Home > Political Ranting > Anthropomorphization


September 24th, 2005

Not too long ago we had the case of Terri Schiavo (which some right-to-life die-hards are still carping on) and the question of whether or not she was aware. The family videotaped her, and then the right-to-life people heavily edited that video so that random actions appeared meaningful. Terri seemed to look at her mother or a balloon and smile and laugh. She seemed sentient, she seemed there.

Of course, it was all an illusion. But we humans have the predisposition to see human qualities in just about anything. Even those who saw Terri without the benefit of video editing claimed to see life in her, and I am sure that would have been true even if many of these people were not politically or emotionally biased in favor of seeing that life. In the end, the autopsy proved that Terri had indeed been long dead, with most of her brain atrophied into nothing. No higher reasoning. Not even the ability to see–which belied the idea that Terri was tracking faces or balloons or anything at all with her eyes. They were just random movements with no sentience behind them. But so many people believed otherwise, not because of logic or reason or truth, but because we ourselves imbue human life into what we see, be it weather, machines, or people who are in a vegetative state.


Most of all, however, we seem to do this with animals, and so I come to my prime example for the day. This touching set of photos came via Taiwan, concerning a type of bird I have come to be familiar with in this area: the Barn Swallow. I was initially interested because of the photography–it can be hard to catch birds in such poses, and this set was extraordinary. But it was even more exceptional because of the apparent subject matter: the mourning of one fallen swallow by others, who seemed genuinely distraught by the death, and even appear to be trying to revive their friend, grabbing the still body with their claws and calling out loudly. A textbook case of human grief and denial upon a confrontation with death. If you go to see the photo series, you will see to what I am referring.

Captions for the photo series: Here his mate is injured and the condition is fatal. She was hit by a car as she swooped low across the road. Here he brought her food and attended to her with care and compassion. He brought her food again, but was shocked to find her dead. He tried to move her….a rarely-seen effort for swallows! Aware that his mate is dead and will never come back to him again, he cries out………. He stood beside her, saddened by her death…. Finally aware that she would never return to him, he stood beside her body with sadness and sorrow .

Or so it would seem.

When I first saw the photo set and read the captions, I was inclined to see what they saw. But I am a skeptic by nature, and so immediately I questioned it–though I did not stray too far from the assumption. I doubted that the birds were truly feeling the emotions that the narrator was implying, though I did think that perhaps the dead swallow may have been young enough that it’s mother was still concerned with its upbringing, bringing about a concerned response. The more I saw of the photo series, however, the more I began to doubt that–the birds were doing an unusual amount of grabbing on to the corpse.

Swallowmourns 03

Swallowmourns 04

In the end, I did not know what to think–until I read the comments, which eventually involved some people who know quite a bit about birds, who explained what was really happening. The swallows were not mourning their dead companion. They were trying to mate with it. I know that can sound sad or even disgusting (though the combination of the photos and the human commentary in light of the reality can be comical), but you’ve got to remember: these are birds, and not the most intelligent of birds, either. I can see a dog mourning, perhaps, but birds are far less advanced. Not to say that I don’t love them, they’re beautiful creatures. But let’s accept them for what they are, and not mistake them for what we are.

Categories: Political Ranting Tags: by
  1. Paul
    September 25th, 2005 at 04:41 | #1

    Good post. Forgive me as I veer away from the anthropomorphization towards the Schiavo matter.

    I recently read the book “Using Terri”, written by Jon Eisenberg. He was on the legal team of Micheal Schiavo; his specialty is appellate law.

    The book is a tremendous rundown of what the whole battle was about. Eisenberg paints this battle as merely the most recent, visible skirmish in a war between the ultra-right religious groups in the USA and… well, the rest of us.

    They want to control our lives to a scary extent. It’s somewhat ironic that they fund the Republican party as much as they do, considering that they’re convinced that a Christian-based government needs to be established in the United States… yet the Republicans have done a lot of work to take out the nominally secular government of Iraq and now we’re seeing it replaced with a Muslim-based one.

    It’s a bit scary to me to see more and more deeply into just how these people think. Rather than believing that we should have autonomy and control over our own lives, they want to legislate their beliefs into practice.

    What is remarkable about this is how people miss that the religious right is all about control. Not control over their OWN lives, but about controlling other people.

    The Schiavo matter is a perfect example.

    What Eisenberg wants (and indeed, according to polls, what most of America wants) is for individuals to have control over their own end-of-life decisions. His solution would be that people could refuse artificial nutrition and hydration (ANH), and that ANH could be refused on someone’s behalf if a legal guardian so chose (and the evidence supported that it was the belief/desire of the individual in question).

    What the religious right wants is for people to NEVER be able to refuse ANH; instead, they believe that ANH should be continued indefinitely and that it’s up to God to decide when someone should die.

    The thing about this is that if we go Eisenberg’s route, the religious right can HAVE their choice- for themselves. They’re welcome to set out their desires and beliefs ahead of time in a Living Will, and if/when they wind up being kept alive by machines or tubes or ANH, they can have it continued until the cows come home.

    But if we go the religious right’s path and put their desire into law, then those of us who do NOT want to be kept alive by a machine or ANH when we’re in a brain-dead state are screwed. We’re stuck on the tubes, on the machine.

    Properly framing this choice- between affirming autonomy for people or dictating people’s lives, between having the freedom to think and choose for yourself or having someone else choose for you, between your own freedom of religion or having someone else’s religious beliefs drive the laws of the society you live in… framing this choice and putting it to the American people is incredibly important.

    Frankly, given the spirit of the people, I don’t see how the progressive/liberal/Democrats could lose… IF they do it right and IF they get off their asses and get moving on it!

    Go buy “Using Terri”, by Jon Eisenberg. I got mine at Costco for about 12 or 14 bucks. Luis, I know you’ll eat this book up- so much so that if you have trouble getting it over there, holler and I’ll mail it to you to read. [link added by editor.]

  2. Luis
    September 25th, 2005 at 04:56 | #2

    Definitely seems like a book I should get. Schiavo himself is coming out with one soon, but it probably stands to be less issue-oriented than this one. I was going to visit Costco today–hard to say if they would have it here in Japan, but it’s worth a try. Amazon Japan has it for 2,400 yen or so.

    As for the issue, I think it’s true of almost everything with the fundamentalists. Their religion is beyond even evangelism, as you say it is about outright control. They see one way to live life and if you don’t agree then you’re being immoral, sinful, and poisonous to society. You don’t get to choose what to read or watch or hear, you don’t get to choose if your kids get religion in school, you don’t get to choose when life begins or ends, or what you get to do in between.

    That’s one of the things they say we’re fighting against with the Islamic fundamentalists. The fact that such a statement is roughly correct does not make it any less ironic.

Comments are closed.