The first lie

Linguist Alain Rey said that the etymology of a word is only its first lie, and that words lie all the time.

So let’s start by considering the first deception of the word anthropomorphism.

From the Greek α ̓ ν θ ρ ω ω ο ́ μ ο φ ο π meaning a human form, anthropomorphism designates in philosophy the tendency to represent any reality as similar to human reality (crntl).

We are familiar with this mechanism. We produce it easily as we are so immersed in its practices. Have you been looking for a face in the shape of a cloud? What little nickname do you call your pet? How many times have you criticized your computer?

Let’s face it, anthropomorphism has its purposes. It allows us to feel connected to alterity by offering common or supposedly common reference points. Similar sensitivities and behaviors, in other words, make the other predictable and understandable. In the case of manufactured objects, the use of anthropomorphism turns products into easy to relate to, sometimes desirable, and in all cases interesting goods.

Here are some examples of anthropomorphism. Let’s have a look for a moment.


Vinciane Despret, a Belgian philosopher, seems to question in a salutary way the impact of anthropomorphism on the conduct of scientific studies. In her book Penser comme un rat, she examines the motivations of laboratory animals to answer the questions they are asked. 

Who can say what a rat in a labyrinth has understood about what the scientist expects from him ? Does she know that it is being tested : to find the way out and to do this more and more quickly as the tests are carried out ? How does the scientist make sure that the intentions he is attributing to the rat are correct? Would the rat behave this way in his environment?

These questions also arise outside the laboratory during field studies. Thus, Barbara Smut, primatologist, applies at its beginnings a protocol of habituation (to get gradually closer while making herself invisible like a stone) supposed to decrease the impact of her presence on the observations of baboons’ interactions. She obtains the opposite effect : the monkeys are wary of this creature that pretends not to be. In reality, they hope to find baboon-like clues to sociability from the primatologist. And when she learns these codes, then  that she fuels a relationship with them. She does not think like a baboon any more, but with him.

Reading without understanding as a human being

The shift is completed with the reading of a second book by Vinciane Despret. Habiter en oiseau speaks of territoriality. What do you imagine when you hear the word territory? Property, defense, limits, crossing, aggression? The American zoologist Gladwyn Kingsley Noble in 1939, reports Despret, suggests: “territory is any place that is defended”. 

Why is a territory defended? Some ornithologists argue for the presence of resources such as food, or females for reproductive purposes, or places of retreat for protection. And yet there are counter-examples to these motives. Territories with scarce food, or overwhelmingly populated by males for example. These territories are also defended. And this defense is rarely warlike in the sense of physical contact with wounds.

Territoriality materializes in a temporal and spatial fluctuation. Sometimes seasonal: the same place is defended and then left free for occupation. Sometimes in volume: the same place is territory for several species (vertically from a narrow cylinder to the canopy or under the cover of reeds). Territoriality uses parade and songs sometimes polyphonic or synchronized between species. 

It is deployed as an art of living and society. 

The difficulty of this reading is to remain in a state of astonishment, without trying to compare nor to transpose this art of living to the experience of being human.

The temptation is strong…