Going Viral: Mainstream Anthropomorphism


Humans are interesting creatures. We like to categorize things. And, we like to relate to things in terms that make sense to us, even if those terms don’t make sense with the entity we are discussing.

With all the media (videos, interviews, posts, memes) flying around that mention COVID-19, there are a couple of things that have really struck me. One is the gallows humor. I love gallows humor. It’s dry and snappy and really great for dealing with complexities such as the world is experiencing now. The other thing that has really fascinated me is the anthropomorphism of COVID-19.

If you listen closely to interviews with experts from the fields of virology, epidemiology and the like, you may here someone make the off-handed remark that a virus has “won” or achieved something great or you may get the feeling that it has a malicious intent toward humans. It’s REALLY fascinating! My husband and I were listening to Weekend Edition last weekend and David Quammen was being interviewed.

“If a species is becoming endangered and going extinct, the viruses in that have a chance to transfer to a new host. They will seize that opportunity. And if they transfer to humans and are able to replicate and spread, then they have, as one scientist has told me, they’ve seized the golden ticket. They’re now in the world’s most abundant large animal, and they’ve achieved great evolutionary success. This virus now has achieved great evolutionary success.” (https://ww.npr.org/2020/03/28/823071230/david-quammen-how-animal-borne-infections-spill-over-to-humans)

This statement made me laugh aloud simply because of what I mention above. It makes it sound like the virus is targeting us or that it has a certain “goal” in mind. That goal could be an evolutionary goal, but evolutionary goals aren’t necessarily something you put into practice or make a conscious decision to achieve. And a virus, without a brain, can’t make a conscious decision about anything. As a former English major with a bit of a dry sense of humor and an appreciation for gallows humor, I can appreciate all of that.

Now, I don’t think Quammen did this on purpose to frighten or affect listeners. I think it is simply the easiest way for him (as a science writer with insight into zoonosis – an animal infection that is transmissible to people) to discuss a very complex field of work in a simple way that non-scientists can understand and relate to.

Quammen isn’t the only person to anthropomorphize this “enemy” either. You can hear the same sort of vernacular coming out of the White House as well. The White House has also been known to talk about how we are “at war” and also offers human-like qualities to this virus. The funny thing is, though, when you’re at war with another human or group of people, the tendency is to do the opposite. Instead of humanizing that “enemy,” communications will often dehumanize an enemy group that is of our same species. I found the turning of this concept on its head to be really interesting. Have others noticed this?

Anthropmorphism isn’t a rarely used device, as I’ve already established. I suppose that its use in reference to COVID-19 has intrigued me more so because it is a single-celled organism which, also according to another interview NPR did with Quammen, whether or not a virus is a living thing (https://www.npr.org/transcripts/802938289), sparks another really interesting conversation.

I suppose I have a lot of time on my hands because I’m sitting around and pondering these things. 🙂 Here’s to social distancing and keeping ourselves and others safe and healthy! Have you noticed any interesting trends with all the media focusing on COVID-19 these past several weeks? Please share your own wordy discoveries!

Most importantly, stay safe and healthy!

Photo by Markus Spiske from Pexels

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