Animal Essence

A number of commentators have asked what I mean by essences and essentialism. Basically, the idea is that we naturally assume that there is a true identity of something that exists independently of its outward appearance.

images-1For example, imagine that you had a raccoon and that you had the technology to change its images2appearance so that it now looked like a skunk (change the color of its skin, paint a white line down the back, add a bag of smelly stuff and so on). If I asked you whether it was a raccoon or a skunk then you would say that it is still a raccoon. You might explain that in terms of DNA and you’d be right. But before DNA was known, you would have given the same answer. Young children who do not know about DNA also say that animals are essentially the same despite outward appearances because they are  basing their answer on intuitive essentialism. Susan Gelman and Frank Keil are some of the leading researchers in this area.

pigletslionsI have taken this idea further by arguing that essentialism could be the basis for some supernatural beliefs. The idea that someone’s essence could contaminate the physical world is a recurring theme in many of the postings that I have put up on this blog.


Filed under Essentialism, Research

10 responses to “Animal Essence

  1. abbymoriah

    Do you think the owner of the doll (from the post below) thought the doll had an essence? I ask because if he actually did, would that mean by dumping her he (in his own mind) actually committed murder? But if he didn’t think she had an essence and knew it was fake, then he just dumped a plastic toy…

  2. brucehood

    Good point abby!!…Do you remember Tom Hanks became strangely emotionally obsessed to the volleyball in the movie “Castaway” Did he essentialize a ball? I wonder. There again he was FedEx man.

  3. Gus

    Call me an old-fashioned essentialist if you will, but if you take a raccoon and use technology to ‘make it look like a skunk’ (as you describe it) – it is, self-evidently and unarguably still a raccoon – just one that’s had a white stripe painted on it, etc.

    Isn’t that common sense rather than intuitive essentialism?

  4. brucehood

    Ok Gus, I tried to make the example as simple as possible (it was based on a study for 6-yr-olds) but you are right…. but let me make it technically more sophisticated. Let’s suppose you change the internal properties as well, bit by bit..First you start with the kidneys.. give the raccoon skunk kidneys… Is it still a raccoon … Most would say yes…how about then the eyes…Is it still a raccoon?… eventually you could replace the entire animal… but is it still a raccoon… No… but at what point did it cease to be a raccoon?

    Note how this has bearing on body modification and genetic engineering.

  5. What are the implications of this with the fact that we change ‘skins’ so often in one lifetime? Do you think there are some people who get freaked out by that and think their ‘essence’ is suddenly transitory?

    This entry reminded me of my husband saying to me – after we had been at his grandad’s bedside when life support had been switched off – that at some point the person in the bed was most certainly not his grandad. He was technically still ‘alive’, but for Jamie he died a while before his breathin stopped.

    I am an essentialist all the way – that little raccoon (or ‘Mr. Stinkles’ as I would call him) is still a raccoon to me, even in the skunk body.

  6. brucehood

    Apparently, if you are middle-aged, then most of your body is less than 10 years old through cellular replacement. I just wish the new cells would remember this!

  7. Gus

    That’s a disturbing statistic. It sure doesn’t feel that way. Yours, Mr Wrinkles.

  8. brucehood

    Oh’s what’s inside that is important…….now I understand!

  9. Hey, as a 28 yo female I can say that all men get better with age – without exception. I only recently found out that Roy Scheider died, and I found him incredibly sexy right up to the end of his life (he was 75). And don’t even get me started on Michael Palin…grrrr.

  10. brucehood

    Katie, I’d like to say that you’d make many old men happy….but I am sure that would be taken the wrong way.

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