Why we tell ourselves we’re a higher life form
In a previous post, we reported on the growing debate over the question of whether medical research that mixes animal cells with human cells should be more tightly regulated.
We noted that while it doesn’t bother ethics experts much when researchers mix the genes from two non-human animals, it’s much more alarming when they create human-other chimeras.
Why are we so bothered by this?
Many psychologists reply that we humans have a deep need to see ourselves as more than simply “animal.” They argue that this stems from our awareness and existential terror of our own mortality. And they suggest that much of our culture, including art, religion and politics is an attempt to tell ourselves that we’re not animals and not subject to mortality.
In one of their studies of what’s known as Terror Management Theory, a group of psychologists concluded that any reminder in daily life of our own mortality increases the need to distance ourselves from other animals.
Here’s an edited version of the study. (The full text, with references and citations, can be downloaded here.)
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“I Am Not an Animal!”
Why we deny our human creatureliness
Edited, with permission, from the study by Jamie L. Goldenberg, Tom Pyszczynski , Benjamin Kluck and Robin Cornwell of the University of Colorado, Sheldon Solomon of Brooklyn College, and Jeff Greenberg University of Arizona
Why are we humans so invested in beautifying our bodies and denying our animal nature?
We engage in a wide variety of behaviors that help us deny or minimize our commonalities with other animals. We exercise our bodies to more closely approximate an idealized physique; we alter and dress our bodies in the latest fashions; rigorously clean our hair and body so that there is no scent other than that which comes out of a bottle; disguise the animal origin of our food by calling it “beef,” “pork,” or a “Big Mac”; cook our food and prepare it with fancy sauces and garnishes; go to the bathroom in sanitary and “appropriate” receptacles; refine our manners to be respectable members of society; educate our minds to attain high status jobs and the respect that such social roles confer on us; and celebrate the artistic achievements of others who express themselves creatively by painting on canvas or putting words on paper.
Acknowledging that we are animals makes us acutely aware that we are material beings vulnerable to death and decay.
However, whether or not we use forks and knives to eat, squelch our inclinations to belch, or otherwise tightly control our bodily activities, most of us recognize that we evolved from the same genetic stock as all other primates and are closely related to all other living things.
Why, then, do we engage in so many activities that seem to minimize our connections with other animals?
Psychologist Ernest Becker proposed that we do so because acknowledging that we are animals makes us acutely aware that we are material beings vulnerable to death and decay.
And, given such awareness, we humans could not function with equanimity if we believed that we were not inherently more significant than apes, lizards, and lima beans.
Cultures promote norms that help people to distinguish them¬selves from animals because this distinction helps protect us from deeply rooted concerns about mortality. And distancing ourselves from the rest of the animal kingdom helps us defend against anxiety associated with the awareness of death.
Terror Management Theory
“I am not an animal! I am a human being!” John Merrick, The Elephant Man
We humans are intelligent enough to realize that our efforts are inevitably in vain — everything that lives must someday die. But this knowledge is still the basis of an existential terror. And terror management theory proposes that a great deal of human behavior can be understood as an attempt to cope with this awareness.
Terror management theory proposes that it is through culture that humans manage the potential for terror engendered by their awareness of death.
Although they vary tremendously, cultural systems are similar in that they all provide a symbolic reality structure for their people, providing a sense of meaning that elevates them above mere animal existence.
The Problem of Creatureliness
“All systematizations of culture have in the end the same goal: to raise men above nature, to assure them that in some ways their lives count in the universe more than merely physical things count.” Ernest Becker
By clinging to sources of self-esteem or one’s cultural, political, social, or religious worldview, human beings can begin to escape their existential burden.
However, one consequence of seeking a higher, more meaningful existence is that any reminder of our corporeal condition is threatening. The body is a particular problem for humans because it serves as a reminder of our animal limitations.
Consequently, our bodies are subject to the rules and dictates espoused by our cultural worldview that serve to elevate them from their flesh and bones reality to a higher plane, as objects of beauty or dignity.
Although cultures differ in prescriptions for what is proper and what is attractive, all cultures have such standards.
The body is transformed from something creaturely and material into something symbolic and ethereal.
For example, whereas in Western culture excretory behavior is made proper by keeping it private, the men of the Chagga tribe in Tanzania wear an anal plug to pretend not to defecate. Menstruation is kept sanitary in our culture with an ever increasing number of consumer products, whereas some other cultures confine menstruating women to ceremonial menstrual huts.
Men and women of Central Africa view facial scars as attractive, and they intentionally cut deep wounds in their face to attain such standards, whereas in Western culture we use a great deal of time, money, and beauty products to hide any lines or blemishes that may appear on our skin.
In these and many other ways, the body is transformed from something creaturely and material into something symbolic and ethereal. Human sexuality, in particular, is transformed from animal to symbolic by embedding it in a system of meaning (e.g., love and marriage) and value or self-esteem (e.g., being desired and being a stud).
Disgust and distancing from animals
While our sense of disgust probably began as a defense against eating dangerous food products, many psychologists have proposed that it has become more a reaction to things that remind us of our creatureliness, like bodily excretions, dead bodies, “inappropriate” sex, poor hygiene and many more.
In addition, the human body and its functions are so controlled by the dictates of culture that the body often becomes a source of distress, shame, and embarrassment when people fail to sustain such control.
In contemporary Western culture, women’s bodies are expected to be beautiful, and men’s bodies are expected to be strong and muscular.
Ironically, these attempts to control the body may ultimately undermine a person’s health and actually hasten his or her demise. In contemporary Western culture, women’s bodies are expected to be beautiful, and men’s bodies are expected to be strong and muscular. Consequently, most Americans are dissatisfied with their bodies and often go to extensive lengths to perfect themselves, such as strenuous exercise, steroid abuse and plastic surgery. Further, people who are particularly dissatisfied with their bodies often suffer from low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety.
This is not unique to modern Western society. Other cultures have gone (and still go) to extreme lengths to attain their cultural standards for the body. Chinese women used to cripple themselves in an attempt to reduce their foot to one-third its size. Even today, some men and women of northeastern Uganda cut a hole the size of a nickel through their lower lip, and women among the Karen of upper Burma jewel their necks with metal rings that can stretch the neck so long that if they were to remove the rings they would die because they haven’t the muscle strength to support their head. The Ibans of Malaysia drill holes in their front teeth and fill them with brass.
Sex may be particularly important to control in part because it so clearly suggests our underlying animal nature. Accordingly, there are countless examples of cross-cultural and historical manifestations of sexual regulation: Women in many African countries and some parts of Asia undergo a procedure in which the clitoris is removed and the vagina is stitched up to assure chastity prior to marriage. And in the Middle Ages of European culture, women were required to wear metal chastity belts to achieve the same end.
And although one might be tempted to view contemporary Western culture’s more permissive attitudes about sex as a sign that we are no longer “hung up,” sex is still highly regulated and anxiety provoking.
Is Distancing From Other Animals a Universal Feature of Human Culture?
While some cultures go to extremes to distinguish themselves from animals, others seem more “at one with nature.” But even when cultures do embrace nature, they also tend to imbue it with supernatural significance, because this symbolic meaning strips nature of its more threatening mortality-related qualities.
Such worldviews eliminate the need to distance from other animals. For example, if other animals have souls that transcend their mortal coils, we humans seem happier to count ourselves among them.
Although there are countless variations in worldviews and sources of self-esteem across cultures, we suggest that distinguishing ourselves from animals may be an important component of the way in which most, if not all, worldviews protect humans from anxiety associated with the awareness of death.
For the complete text, including details of how the study was conducted, go here.