The Guys Talk


About an hour into a long interview, the scientist relaxes, stops using words that might look good on a funding application, and starts saying things like: “Here’s a picture of our immediate neighborhood.  Here’s the Milky Way, that’s us.  Here’s the Andromeda Nebula, that’s our nearest friend.  And there are a bunch of little guys in our immediate vicinity.  The whole shooting match is winging off in this direction.”

This particular scientist, Princeton’s Jim Peebles, talks about galaxies as though they’re folks he knows personally.  This is anthropomorphising and it’s strictly against scientists’ union rules.  But they do it anyway – not all of them, just certain ones – and they do it regardless of field, almost unconsciously, and with joy.

They even embed it in the language: did you really think an electron finds another electron repulsive?  Here’s a sentence from Wikipedia:  “Soap, which is amphipathic, has a hydrophilic head and a hydrophobic tail, allowing it to dissolve in both waters and oils.”  Translation from the Greek:  a molecule of soap, which can feel both ways, has a head that loves water and a tail that hates water, so it dissolves, etc.

The reason anthropomorphising is against the rules is obvious.  Imposing human reactions and motivations is likely to occult what non-human reality is doing.  “Iron is drawn by the Loadstone, as a bride after the bridegroom, to be embraced,” wrote a sixteenth century scientist, “and the iron is so desirous to joyn with it as her husband.”  Thinking along those lines doesn’t seem likely to end up at magnetic fields. Even modern biologists dealing with animal behavior are in danger of reading altruism into bees and vengefulness into crows.  “The larval insect is, if I may be permitted to lapse for a moment into anthropomorphism,” wrote an entomologist in 1911, “a sluggish, greedy, self-centred creature, while the adult is industrious, abstemious and highly altruistic.”  Really, not useful.

So scientists remind themselves not to anthropomorphize science and they discourage science writers from doing it too.  But they can’t help themselves. Immunologists describe killer T cells attacking foreign invaders.  Spiral galaxies live alone in the field; the Higgs particle lives at high energies.  Neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins, David Robinson: “The brain is sloppy, ad hoc, does what it can to get you to the point where you reproduce, and doesn’t give a damn about parsimony.”

Maybe the reason scientists continue to anthropomorphize regardless is because it works. Maybe  the best way to understand some entity, human or non-human, is to put yourself in its place, figure out what you would be doing if you were doing what it’s doing.  Look at a thing in its own frame of reference, Einstein said.  And in that process, maybe anthropomorphizing is the first step.  “The hill must feel like its covers are sliding off its bed,” I wrote; and maybe the next step would be to replicate that creeping slip by looking at it from the point of view of the dirt, and calculating friction and particle size and increasing gravitational pull with distance and I don’t know what all.  The lodestone groom and the iron bride did, eventually, lead William Gilbert to magnetic fields.

Or maybe scientists anthropomorphize just because they’ve thought about their molecules or neurons or subatomic particles so hard for so long, they feel they’re old friends. Ned Seeman, DNA nanotechnologist at New York University:  “When we put a branch into DNA, it’s not shaped the way it wants to be.  We understand the where-it-wants-to-be states.  We don’t understand that states where it’s not where it wants to be.”

Craig Heller, Stanford sleep researcher:  “And that’s what the brain is like during wakefulness, [it’s] doing thousands of different tasks simultaneously.  So cells are talking to each other without relationship to other cells, and there’s this chatter going on.”

Peebles again:  “The galaxies themselves look like they’ve sat there for a long time.  They’re thoroughly relaxed, they’re old, they’ve had a long history and they’re in their declining years, running out of hydrogen.”

Maybe anthropomorphizing is scientists trying to understand from the inside, from within the family.  The 1960’s American midwest used as the collective noun for men and women both, “guys.”  Scientists use “guys” for electrons and galaxies and adaptive mirrors on telescopes, as though women, men, neurons,  molecules, stars were all part of the same collective and scientists are just one of the guys.


Thanks to the excellent Nell Greenfieldboyce for the idea.  Except as noted, quotes are from interviews I did.

Photo credits:  radiant guy; ocean.flynn

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20 thoughts on “The Guys Talk

  1. I was just thinking about this a few hours ago. I suspect that anthropomorphism has an uncanny valley. It’s fine for proteins or galaxies, but gets progressively worse and more misleading the closer you get to actual humans.

  2. I had to look up “uncanny valley,” and am glad I did. I suspect you’re right: the scientists still talking about anthropomorphism are the animal behavior people and the AI/robot people.

    Which reminds me of some old research done on what we consider food.

