Anthropomorphism is the action of attributing or assigning human motivations, emotions, reasoning ability, or personality to a non-human animal, plant, moving object, inanimate object, or force of nature. Even abstract concepts can be assigned human personality and conversation. Anthropomorphism can frequently be identified through art where the living creature or object has been drawn as bipedal, with human facial features .
All animist mythology and most pantheist mythology is based on anthropomorphism. Early animist religions assign sentience and human personality to many things in the world. The object or animal may be sentient itself, or it may have a spirit in which that sentience resides. In these types of religions, assigning human motivations and personality to non-human things is a way of explaining the world.
Egyptian mythology often depicts its deities with human bodies and animal heads. The Sphinx has an animal body and a human head. These may be literal depictions, or they may be representative depictions of a deity which takes part of its characteristics from an animal but behaves in human fashion.
If enough human characteristics are applied to a non-human deity, it becomes a human being who happens to be a deity. The only way in which the deity differs from human beings is that it is immortal and has greater power. For example, the Greek gods had human form and human personalities, including human emotion and human thought. This is known as anthropotheism.
Storytelling is strongly associated with mythology. The anthropomorphistic tradition of storytelling originally comes from legends. Some early animist ideas moved into pantheistic mythology, and then into modern storytelling. For example, the movie “Chocolat” tells about the fickle north wind which brings change.
Fables, which are designed to teach or explain, are the earliest form of anthropomorphistic storytelling. Fables and parables which come directly from monotheistic religions are much less likely to use anthropomorphistic storytelling techniques than fables which come from pantheistic traditions.
For example, it is not enough for Aesop’s fox to give up on the grapes because he cannot reach them, the way any sufficiently intelligent animal might in real life. It is also important to the fox to find a reason for giving up on the grapes which has nothing to do with not being able to reach the grapes, so that he doesn’t have to see his actions as giving up. This assigns a human personality trait to an animal, and is therefore anthropomorphistic. In versions of the story where the fox talks, speech is another anthropomorhpistic trait.
Children’s cartoons, whether designed for entertainment or educational value, make common use of anthropomorphism. Many adult cartoons do as well. Every character from Felix the Cat to Sponge Bob Squarepants is anthropomorphic. Bill the Bill is an example of an abstract concept which is given human characteristics and human speech for the purpose of teaching children about government.
Many scientists once wrote their observations of the world in anthropomorphic terms, although this is much less common today than it once was. Some sociological scientists and anthropologists, especially those who study primates, still use anthropomorphism to explain some of their observations. For these scientists, the purpose of using anthropomorphism is to break through the previous assumptions that animals have no emotional or personality characteristics which can be recognized as human.
Using anthropomorphism is a point of contention between these scientists and other scientists who do not accept that the existence of these characteristics has been proven objectively. Anthropomorphism is so widespread because it is a way of using empathy and imagination to explain the world. However, empathy is not a useful tool with which to gather objective scientific data.