It is a vast and complex subject, as old as storytelling itself in current and past civilizations. This ability we have to project human features and qualities to non-human animals, plants and things is so omnipresent, we just have to glance at gamer avatars, or our sport team mascots to measure its far reaching impact. It can be found in basically any art form.
A short blog post cannot dive into the intricate complexity and ramifications of anthropomorphism. This post is meant to highlight the fact that some researchers with various backgrounds are increasingly questioning how the, let’s call them traditional storytellers, are making use of anthropomorphism. So, parents, writers, illustrators, playwrights, and even clerics, pay attention because a diverse group of literary critiques, cognitive scientists, social theorists and ecologists want to talk about anthropomorphism as a double edged sword.
On one hand, there are the well-known benefits, as mentioned by Nigerian researcher Helen Adhuze, in an article titled The face and phases of anthropomorphism in children literature, “Anthropomorphized characters boost empathy in children. This relational attitude is facilitated through the human imagination operational at the various stages of human development. Essentially, anthropomorphism is a human attitude developed as a child and maintained through adulthood. It is a specific human attitude, not a childish mistake.” (Adhuze, Journal of Language, Literature and Culture, Vol. 1, no. 1, 2022)
Growing up, we become experts “anthropomorphers.” Parents and educators know too well how anthropomorphic characters can be efficient attention grabbers, and motivation boosters for children engagement. For example, take this school activity developed by Creative Exchange, a collaboration project of the England Arts Council and Durham University (United Kingdom). The activity shows “How to use anthropomorphism to release children’s creativity,” to develop their imagination and collaborative skills. The vast majority of contents in elementary school libraries include anthropomorphic images.
Not everyone agrees that anthropomorphism has only benefits, and some give it a thumb down, pointing to what may loom in its shadow. We find much of these warnings in an exhibition catalogue, of Animals Are Us: Anthropomorphism in Children’s Literature; Celebrating the Peter Solomon Collection. The exhibition was presented in 2021 at the Houghton Library, in Cambridge. The catalogue by Thomas Hyry and several others, offers a great reading experience, and includes awesome illustrations. Four contributors penned the chapter “The Pitfalls and Potential of Anthropomorphism in children Literature.” It shows clearly how the practice more than often perpetuates stereotypes and demonstrates blatant lack of representation and diversity. We cannot help, it seems, but project both our virtues and flaws into whatever we want to make more human. The authors raise important red flags, and see greater awareness as an important step for better storytelling.
They close with a glimpse of optimism, saying that “as fields such as childhood studies, psychology, and literacy education developed their understanding of the child reader, children’s literature also evolved to position children as more purposeful, thoughtful, and agentive”(Animals Are Us exhibition catalogue, p.23)
In 2014, psychologists Patricia Ganea, Caitlin Canfield, and Kadria Simons-Ghafari investigated and concluded that anthropomorphism will actually inhibit children’s ability to learn actual facts about the animal world. It is, they argued, as if the fantastic nature of anthropomorphic characters “may not only lead to less learning but also influence children’s conceptual knowledge of animals.” In their article Do cavies talk? The effect of anthropomorphic picture books on children’s knowledge about animals (Frontiers in Psychology, Vol. 5, 2014), they explain that there is a range of anthropomorphism that goes between a completely fantastic and a partially realistic characterization. They saw that when selecting books for their students, teachers tend to favor less realistic images, and rarely choose books where animal characters are shown in their natural environment. This, they say, may bring children to a lack of understanding of biological aspects of animals. In other words, children should be told when they are exposed to anthropomorphized creatures, told that it is not factual information, even when this might seems obvious to adults.
If you think educators, psychologists and literary critics are the only ones interested in the subject, think twice. Scholars in computer sciences, as well as religious studies are also showing interest in how children go about anthropomorphism. See what some of them have to say in this amazing book When Children Draw Gods A Multicultural and Interdisciplinary Approach to Children’s Representations of Supernatural Agents, published by Springer in 2023, as part of a book series New Approach to the Scientific Study of Religion. The chapter by Gregory Dessart and Pierre-Yves Brandt, Humanness and Non-Humanness in Children’s Drawings of God: A Case Study from French-Speaking Switzerland is of particular interest. It presents a case study with a focus on de-anthropomorphization as a progressive process. According to them, children undertaking religious education could be less inclined to portrait God with human traits.
As I reflect about the scientific articles cited above, isn’t it interesting that ecologically minded educator and religion educator might each hope that children be less impacted by anthropomorphism each for a different motive, the first for giving access to biological facts, and the other for less human-like representations of the divine? The socio-emotional power of anthropomorphism is immense. Is it too strong or misleading? It is an important question.
You want more anthropomorphic images? See this quickly read, well-illustrated article by Meagan Jones, on the Rockwell Center for American Visual Studies’ website: Degrees of Humanity: Anthropomorphism and its development in children’s book illustration (2013).