  3. Wonderful post! I wonder how much of this has to do with how our minds interpret the original encounter itself, and how much has to do with its expression in thought and then in langauge. (I’m thinking just now of poetry, and of Ernst Cassirer’s studies of myth.) I especially like this part: “…and they do it regardless of field, almost unconsciously, and with joy.” Might it be “pre-conscious,” instead? Anyway, as long as the joy stays in there, we’re in good shape.

  4. I”m not sure what you mean, Michael, about the original encounter vs the expression in language. Maybe the experience of mentally getting into the landslide with the dirt vs. the way I’d say that? Or maybe the extent to which scientists really think of their galaxies in terms of “the guys?”

  5. I suspect that Ed’s right about the uncanny valley phenomenon when it comes to anthropomorphism and our relative unease with it, but the strength of the unease itself shouldn’t be taken as evidence of its validity. On the contrary. An empathic consideration of the motives of wolves or whales or even worms may be only a starting point, but it’s much more likely to steer scientific research in fruitful directions than is the same consideration of what a galaxy or molecule “wants.” By the same token, however, it’s much more threatening to our precious and well-defended identity as uniquely sentient creatures. As many ethologists will attest, the prejudice *against* anthropomorphism often exerts a distorting pressure on scientific inquiry.

  6. That’s interesting, that prejudice against anthropomorphism can distort the spirit of inquiry. Any examples, or just a general observation?

  7. Frans de Waal, Jaak Panksepp, and Jonathan Balcombe are among those who have written persuasively in the defense of anthropomorphism as a scientifically sound impulse, sound because it embraces our evolutionary continuity with other creatures. While subjective states are difficult in every case to describe scientifically (and so narrative psychology and neuroscience remain stubbornly divided), we can often describe animals’ — especially vertebrates’ — external behavior much more elegantly if we begin from the premise that their internal experience overlaps with our own.

    The widespread and tenacious reluctance to grant non-human animals rich interior lives has distorted inquiry into their behavior in many significant ways, including but not limited to 1) a strong constraint on the range of questions asked, 2) a tendency to supply answers that are exclusively mechanistic, 3) the overgeneralization of results owing to a disregard of context (especially laboratory vs. field), and 4) the overgeneralization of results owing to a disregard of individual variation.

    Wolf research supplies a useful case in point. “Dominance theory” has become common wisdom not only for wolves but for their domestic cousins, so entrenched in the public imagination that some dog owners who otherwise give their pets very little credit for intelligence have become convinced that they are furry Machiavellis plotting their masters’ overthrow. Unfortunately, the theory was founded on the behavior of unrelated, captive wolves thrown together in situations most likely to aggravate insecurity and aggressive/submissive behavior. Any researcher who supposed that wolves were more than interchangeable cogs would have been less likely to credit his or her data as definitive for the species. David Mech has spent decades in the field studying wolves on their own terms, but his view that packs are naturally structured as families has only recently gained ground on what was bad but persuasive science. A link to a salient paper of his:

  8. Sorry, I should add that the example I gave also demonstrates the dangers of anthropomorphism gone unproductively amok. Patricia McConnell has done some interesting research into the contrasting ways that canids and primates conduct themselves socially. She concludes that *we’re* the ones obsessed with status, and project that obsession onto dogs.

  9. These examples are wonderful. I was thinking as I read them that my post was meant to say that maybe scientists consider their wolves, galaxies, and neutrinos not in the scientists’ terms, but in the terms of the guys themselves — not from the outside but from the inside. But I see you’re talking about that too. And for all I know scientists aren’t doing any of this at all, and are only enjoying their non-humans as much as they enjoy their humans.

  10. I really liked that about your post — I was just inspired by Ed’s comment to say that hanging out with “the guys” in the imaginative space where who’s who gets confused can be scientifically productive even or especially when the confusion is at an anxiety-producing height. Thanks for your responses, and the lovely, provocative post!

  11. This is a great piece. In my experience, whilst you’ll never hear it in the lab, anthropomorphism does tend to crop up in relaxed chats between scientists in the pub. I would guess it’s true that if you work on something all the time, you do build up a sort of affinity with it. Working with herpes simplex virus, I’ll try and keep that affinity low…

    One thing I think anthropomorphism can be a truly useful tool for is for communicating (are least my) science to a general audience. I don’t know if it’s a failing of sorts to resort to it to educate a wider non-scientific audience (opinions on a postcard to… ), but I find that it often makes the subject far more compelling. Is this a fair trade-off for subtly misleading explanation?

  12. Mike N., it was the “relaxed chat” I was talking about; for me, it happens once a scientist settles into an interview. And good luck on keeping your distance with herpes simplex.

    Your question about the trade-off between usefulness and subtly misleading explanations is a scientist’s question and I hadn’t particularly thought about it. I guess it would depend on how drastically the audience would be misled. Is herpes simplex really an invader? Is it really attacked back? Does it lurk, waiting for an opportunity to strike?

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