By W. George Scarlett
In E.B. White’s classic children’s book, Charlotte’s Webb1, Charlotte, the spider, becomes the kind and smart friend of Wilbur, the pig. Charlotte saves Wilbur from the usual destiny of farm pigs by weaving into her web words praising Wilbur and making him famous among the surrounding humans. But if that were all there was to the story, though it would appeal to many and maybe even cultivate in children empathy for spiders and pigs, it would stop short of teaching about how nature works and stop short of motivating children to show care for nature.
Happily, White goes further. While Charlotte and Wilbur are getting to know one another, a fly gets entangled in Charlotte’s web, and she says to Wilbur, “Watch me wrap up this fly.” She then drops down and wraps up the fly with her “jets of silk”, while biting and inserting into the fly an anesthesia, and then drinking the fly’s blood. “I drink them – drink their blood. I love blood.”, says Charlotte. Wilbur, horrified by what he is hearing, replies, “Don’t say that!…Please don’t say things like that!”, and Charlotte replies, “Why not? It’s true, and I have to say what is true… A spider has to pick up a living somehow or other….” This is an example of biocentric anthropomorphizing – explaining something true about the natural world using anthropomorphizing as a way for others (especially children) to both understand and accept as natural the real-life stories of nonhuman living organisms.
However, a good many very smart people have condemned anthropomorphizing for explaining how nature works. For example, the famed evolutionary biologist, Lynn Margolis, once railed against using the term cooperation to capture the many symbiotic relationships that keep our planet healthy. And the ethologist, Clive Wynne says, flat-out, “Anthropomorphism comes very naturally to human beings. We must be continuously on our guard against it.” 2
Happily, overly negative treatment of anthropomorphizing has been countered by an impressive list of scientists who see in biocentric anthropomorphizing an essential means for explaining nature. For example, the mycologist, Paul Stamets, refers to mushrooms as “tricksters”, and the forest ecologist, Suzanne Simard speaks of “mother” and “baby” trees “talking” to one another. And the science writer and prime instigator of the modern environmental movement, Rachel Carson, in response to criticism for being poetic when using anthropocentric language to explain the ocean, replied, “If there is poetry in my book about the sea, it is not because I deliberately put it there, but because no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry.” 3 But perhaps the most famous example of a scientist embracing biocentric anthropomorphizing is Charles Darwin who emphasized the continuity between humans and nonhumans, noting that both human animals and nonhuman animals feel pleasure and pain, happiness and misery, as well as instincts for self-preservation, sexual love, attachment to parent, and more. In short, biocentric anthropomorphizing has been around a long time and presently is found not just in children’s books but also in the best science available to explain the natural world and our place in the natural world.
And so, anthropomorphizing can help children connect to, understand, and care for the natural world if the focus is either on being biocentric or simply on motivating to show care. With respect to being biocentric, the example of Charlotte might suffice – but there are plenty of other examples, including those given in Leah Harrigan’s review of Eric Carle’s children’s books and Allison Choi and Kirsten Malsam’s eBook on the water cycle (both found in the TES Children’s Corner).
With respect to motivating to show care, an adult example occurred when a group of homeowners in Australia were encouraged to conserve water use by calling water, “Mr. Water”. 4 Obviously, the adults understood the humor and metaphor involved, but nevertheless, the anthropomorphizing helped. Other homeowners, in a control group, who were simply asked to conserve water, didn’t do so good a job. If anthropomorphizing to show care works for adults, how much more can it work for children who are even more ready to anthropomorphize. After all, if nature becomes “Mother Nature”, wouldn’t you, as a child, pay more attention and show care?
One last word about anthropomorphizing: We know that when children anthropomorphize to emphasize similarities between themselves and the nonhuman world, they may not understand and experience the differences between themselves and the nonhuman world. But that doesn’t matter if, with development, we support this differentiation over time – being careful not to douse the flames of interest and care originally lit by an anthropocentric presentation of the natural world.
To illustrate how child-like anthropomorphizing need not, indeed must not, be extinguished but rather helped to accompany development toward adult-like ways, I close with an example of an adult relating her experience as a teenager working in an aquarium and preparing herself for a lifelong career of nurturing children’s development as earth stewards. At the time of her work at the aquarium, she already knew a lot about the ocean and its ecology and was committed to understanding the science of ocean systems. That commitment laid the foundation for her later environmental activism in college, graduate school, and work career. But science wasn’t all there was to her post-childhood development. For example, when working at the aquarium, she often stopped by the tank where the giant Pacific Octopus lived, and the two of them would stay still for several minutes staring at one another – something she experienced as a romantic moment between she and the Octopus. Who would condemn such a moment and experience for being unscientific? In fact, that experience was one of the motivators supporting her lifelong commitment to earth stewardship! It is this deep and caring connection to the natural world that carries us along in our development as earth stewards, a connection born not simply or perhaps even mainly, from dry, scientific explanations, but also from embracing similarities between ourselves and the living world, similarities that find their expression in our anthropomorphizing.
1 White, E.B. (2012) Charlotte’s Web. N.Y.: Harper Collins
2 Wynne, C. (2007). What are Animals? Why Anthropomorphism is Still Not a Scientific Approach to Behavior. Cognitive and Comparative Behavior Reviews. Vol. 2, pp. 125-135.
3 Lear, L.J. (1997) Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature (1st Edition) New York: Henry Holt & Co. p. 219.
4 Chan, E. (2021). “Saving Mr. Water: anthropomorphizing water promotes water conservation.” Resources, Conservation, and Recycling, Vol. 174, pp. 105814.