’s something familiar about it. We affiliate with it. We can recognize the happiness, sadness, anger, and confusion expressed in such simple ways as the orientation of eye brows, aperture of eyes, and bend of a mouth. Dozens, hundreds, even thousands of things can be said without saying anything.
When the face is removed, or not focused on, the vast depth disappears. The body is just a physical bulk of matter. Maybe it’s pleasant to look at, maybe not. For that reason, when people look at pictures of other people – whether for good intentions or bad – they generally want to see a face. But the less you care about the vast infinity inside the PERSON, the less you care about the face. The more you care about that vast infinity, the more the face – and the more the thoughts “behind the eyes” – becomes if interest… and I can quite say confidently that even the attractiveness of the face becomes less important. Friends should thus be nicer to be with than strangers.
Considering this depth of personality and character can come regardless of form, people have found it amusing and fun to insert these features into creatures. The “personal” details of these new creatures can be quite extensive these days, making them in every way possible like humans but without human forms.
That brings up the interesting question of anthropomorphic creatures. First, if we consider just putting a face on something, this is not quite anthropomorphizing something. Yes, it has a face, but it’s quite a distinct figure in itself. However, what happens if we start giving it human features?
Let’s consider the starting point:
- Starting with the head or
- Starting with the other body parts
Starting with the Human Head
If we start with the human head, then it would seem the entirety of what is truly human is “preserved”. After all, the other body parts are interchangeable by organ donation, but my consciousness remains attached to my brain. That’s an important point. The “me” who is “behind the eyes” is still definitively human as evidenced by the basic component of “me” – namely, my consciousness – being attached to the part we all recognize only ever comes with humans. Other animals have legs and arms similar to humans, but none of them quite have the same kind of head, not even apes.
If I were to show you a picture of a human head on an elephant and the elephant’s head on the human’s body, you’d naturally identify the human with the human head and the elephant with the elephant head.
The interesting thing here is that, by recognizing the human head with “human”, we can retain the inherent value, dignity, and depth of the human character. The elephant wants to go back to eating plants. The human, on the other hand, still contains within their mind the vast array of interesting features and aspects. (Technical note: People have started thinking of animals like people, but I’ll address that problem soon.)
Of course, if we recognize that the human head is the source of the “person”, how could we even talk about starting anthropomorphizing from the other body parts? Let’s see.
Starting with the Other Body Parts
The first step to anthropomorphizing creatures is to give them attributes that are found distinctly in humans. Thoughts, likes, and interests are one thing, but there’s only so much of humanity that can be projected this way in a single image.
If we just put an elephant head on a human body, it would still be an elephant. We need to give it something recognizably human to make the transition, otherwise it just looks like an awkward body swap… and rather gross if not comical.
Two things come to mind: Sentience and Emotion. These create a “character”, regardless of (bodily) form.
Sentience can be expressed through intention. Does a creature do something more than eat, sleep, and poop? Does it have a plan? Can it make more assessments than just “This feeds me”. Sentience can be revealed by words conveying complex thoughts and ideas or by actions that only come about as a result of foresight and/or planning. The mouth is the tool for conveying ideas, so naturally having a mouth (and tongue) would seem to make it possible to convey such ideas, however bizarre the mouth is. (Of course, in real life, only the human mouth has the capacity to shape itself properly to create the complex sounds needed for intelligible language. CGI has to be used to give animals this ability because you can’t form their mouths this way.)
How about emotion? Recall that the face reveals emotion, but not just any face. Elephants, lions, dogs, and cats all have emotions and are expressed through their faces, but these expressions aren’t really human. So to convey the human-like emotion requires re-organizing the facial features in a manner that makes the creature resemble a person wearing a mask.
Once the emotion matches the human emotion – or is perceived as such – and sentience matches human sentience, the ethics of how to view such a creature enters a grey zone. It’s a grey zone that, thank God, we’ll never have to deal with in real life, but in terms of artwork, things start to become skewed.
