In the Image of Dog He Created Them…

We’ve all heard the theory that people look like their pets (or is it vice versa?), and we’ve all seen the uncanny photos, like these featured in the popular listicle website, Buzzfeed (oh dear, number 23…)

(As an aside: I joke that it’s because of this resemblance theory that I adopted a greyhound—it was a weight-loss strategy.  And no, it didn’t work.)

Illustration from De humana physiognomonia libri IIII, Wikimedia Commons

This fascination with resemblances between people and animals is nothing new, as we can see in Giambattista della Porta’s De humana physiognomonia libri IIII (1586)

Illustration from De humana physiognomonia libri IIII, Wikimedia Commons

Della Porta (also known as Giovanni Battista Della Porta and John Baptist Porta) (1535-1615) was a scholar and philosopher from Naples, most famous for his work in magic, mathematics, and natural philosophy (among many other things—he was quite the polymath).

Della Porta founded the Accademia dei Segretti (Academy of Secrets), one of the first of the early secret societies devoted to studying natural philosophy and discovering “the secrets of Nature.” These natural secrets were often thought to be perilously close to occult secrets, and della Porta was summoned to Rome by Pope Paul V to answer for rumors that the Academy had too keen an interest in magic. He was found to be innocent, but the Academy was shut down by the Inquisition.

Della Porta would later go on to co-found the Accademia dei Lincei, the Academy of the Lynxes (or Academy of the Lynx-Eyed: the lynx, thought to have extraordinary vision, symbolized the critical importance of observation in the “new science.”)  A similar institution in England, the Invisible College, would eventually morph into the Royal Academy of Sciences.

Della Porta’s text was influential in the ancient pseudoscience of physiognomy, the study of determining a person’s inner character by her or his outward appearance. For della Porta, this analogous thinking was a product of the doctrine of signatures, the theory that medicinal plants would look like the part of the body they could cure (hence roots like the phallic-looking mandrake were thought to help impotence and fertility). While it may seem strange to modern thinking, terms from physiognomy are common in our daily lexicon. It is from physiognomy, for example, that we get the terms “highbrow” and “lowbrow.”

The impulse to judge a person’s inner qualities by their outward appearances is ancient, but the categorization and codification of these aesthetic judgments is relatively modern. In the 18th and 19th century, together with its cousin phrenology, physiognomy enabled pernicious forms of scientific racism.

Strangely enough, physiognomy is making a bit of a comeback, albeit in a modified form. Scientists have taken to studying people’s reaction to different kinds of faces, as profiled in this Economist article . Whether this kind of study is helpful or not is debatable: do these studies counter or reinforce stereotypes when they assert, for example, that men with angular faces are perceived as criminal? That attractive men have an evolutionary advantage because their faces cause women to orgasm more frequently?  When a generalized theory is applied to the individual, does it simply slip into stereotype?


Completely gratuitous additional note about the greyhound thing: if you were to judge my character (and not my body habitus), the greyhound would actually be an appropriate choice for analogy, as it comes in at #8 on this list of “Top 10 Dogs for Lazy Owners”!)


More information on Giambattista della Porta and/or physiognomy:

From the National Library of Medicine, “Historical Anatomies on the Web,” a full version of De humana physiognomonia libri IIII

An article on Giambattista della Porta and “natural magic” from the Folger Shakespeare Library:

More on della Porta (including text, articles, etc.) from Prof. Gary Zabel at the University of Massachusetts, Boston: