Saturday, 6 October 2012

The danger of anthropomorphism






I have been meaning to write a book (yes, a whole book) on a contemporary, pragmatic approach to Buddhism for some time now. I turn it over and over in my head: whenever I walk, when in the bath and in the subtly splendid quiet of morning’s twilight. The book remains unwritten but each day I get better at understanding how and why I want to write. Perhaps this is all mere vain cleverness substituting for procrastination?

One of the cerebral off-shoots of this running internal monologue is an issue which chimes in a semi-regular rhythm: anthropomorphism. Anthropomorphism presently refers to the process of attributing human qualities/properties to the non human. Curiously the etymology of anthropomorphism traces its definition to the attribution of human properties to deities. This earlier use predates the current by over half a century.

Most of us anthropomorphize somewhat frequently. It is all too easy to bestow human motives on a pet cat, invest a treasured possession with memorial and emotional significance as the object is somehow magically special and not merely our relationship with it. Before you cry out, read a little further. I am not saying that pets do not have “personalities”. They certainly do have some sort of cerebral landscape and are capable of feeling pain, pleasure, satisfaction and fear like (better than?) us bipeds. The fact is that they do not do what they do because they want to be human (perhaps they do but this equally is unknowable) they do what they do simply because they are.

The same applies for plants. Many conservationists perhaps rightly lament the introduction of certain species into an ecosphere. They speak of nature going out of balance and talk about loss of species and diversity etc. But these are all human concerns. Certainly, it is humans who perform the majority of intercontinental redistribution of biological matter by means of cognitive will and motivations linked to cultural outcomes but once their labour is performed the result is only an imbalance in so far as it balance is represented within a particular social, cultural and historical context.

In Australia, as introduced “pests” lantana, privet and camphor “infest” large areas. People have worked hard to eradicate and control them. And yet to echo Masanobu Fukuoka, if the conditions were not set for their flourish then these species would not flourish. Decades, centuries of indiscriminate land clearing and over farming created landscapes where gaps for frontier species appeared. Nature has not motive but life: where there is space there can be life. Where there is life there can be life. Perhaps the greater pests in these landscapes were the grains and livestock which created the conditions for humans of one sort from another continent to flourish. And nature is just taking back what is hers… (see what I did there? Not easy not to do).

In other words, those pests, the weeds in the garden are not out to make life more difficult. What they are doing is filling a vacuum created by human taxonomy whereby one species is valued over another and whole ecosystems are organized according to this principle. Similarly, it pays us to remember that modification of the environment by humans is natural because humans are nature. The poisons we produce and pump out are all possible because they are possible and they in turn produce new types of environments in which we have to live. Are they necessarily favourable or pleasant? The answer is not always so clear cut. One thing is, however: our current approach to nature leaves a lot to be desired.
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