Before talking about that grey zone, I would like to note that this infusing of the humanity in animals via perception is also creating a social and cultural dilemma (which I have written about already and should write a better article about). Too many people love their dogs and cats, and this is an unfortunately natural transition of peoples’ mentalities: As they start to dislike humans (and thus humanity, for various reasons which abound today), they start to seek the satisfaction of their communal side (particularly, their need to communicate with an emotional, sentient being) somewhere else, and animals are the next closest option. Of course, I will always tell you that animals are inferior to humans and that the only true solution is correcting one’s perspective on humanity, but let’s hold that thought.
For some years, I’ve noticed a trend in artwork that involves a great deal of anthropomorphic creatures. However, in many of these cases, especially Japanese artwork (which has found its way into Western art), the human body is quite preserved but with some modifications to the head and maybe the appending of a tail. There are a number of reasons for this, but it has to do with the gradual transition away from the dignity of humanity while preserving the things people want on the surface.
As people have focused more on immediate pleasure and self gratification, they have gradually abandoned the idea of caring for other people. This is quite sad because people miss so much of what’s really there, and consequently, they find themselves endlessly craving a depth they can’t find on the surface. For example, many people resort to pornography, but this is only a surface pleasure and contains no depth. To add some level of depth, celebrities share personal details of themselves alongside photos, knowing that their fans want this, but it’s only a taste that never satisfies. No satisfaction can be found without actually meeting face to face and realizing what you’re looking at. If you only focus on the surface, you’ll never be happy. And if you only focus on immediate self-gratification, you’ll never see the depth in others that you need to see to enjoy them.
That said, with the focus on the surface, appearance of the body has become the primary focus. Sexy figures and attractive clothes become more important than preserving what is authentically human. In effort to find something attractive, artists are experimenting with various body figures, clothes, etc, but they always fall back on things recognizably human to give them that attractive human element, even when the creature they are drawing is non-human or maybe “android”. (For example, apes look like people to some extent, but there’s a huge difference. You have to admit, apes and monkeys don’t have sexy legs.) Sometimes they take a human body and change an element here or there, preserving most of the human but clearly making it a “unique species”. (Notably, preserving the human head does leave room for saying it’s a human with modified parts, but many artists want to declare these creations as their own species, that is, implying they have their own genetics, thereby creating a blurry ethical like.)
All this creates a bit of an ethical problem, although I’ve already hinted at why it is a problem (and more precisely, why it isn’t getting you want you want). But to make matters worse: the experimentation and representation of the nearly complete human figure in anthropomorphic and android creatures degrades the human body to mere tool for pleasure.
Why is this a problem? After all, if the human body is merely a pile of atoms, then we should be able to do with it whatever we want, right? … No way, Jose. We already have morals and ethics about taking pictures of naked people, assaulting or killing, stealing, and a host of other laws regarding the physical body.
The physical body has an impact on our psychology, especially in regards to our perception of ourselves and each other. How many girls want a thin body to be attractive? How many guys want a handsome face and muscles? How many people would feel embarrassed to be stripped naked in public? Naturally, from birth, the answer to that last question should be “zero”. Obviously, people may change their minds, but if they do so, it’s because of the same reason people don’t mind making anthropomorphic characters sexy – they have lost the sense of dignity of the human body.
In ancient times, kings would dress in tons of clothes, masters of Roman households would dress in long togas, elders and priests in Israel would wear long garments. Clothes were a sign of respect and dignity. These people weren’t wearing clothes just to be hot. They were wearing them to cover the body. Only slaves, children, poor people (who couldn’t afford long clothes), and people who needed to move their legs (soldiers, day laborers, etc) had to wear clothing that showed their legs.
As society has become more utilitarian, pants changed. As it has become less moral, it has become less concerned with the dignity of the human body, and thus clothes have shortened. As it has become less concerned with the dignity of the human body, it sees no need to preserve it in all its perfect beauty… It doesn’t see the beauty anymore.
The human body is a kind of avatar. It’s the manifestation of the soul in the physical realm, also known as “incarnation”. Consequently, our representation here in some senses represents who we are on another level. Obviously, it’s not the same, but it’s the most adequate representation given the material we’re made of is wave-particle duality matter moved by energy.
