As it’s Christmas Day, I thought I should choose an appropriate topic, but one that’s unlikely to give too much offence, the brain sciences not always being the believer’s best friend. Today is of course the day when Christians celebrate the coming of the Messiah, so the obvious choice was the 55th Fable, ‘The Self-Obsessed Animals’. It’s the story of a moonbeam who warns the animals that the King of the Skies is about to descend to earth, and that all must make an effigy of Him in tribute. Each species ends up creating an image that looks exactly like itself. Hence, when the Great One (a beam of light) arrives, they all accuse Him of being an imposter.
What’s under discussion here is Anthropomorphism. It’s a phenomenon we see on our TV screens every day. Not all aliens in sci-fi productions possess a variant of human form, but the vast majority do: just think ‘Star Trek’. Scientifically, this is preposterous. There’s no reason at all to suppose that any life form capable of interstellar travel would have been shaped by evolution in essentially the same way as this particular remote planet’s current top species. In the course of Earth’s history, the most advanced clades have been anything from single-cell microbes to sponges. We ourselves, a species that has been around for but a moment in time, are indubitably just another step along the way. Towards what? Towards either a life-form close to what we think of as gods, or (much more likely) an evolutionary dead end, meaning extinction. That’s just how it works, folks.
We’ve all read books or articles explaining why the TV and movie production industries seem so short on imagination in this respect. To remind you, it’s above all a matter of budgets. Evoking an alien life-form that convincingly stretches the imagination is an expensive business. It’s much cheaper to put an extra in a costume, a practice that ‘Doctor Who’ has thrived on for decades (although the BBC has never stooped so low as the notorious movie ‘Robot Monster’, in which the alien costume consisted of a diving helmet over a gorilla suit). Producers can get away with it – and here we start nudging towards psychology – because humans find it easy to relate viscerally to human-like entities. We’re fine-tuned to be scared by spiders, snakes and the like, but there’s nothing like a shadowy human-like figure to put the willies up us. That’s most true when the figure is from Uncanny Valley: almost the same as us, but not quite right. It’s bound to send the paranoid amygdala into overdrive.
And what of gods? The striking thing about depictions of them across the ages is that they appear as overwhelmingly human, or some variation thereof. A minority – like the Hindu elephant-god Ganesh or the Japanese catfish-god Namazu – possess animal form, whilst Ancient Egyptian gods tend to have human bodies with animal heads. But, by the time of the Greeks, the gods are just immaterial versions of humans (even if Zeus was fond of changing himself into animal shapes so as to have his way with chaste females). Following the Greco-Roman tradition, the Christian god is always depicted as an omnipotent version of us. Christ is likewise entirely human in appearance, although the manner of that depiction changes over time. He was of course a Middle-Eastern Jew, and no doubt looked like one; so it’s interesting to see him and his mother depicted in Renaissance art as blue-eyed, golden-haired Nordic types. The key fact here is that, by that time, northern Italy was in the hands of the Germanic Lombards. Verily, Man creates God after his own image.
So why exactly did the mandrills’ image of God end up looking like a mandrill? The answer is that the mandrill designer knew what he was doing. Brains are above all devices for getting us through life. With limited processing power, they need tricks and devices to get by; and one of the things the brain does habitually without conscious consideration is seeking meaningful patterns. As a social species, we need above all to seek meaningful patterns in others of our species, and unsurprisingly have a large amount of mental machinery devoted to such matters: face recognition and recall alone are inordinately complex. Unsurprisingly, human forms are so much to the fore for us that we even see them where they don’t exist. All good artists and artisans necessarily have an intuitive understanding of the minds of their intended audience, and take professional advantage of that understanding. Even if the mandrill designer knew for a fact that God was a sunbeam, he’d be aware that he had to design an effigy of a mandrill if he was to elicit in other mandrills the sort of emotional response that religious faith depends on. And that’s why you get Florentine Christs with golden hair, and mandrill gods with blue bums.
Happy Christmas and, as the atheist comedian Dave Allen used to say, “May your god go with you”.