Tuesday, December 07, 2010

New Scientist

I dropped my sub to Science News, so now New Scientist is my main source for news about science. I have mixed feelings about NS. It's a bit too flashy and slippery for my liking. To give an example of my problems, here are comments on an article on anthropomorphism.

First, a definition of anthropomorphic from Dictionary.com:
1. ascribing human form or attributes to a being or thing not human, esp. to a deity.
2. resembling or made to resemble a human form: an anthropomorphic carving.

Now, from the New Scientist article:
There's no doubt that anthropomorphism is ingrained in human nature. Some of the oldest known pieces of cave art show figures who are half-human, half-animal, suggesting the trait may have been present in our ancestors at least 30,000 years ago.

We have no idea what these figures represent, because we don't have enough information about the artists and their culture. Most likely it says something about humans and animals and maybe about religion, but what?

The article gives a photo of an ancient Egyptian relief, with two animal-headed gods. This is captioned:
Humanized mythic figures have appeared throughout history.

Granted the gods have human bodies, but their heads -- the location of eyesight, hearing, speech and the brain -- are animal; and this is consistent through Egyptian religion. Almost all gods have animal heads. That's one of the ways that viewers know they are gods. Like the cave painting, this probably says something interesting about humans, animals and religion. But I don't know what. NS could have checked with an Egyptologist, but didn't.

Then there is an explanation for why people attribute their own ideas to God:
The results...might simply confirm that some people use God to elevate their own beliefs... To Epley, it signified something more profound: the less evidence we have for another's beliefs -- and for God we have very little indeed -- the more likely we are to project our own beliefs into the voids.

Dr. Epley may not know much or anything about God. But people who belong to established religions have a great deal of information about their God or gods. It comes from sacred texts, doctrine, theology... If people ignore all this and project their personal beliefs on God, the problem is not lack of available knowledge. NS could have consulted a theologian or historian of religion, but didn't.

Anyway, you get a sense of why the article makes me uncomfortable. The lab research on what goes on psychologically and physically in the brain when people attribute human traits to non-human entities is interesting and should continue. But the theories need a bit more work.

The article also says that people who anthropomorphize -- give personalities to animals, stuffed animals, cars, household equipment such as roombas and so on -- are more likely to be lonely and socially isolated. My stuffed sheep Seymour says this is hogwash.


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