The body is a tool of communication, but it’s a tool of communicating with God and each other. What we do with it says something on a cosmic level, not just physically. This is a really deep rabbit trail, but necessary to travel down a short while because it’s the more important (and spiritual) reason why anthropomorphism is a bad idea. I’ve already given part of the practical reason, so let’s finish that thought.
What we do with our bodies – and the human body – tells other people about the value of that body, what they can do with it, what it’s good for. If the human body is simply fodder or a toy, then it’s disposable, and all human life with it is disposable, replaceable, and overall valueless and thus overall meaningless. If the human body is valued, then it should be preserved, protected, honored, and respected. People like to be preserved, protected, honored, and respected, so encouraging a mentality – especially a perception of the human body – invites a society and culture in which we are happy because we receive these things. When the human body is not valued, we ourselves don’t feel the value, and we feel a hole in our hearts that we long to fill.
What we do with our bodies – and the human body – tells God about how we perceive His creation. Are we worth keeping? If we don’t value others, how little then are we to be valued? “For with the measure you use, so you will be measured.” (Matthew 7:2) (Yes, that verse is for judging actions, but I think it applies all the same to ANY way we view others.) Do we want God to keep us around? In saying “us”, we must then also include all “humanity”.
Since the body is the primary and only way to communicate, it is only through the body we can communicate love and hatred. There is no telepathic nor telekinetic love. Each body is the incarnation of a soul, and thus how you treat such an incarnation is how you treat the soul if it were available to you.
The same extends to the parts of the human body. If you put uniquely human parts (or parts that clearly look like the human version) on animals, you’re basically saying, “This part is a toy/tool”, not something that needs to be respected and treasured.
What About Aesop?
Aesop used creatures because it thought it’d be better than outright calling out humans. He was trying to send a message without stirring up feelings. A respectable effort even if misguided (or misunderstood). The good part is that the entirety of the animal figure was preserved. Everyone at the time the stories were written would have recognized that lions are lions, foxes and foxes, and none of these fictional creatures were based on the real thing.
The problem with turning animals into humans is that – if not correctly taught and understood as “This is just fiction” – people start to get the bizarre idea that real animals could be like that. While it used to seem laughable to think people would be so foolish, it’s already coming about. The influx of movies in which animals think like humans (Lady and the Tramp, All Dogs Go To Heaven, The Lion King, etc) isn’t helping people understand the truth. What used to be obvious is progressively being forgotten.
What If They Are Real?
I discussed the ethics of this from the perspective of the value of the human being, but what about how we should treat such creatures if they were real? That’s a situational ethics problem that will never come about. If people manage to surgically attach animal parts to themselves in the future, they will still be human. If human parts are surgically attached to animals, the animals will still be animals. For scientific reasons (esp. the shear number of neurons in the brain), no one is going to be moving a brain around any time soon. Besides, when such modified humans have kids, the kids will be humans, and when the animals have kids, they will be animals. Whatever classification you start with is what you’ll end with. Now that was easy, wasn’t it?
What about gene modification? Cross-species mutants generally die or don’t reproduce because of unexpected effects. Certain genes don’t do just one thing, so it’s not like you can pick and choose genes to build a creature.
What About Animal Toys for People?
For a few years now, companies have made things like cat-eared headbands and even tails that wag when sensing a person’s mood. And last year or so, some Japanese company started selling pet houses “for people”. (Story in English.)
Are these things acceptable?
Short answer: Um…
Once upon a time, as kids, it was fun to pretend to be different creatures. It was just part of our imagination and lots of fun to do. And people consider it cute, both in appearance and relation to childhood.
On the other hand, there is a growing trend of lowering humans to the animal level. This is in part a consequence of the spread of the “theory of evolution”. With the value of humanity being reduced, the fun of pretending to be animals has been sucked into the grey area.
I wouldn’t be surprised if, as human relations and self-respect worsen, wearing and wishing for animal appendages starts to become more commonplace.
What About Anime Characters?
Anime characters are rather funny. In a way, it’s just poor or exaggerated anatomy with regards to the face while the rest of the body is obviously human. The girls kind of resemble mice, although I’ve equated their appearance more with green alien Martians than with animals. Your opinion will likely vary.
