I'm a biologist, and when we give scientific presentations it is often convenient to talk about evolution in the context of it trying to 'achieve something', like it has conscious 'agency'. We of course know that this isn't the case, it's just an easy way to frame a point.

We might say:

The bacteria is trying to become more resistant to antibiotics.

So my question is: is there a specific word for giving abstract concepts (e.g. evolution) an agency?

The only one that springs to mind is personification, but to my mind that only applies if you are giving the subject people-like traits?

2 Answers 2


Anthropomorphisation? Wikipedia defines it as "Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human traits, emotions, and intentions to non-human entities".

eta: Personification, I would say is more like treating something as a person or ascribing a personality to it.

Anthropomorphisation is more about describing something in terms of human traits; e.g. "My car likes a good burn on the motorway" when you mean that giving your car a fast run seems to improve its performance. It can cover cases where we know the entity does not possess the ability (e.g the car above) and also cases where, for instance we may use human terms to describe an animals behaviour or thoughts, feelings etc that possibly may not be the same as ours. Some criticism of primate studies for instance are based on this. You may know some pet owners in this category.

  • Agreed. Sounds good. To really split hairs here though, is "anthropomorphisation" limited to physical entities - does it still apply to something intangible like evolutionary force? Also, ascribing thoughts/feelings to a pet by the owner would likely be more like personification (though not mutually exlusive with anthropomorphisation).
    – Joe Healey
    Jan 10, 2017 at 12:31
  • 1
    Yes it's not about the thing that you are describing, it is about the human tendency to see things in human terms. I'm prepared to be corrected but I'd say that a pet has a personality but we often anthropomorphize pet behaviour and I'd use personification more to describe something like describing death as an anthropomorphic personality like Terry Pratchett's Death or the Grim Reaper.
    – Wudang
    Jan 10, 2017 at 12:36
  • Good enough for me!
    – Joe Healey
    Jan 10, 2017 at 12:38

Two word that may suit this context is "Adapt" and "Acclimatize/ Acclimate"

Merriam Webster meaning of these words are -

Definition of adapt

:  to make fit (as for a new use) often by modification
:  to become adapted

Definition of Adapt/ Acclimate

: to adapt to a new temperature, altitude, climate, environment, or situation

Another word that may be considered is "recalcitrant". However, you may need to modify your sentence to incorporate this word

Merriam Webster definition of recalcitrant

1     :  obstinately defiant of authority or restraint

2    a :  difficult to manage or operate 
     b :  not responsive to treatment 
     c :  resistant <this subject is recalcitrant both to   observation and to experiment — G. G. Simpson>

For example, a recalcitrant case of pneumonia stubbornly resists treatment.

In the context of microbiology, here are three example sentences -

Mycobacterial infections are uniquely recalcitrant to antibiotics.

Polymicrobial communities are often recalcitrant to antibiotics.

In addition to its large arsenal of virulence factors, S. aureus can grow in biofilm communities that are recalcitrant to antibiotics treatment and host defenses

  • I think you need to re-read the question.
    – Wudang
    Jan 10, 2017 at 8:57
  • From the question, it somehow seem to suggest that alternative words that imbue abstract concepts are being solicited. My answers were in response to that. If I have got it wrong, I apologize and will consider deleting this answer in the right earnest.
    – Monzoor
    Jan 10, 2017 at 9:03
  • He's not looking for alternatives to "adapt". He is asking about the ascribing of intention to things that cannot possess intention and so on.
    – Wudang
    Jan 10, 2017 at 12:17

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