Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human characteristics to nonhuman entities. According to anthropomorphism.org, “until 2004, the Pittsburgh Zoo did not name its animals publicly, for fear the public would think of wild animals as pets or people.” Humans are inclined to want to understand their environment, and therefore things that humans come in contact with become extensions or continuations of themselves: there is no exterior to human perception.
Through anthropomorphism humans make their environment safer and more predictable. Nonhuman animals and things are given human characteristics because this is the way in which humans order their environment for the purpose of elucidating it. By assigning animals characteristics familiar to humans, such as kindness and loyalty, humans can neatly place them in a human worldview. The alternative would be to leave animals, nature, etc. out of the human realm of understanding and thus open up to unpredictability, uncertainty and possible unforeseen danger.
The process of humans imparting human form to nonhumans may seem one-sided, but, in a way, it is an interactive process: the nonhuman may display behaviors that are similar to human behaviors, rendering those behaviors more suitable for human classification. An example would be a dog displaying what appears to be a smile, and this being interpreted by a human as evidence of a “happy” dog. The human has given the dog human motivation.
But research has revealed that dogs can “smile” as an expression of acceptance of their subordinate position. So a domesticated dog would “smile” to show his owner he is not a threat. Alpha dogs, however, rarely smile; they have no need to placate humans. Nevertheless, by interpreting a pet’s “smile” as an indication of happiness, the human owner has made his or her environment more friendly and predictable: translating dog behavior into human behavior makes dogs as easy to understand as other human beings. That the dog’s expression might indicate fear or total submission may be more difficult to place within a human worldview; but to try to interpret it from a dog’s perspective would be impossible.
Humans have the ability to not only reflect on their behavior and environment: they make symbols, such as language, to help them order and classify things so that the unknown can be broken down into parts that are easier for the human mind to digest. In the process, animals, nature and other nonhuman things are subsumed under a symbolic system created by the human mind and thus sympathetic to the human way of thinking and acting.