These days, the anime style of artwork is so commonplace that people automatically think of humans when they see it. There aren’t any creatures close to resembling them in the first place for anime characters to be accidentally mistaken for something else. Notably, however, there is still a mental stretch between anime and real people.
The Reader directs attention to the subject, the person. Who is she? What does she think about her book? Why’d she do her hair that way? 読書少女 on the other hand just looks nice. It’s not a painting intended to stimulate deep thoughts; it’s meant for appearance.
Given that art these days is focused on aesthetic appearance, all of it has become polluted. Anime – being potentially very attractive visually – has thus become one of the targets of pollution. One of these pollutions is anthropomorphism, which seems to be easier to get away with on anime characters because these characters are 90% human (but not perfectly so), anonymous (i.e. they don’t represent anyone real), and hand-drawn (and it’s easy to be creative and break the rules of science with a pencil).
Nevertheless, the figure of an anime character is human enough such that they clearly remind us of humanity and should therefore be respected in the same way. When you see them, it’s easier to project human dignity and mentality into them.
Animals, on the other hand, don’t have the same sort of dignity. It’s always comical when bears and foxes are clothed or talk about clothing (as in the movie Zootopia). But when human body parts are involved, our perception of ourselves comes into question, and the treatment of the human parts – even when attached to animals – says something to us about us, especially about our inherent value.
(Not to say I don’t admire the talent of artists who try these experimental designs.)
The Ethical Conclusion
Up to this point, I think I’ve made it clear that anthropomorphism can hurt human dignity, among causing other problems. But is it morally wrong?
Short answer: No.
The definition of “sin” is from archery. It means “to miss the mark”, i.e. to miss the intended target. The target of our actions should be the establishment and maintaining of a kind of societal and communal “order” that benefits us all. That’s what morality is for. That’s why God said, “Don’t eat pig meat”. Under that definition, creating anthropomorphic characters would be a “sin” because it encourages the misunderstanding of the human body and human traits. And as can be seen in society, people get all kinds of stupid ideas about animals.
On the other hand, anthropomorphizing things can be rather comical and meaningless if done right and as long as you know it’s fiction and keep it that way. It’s an interesting thought, and it can stimulate discussion on the inherent dignity of the human body as I’ve done here.
To say any sort of anthropomorphizing of things is a punishable offense is laughable. If anything, it gets us thinking. Like many other things, as long as it doesn’t become a target of worship, infatuation, or desire, I can’t see anything intrinsically evil about it.
Many things have faces and beautiful figures and many creatures have thoughts deeper than the surface level of “I’m hungry”, so these dimensions of character aren’t strictly human. However, I hope what I’ve made clear is the fragility of the dignity of the human body. It’s easier to mistreat the human body when combined with animal parts than when not.
Inasmuch as it may be tempting to embrace the fun of anthropomorphizing things, I offer words of caution: Always keep it fictional and always respect the parts of the human body. You’re human after all. Anthropomorphic characters can be used to demonstrate points and ideas but should NEVER be set on the pedestal of desire.
I personally have trouble accepting anthropomorphic characters because I see them as a perversion of something more beautiful: the human. To me, the cosmic significance of a human – namely, destined to be united with GOD – is too great to want it associated with the temporal creatures of this world, regardless of how nice/cute/fascinating they may be. God came as a human, not as a fox or a dog or a dog-man.
If you’d like to know more about the value of your body, please read Theology of the Body by the late Pope John Paul 2. It’s a phenomenal read… and who ever said a good answer is short?
As I was writing this article, I stumbled on an interesting quick read by a cat-lover who has started to realize the oddity of her own subconscious preference for animals over people.
My article today was on my mind quite awhile, but I finally got around to it when inspired by a comment by another blogger that got me looking into the anime Land of the Lustrous (Land of Gems) (宝石の国 / Houseki no Kuni) – a story about anthropomorphic gem stones. (We were actually talking about the 3D CGI, which I have to admit is pretty good even if I don’t like it.) Trailer for those of you interested: