When Anthropomorphism Became Stupid

It turns out that most things in the uni­verse don’t have minds.

This state­ment would have pro­voked in­cre­dulity among many ear­lier cul­tures. “An­imism” is the usual term. They thought that trees, rocks, streams, and hills all had spirits be­cause, hey, why not?

I mean, those lumps of flesh known as “hu­mans” con­tain thoughts, so why shouldn’t the lumps of wood known as “trees”?

My mus­cles move at my will, and wa­ter flows through a river. Who’s to say that the river doesn’t have a will to move the wa­ter? The river overflows its banks, and floods my tribe’s gath­er­ing-place—why not think that the river was an­gry, since it moved its parts to hurt us? It’s what we would think when some­one’s fist hit our nose.

There is no ob­vi­ous rea­son—no rea­son ob­vi­ous to a hunter-gath­erer—why this can­not be so. It only seems like a stupid mis­take if you con­fuse weird­ness with stu­pidity. Nat­u­rally the be­lief that rivers have an­i­mat­ing spirits seems “weird” to us, since it is not a be­lief of our tribe. But there is noth­ing ob­vi­ously stupid about think­ing that great lumps of mov­ing wa­ter have spirits, just like our own lumps of mov­ing flesh.

If the idea were ob­vi­ously stupid, no one would have be­lieved it. Just like, for the longest time, no­body be­lieved in the ob­vi­ously stupid idea that the Earth moves while seem­ing mo­tion­less.

Is it ob­vi­ous that trees can’t think? Trees, let us not for­get, are in fact our dis­tant cous­ins. Go far enough back, and you have a com­mon an­ces­tor with your fern. If lumps of flesh can think, why not lumps of wood?

For it to be ob­vi­ous that wood doesn’t think, you have to be­long to a cul­ture with micro­scopes. Not just any micro­scopes, but re­ally good micro­scopes.

Aris­to­tle thought the brain was an or­gan for cool­ing the blood. (It’s a good thing that what we be­lieve about our brains has very lit­tle effect on their ac­tual op­er­a­tion.)

Egyp­ti­ans threw the brain away dur­ing the pro­cess of mum­mifi­ca­tion.

Alc­maeon of Cro­ton, a Pythagorean of the 5th cen­tury BCE, put his finger on the brain as the seat of in­tel­li­gence, be­cause he’d traced the op­tic nerve from the eye to the brain. Still, with the amount of ev­i­dence he had, it was only a guess.

When did the cen­tral role of the brain stop be­ing a guess? I do not know enough his­tory to an­swer this ques­tion, and prob­a­bly there wasn’t any sharp di­vid­ing line. Maybe we could put it at the point where some­one traced the anatomy of the nerves, and dis­cov­ered that sev­er­ing a ner­vous con­nec­tion to the brain blocked move­ment and sen­sa­tion?

Even so, that is only a mys­te­ri­ous spirit mov­ing through the nerves. Who’s to say that wood and wa­ter, even if they lack the lit­tle threads found in hu­man anatomy, might not carry the same mys­te­ri­ous spirit by differ­ent means?

I’ve spent some time on­line try­ing to track down the ex­act mo­ment when some­one no­ticed the vastly tan­gled in­ter­nal struc­ture of the brain’s neu­rons, and said, “Hey, I bet all this gi­ant tan­gle is do­ing com­plex in­for­ma­tion-pro­cess­ing!” I haven’t had much luck. (It’s not Camillo Golgi—the tan­gled­ness of the cir­cuitry was known be­fore Golgi.) Maybe there was never a wa­ter­shed mo­ment there, ei­ther.

But that dis­cov­ery of that tan­gled­ness, and Charles Dar­win’s the­ory of nat­u­ral se­lec­tion, and the no­tion of cog­ni­tion as com­pu­ta­tion, is where I would put the grad­ual be­gin­ning of an­thro­po­mor­phism’s de­scent into be­ing ob­vi­ously wrong.

It’s the point where you can look at a tree, and say: “I don’t see any­thing in the tree’s biol­ogy that’s do­ing com­plex in­for­ma­tion-pro­cess­ing. Nor do I see it in the be­hav­ior, and if it’s hid­den in a way that doesn’t af­fect the tree’s be­hav­ior, how would a se­lec­tion pres­sure for such com­plex in­for­ma­tion-pro­cess­ing arise?”

It’s the point where you can look at a river, and say, “Water doesn’t con­tain pat­terns repli­cat­ing with dis­tant hered­ity and sub­stan­tial vari­a­tion sub­ject to iter­a­tive se­lec­tion, so how would a river come to have any pat­tern so com­plex and func­tion­ally op­ti­mized as a brain?”

It’s the point where you can look at an atom, and say: “Anger may look sim­ple, but it’s not, and there’s no room for it to fit in some­thing as sim­ple as an atom—not un­less there are whole uni­verses of sub­par­ti­cles in­side quarks; and even then, since we’ve never seen any sign of atomic anger, it wouldn’t have any effect on the high-level phe­nom­ena we know.”

It’s the point where you can look at a puppy, and say: “The puppy’s par­ents may push it to the ground when it does some­thing wrong, but that doesn’t mean the puppy is do­ing moral rea­son­ing. Our cur­rent the­o­ries of evolu­tion­ary psy­chol­ogy holds that moral rea­son­ing arose as a re­sponse to more com­plex so­cial challenges than that—in their full-fledged hu­man form, our moral adap­ta­tions are the re­sult of se­lec­tion pres­sures over lin­guis­tic ar­gu­ments about tribal poli­tics.”

It’s the point where you can look at a rock, and say, “This lacks even the sim­ple search trees em­bod­ied in a chess-play­ing pro­gram—where would it get the in­ten­tions to want to roll down­hill, as Aris­to­tle once thought?”

It is writ­ten:

Zhuangzi and Huizi were strol­ling along the dam of the Hao Water­fall when Zhuangzi said, “See how the min­nows come out and dart around where they please! That’s what fish re­ally en­joy!”

Huizi said, “You’re not a fish — how do you know what fish en­joy?”

Zhuangzi said, “You’re not I, so how do you know I don’t know what fish en­joy?”

Now we know.