In our own image: from cars to cats to monsters

Critical Eye


I BOUGHT A CAR RECENTLY -- A 2004 Mini Cooper -- and I'm besotted with it.

It is yellow with a white roof, and each night, when I get home from work, I obsessively wash away all the debris that has accumulated during the day. Then I park it in the garage and pat it on its hood before saying goodnight.

Not only is this behavior ridiculous, it is completely out of character. I've always thought of cars essentially as transportation, demonstrated by my previous ride, a beat-up, rusting 1990 Toyota Camry with 167,000 miles.

The other day, I finally figured out why I am so hooked on my Mini: I finally found a car that looks like me.

I am short and round; the Mini is just 11 feet long, squat and close to the ground. Like me, it has great big round "eyes," set high in its bonnet. And, if I do say so myself, it is cute as all get-out.

While I am suitably chagrined at this proof of my own self-absorption, it's comforting to know that I'm not alone.

Look around. If God supposedly created human beings in his own image, we have spent the following millenniums busily constructing everything else in our own:

Grandfather (and grandmother) clocks have an obvious correspondence to venerable human elders. And a violin's shape strikingly mimics the female "hourglass" torso.

Robots conceivably could look like anything. But Elektro, the first robot to seize the public imagination in the U.S. when it was exhibited at the 1939 and 1940 World's Fair, was distinctly humanoid and could walk and talk.

Since the mid-20th century, Siamese cats have been modified by breeders to have a more slender physique, triangular face and almond-shaped eyes -- just like their two-legged owners.

What's going on here? Are we a race of narcissists run amok, convinced that we are the sine qua non of existence, unable to appreciate anything outside our own skins?


But that's not necessarily bad, according to John Rooney, who directs the master's degree program in clinical counseling psychology at La Salle University in

Philadelphia. It's just the way that human beings process information.

"There are millions of things in the world to learn, and it would be difficult or impossible to learn them in isolation," he says.

"Instead, we group objects into categories and relate them to things with which we already are familiar. Since our earliest experiences are with ourselves and other people, that's what we use as our frame of reference.

"So we have the leg of the table, the head and foot of the bed, the arm of an organization, and male and female plugs and sockets."

Some filmmakers explicitly capitalize on the human urge to anthropomorphize. Consider two recent children's movies -- Cars, in which vehicles have eyes in their windshields and gesture with their front wheels, and Monster House, with its eye-like windows framing a long, rectangular door, which seems to function as a combination nose and mouth. From the door unfurls an enormous carpet-runner of a tongue.

Bobby Podesta, a directing animator for Pixar's Cars, says the different vehicles in the movie were deliberately drawn to resemble the actors who provided the voices. For instance, Luigi, an excitable, Ferrari-loving 1959 Fiat, was imbued with actor Tony Shalhoub's explosive hand and shoulder gestures.

"The actors always are cast and their voices are recorded before we begin animating," Podesta says. "Something we're always shooting for is the relatability between the animated character and the actor portraying him. Or it."

Musical instruments -- in particular string instruments -- were inspired by the human singing voice, according to Elam Ray Sprenkle, chairman of the musicology department at the Peabody Institute.

Granted, any instrument built since the Renaissance has capacities that exceed those of any set of human vocal cords, no matter how magnificent. Violins, for example, can sound more notes more quickly than Beverly Sills in her prime. But the sharps and flats produced by violins and cellos are magnifications, enhancements and improvements of sounds first made by a prehistoric shepherd crooning to his flock.

"For most people, the sound of the human voice is the most pleasurable sound of all," Sprenkle says. "In the history of human music, the most prestigious music initially was vocal music."

And the human voice continues to drive some of the most basic aspects of composition.

"Different languages have different rhythms," Sprenkle says. "And the rhythms of speech in a particular culture affect the musical rhythms in that culture."

It was Aristotle who made the famous pronouncement, "Art imitates nature" and later added: "Art not only imitates nature, but also completes its deficiencies."

Nature, of course, encompasses a lot more than just people. Think of the rumble of drums and its obvious correspondence to thunder, or of the Wright brothers divining the secrets of flight from pigeons. But when Aristotle talked of "nature," what he primarily had in mind was human nature.

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