Anthropomorphization: Warden & Executioner, Prt 1

Consider the following.

  • The internet is making people less intelligent.
  • Violent video games make people violent.
  • Gun prevalence causes mass shootings.

A discerning reader will instantly realize a single commonality, namely, the imposition of agency onto non-agents. But then, what is an agent? We might define it here for our purposes as a conscious entity – that which is aware that it itself is aware of it being aware of its own awareness. Furthermore, a agent thinks and has intent, they are causal forces of will. Here then arises a problem, one that is suitably encapsulated by the bullet-pointed list provided above – how can a gun or a video game or the internet or political rhetoric cause any given individual to do something or rather, anything at all.

They can’t. For they are not causal agents. Rather, a given individual reacts to outside stimuli and is thus shaped by such reactions. “Guns kill people!” is, in essence, a very different statement than, “Guns make people kill people!” The problem with guns (obvious though it may be) is not that guns make people homicidal but rather that any given individual who fails to resist some internal impulse to slaughter now has a medium upon which to paint their bloody visions that is far more effective than a knife or sword (generally speaking). The real world consequences of such a notion are so obvious and endemic that I scarcely think they require elaboration. But just for good measure I shall elaborate nonetheless by further examining the previously mentioned example: Guns.

Due to the belief that guns are primarily responsible for school shootings (as if they were possessed of some dire malevolence), there has been a notable uptick in firearm restrictions within the United States of America, the principal ensign of which being the “Gun-free zone.” The problem with gun-free zones is that they have had the precise opposite effect that was intended.

Now, for those whom have payed no mind to any current affairs for the past couple of decades or their selfsame surroundings, a “gun-free zone” refers loosely to any public or private arena wherein guns are explicitly banned. Most schools, for instance, are a prime example of a gun-free zone (though sometimes allowances are made for the armaments of trained security personnel). Simple. The idea behind such places is similarly simple and as follows: If there are less guns there will be less shootings, if there be less shootings then there will be less harm and if less be the harm then more be the good.

This idea, when put to practice, turns out to have backfired (see what I did there) however, as is evidenced by a recent study from the CPRC (Crime Prevention Research Center). The Center’s study shows that contrary to popular belief, gun-free zones put the general citizenry at an elevated risk of violence due to the fact that, from the 1950’s through July 10th of 2016, 98.4 percent of mass shootings have occurred within gun-free zones, exclusively. The sum is truly staggering and is but one of many examples of the earth shattering applications of impulsive, unchecked anthropomorphization. Consider it, the pathological belief that guns kill people has, in no uncertain terms, actually killed people.

What is difficult about this issue is that it sneaks up upon one as might some fell kheft, shaded and soundless. But be not confused – the impulse to imbue the un-living and naturally occurring with some form of malevolent intent is not the sole dispensation of the crazed or the intellectually stunted, but of everyone – who, after all, has not felt the hairs raise upon the back of the neck and the blood beat in the heart liken to some madman’s drum when some nameless thing beyond ones placing went bump in the night? The prevalence of this strange impulse is not manifestly obvious but there are some theories which make sense of it.

The most popular of these theories may be derived from evolutionary psychology and is what I have taken to calling the “Warden Theory of Anthropomorphization,” which may alternatively be described more precisely, but less stylistically, as a Subservient Hypothesis of Anthropomorphization (SAH – which we shall use from this point on). The theory holds that our innate proclivity to imbue maleficence to the shaking of a shrub comes from a cost-benefit analysis of predator evasion. For example, if you notice something move out of the corner of your eye and you jump and it turns out to only be the wind shaking a bush, you have leapt in vain but expended a minuscule amount of energy. If, however, you jump and it happened to be a poisonous snake, then your instincts just saved your life. The converse is that you do not leap, ever. In this case, if the bush shakes and it is nothing then you expend no energy – maximal bodily efficiency – but if it shakes and it is a poisonous snake you are dead. You can then see how a body might adapt to best evade potential fatalities by mapping potential danger-agents onto the world, regardless of whether they exist or not. The theory is “subservient” biologically speaking because it refers to a adaptation which is shared by individuals but not necessarily the collective (the converse of which would be a supervenient adaptation).

The secondary theory is what I have taken to calling the Supervenient (Emergent) Theory of Anthropomorphization (ETA). A supervenient process, in contrast to SAH Theory), is one which the collective possesses but which the individual does not. Issam Sinjab of the University of Sussex describes the process thusly:

An emergent property is a property which a collection or complex system has, but which the individual members do not have. A failure to realize that a property is emergent, or supervenient, leads to the fallacy of division. 

In chemistry, for example, the taste of saltiness is a property of salt, but that does not mean that it is also a property of sodium and chlorine, the two elements which make up salt. Thus, saltiness is an emergent or a supervenient property of salt. Claiming that chlorine must be salty because salt is salty would be an example of the fallacy of division.

The ETA hypothesis asserts that the perception-mapping of human-like behaviors in non-human entities arose as a emergent property caused by the increasing interplay of various different modules of the human brain as archaic man transitioned to modern man. The theory was first laid out by Steven Mithen in his landmark book The Prehistory of the Mind. Though it should perhaps here be noted that though Mithen believed that the ETA theory of anthropomorphization began as a emergent enterprise, he also believed it ended as one which had become subservient to human fitness and thus indispensable which attests to the interplay of both theories as they are not, necessarily, mutually exclusive (though some evolutionary theorists dispute this).

At any rate, I trust that the reader is now developing a picture of how biologically deep-seated the impulse to impart human-like agency upon non-human agents is within human nature itself. To extract it is neither desirable nor, at this juncture, possible, but cognizance of it is and self-cognizance of such “red-alerts” in one’s being might very well be the difference between life and death but no longer in the fashion nature had intended.


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