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.