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Anthropologists in the world of insects: Swedish entomology 1880-1920
Stockholm University, Faculty of Humanities, Department of History of Literature and History of Ideas. Idéhistoria.
2008 (English)Conference paper (Other (popular science, discussion, etc.))
Abstract [en]

Anthropologists in the world of insects; Swedish entomology 1880-1920

Karin Dirke

My contribution will focus on how the scientific and popular view of animals was formed primarily in Swedish entomology and to show how this view is related to the perception of society.

I will discuss a certain historical period; between the breakthrough of Darwinism and the work of the great names in ethology such as Niko Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz. The context is the study of animal behaviour, and the popularization of such studies, in entomology. Anthropomorphism played an important part in this context in several ways. It was of course necessary in the popularization of entomology, which was surprisingly widespread at the time. It also points towards a change of interest in entomology itself. Previously entomology was primarily concerned with the Linnaean categorization of insects. However at the end of the nineteenth century the entomologists were increasingly interested in the behaviour of insects. In fact at the end of the century the behaviour of insects was better understood than the behaviour of mammals. The interest in insects was both popular and learned. The likeness of humans and (social) insects also became a strategic argument for Darwinism.

Animals seem untouched by human social categories such as gender, class or race yet the descriptions of animals to a great extent reproduce the categories. Therefore the study of anthropomorphism is central. Our language is built on the notion of a relationship with the non-human through continuous comparison. In recent years, in the wake of postmodernism, anthropomorphism as a cultural phenomenon has begun to evoke interest among scholars.

Since Francis Bacon’s days anthropomorphism has been understood as a scientific flaw and as a misguided judgement. To anthropomorphize has been to wrongly ascribe human traits to something nonhuman. Yet the notion that anthropomorphism is wrong is in itself a statement about what is human and what is not. This paradox is an integral part of the history of anthropomorphism however it is rarely considered. The boundaries of humanity have seldom been questioned in this way.

This makes anthropomorphism important in connection with the breakthrough of Darwinism in the second half of the nineteenth century. When the boundaries of humanity were no longer self-evident the attitude towards animals and anthropomorphism changed. This aspect of the history of anthropomorphism has been noted in recent studies.

Anthropomorphism is highly interesting to study in relation to the growth of the study of animal behaviour as a scientific discipline. It is not seriously questioned until the breakthrough of behaviourism in the early twentieth century. At the same time Darwin’s anecdotal and anthropomorphic language of science is an evident point of departure. At this point the use of anthropomorphism in entomology becomes interesting. What does it say in relation to Darwinism? What do the entomologists have to say about categories such as gender, class and race? How do they relate to concepts like society, war and gender concerning insect-societies? What does this tell us about the view of humanity?

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Keyword [en]
antrozoology, insects, gender, anthropomorphism
National Category
History of Ideas
URN: urn:nbn:se:su:diva-16433OAI: diva2:182953
Bidraget är en poster som presenterades på International Society for Anthrozoology's konferens 13-15 augusti, 2008 vid University of Toronto, Canada.Available from: 2008-12-18 Created: 2008-12-18Bibliographically approved

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