It’s been called the signature cry of all humanity: “I am not an animal.”
For thousands of years, we humans have sought to separate ourselves from the rest of nature, to see ourselves as superior and “exceptional.” We don’t even like to be reminded of the fact that we are animals. They are animals, we are humans.
When other people’s behavior offends us, we say they’re behaving “like animals” – regardless of whether any nonhuman animal would ever even behave that way.
So, what is it about being an animal that we so very much don’t want to be? What frightens us about the fact that we’re animals? How does this affect the way we treat other animals? And how could the answers help us get a grip on why we humans are on a path to disaster and self-destruction – and taking a lot of other lives on this planet with us?
The denial of death
In 1973, anthropologist Ernest Becker published his Pulitzer-winning book The Denial of Death. Pulling together a lot of the work of philosophers and psychologists through the ages, Becker argued that human civilization and culture are basically a defense mechanism against the knowledge of what is the fundamental, key aspect of our animal nature: our mortality. What makes us the same as all other animals is that we’re going to die. What makes us different is that we’re constantly aware of it.
What makes us the same as all other animals is that we’re going to die. What makes us different from other animals is that we’re constantly aware of it. Our level of self-awareness has advanced to the point where we can reflect on our own past and future – and specifically on the inevitability of our own personal, future death. (As far as we know, no other animals share this degree of self-awareness, but we can’t know for sure.)
Other animals mourn their dead. And other animals fear death, but largely in the moment, like when a predator or catastrophe is staring them in the face. No other animals spend their lives trying to deal with their upcoming death.
We humans, Becker said, are the only animals who live our lives in the terrifying knowledge that we are doomed to die. And we spend our lives doing everything possible to deny this irrevocable fact:
- Creating belief systems to support the notion that we will live on, one way or another, after we die;
- Inventing new technologies that can extend our lives – maybe even bring ourselves back from death by uploading our brains to computers;
- Building legacies and joining groups through which our name will endure;
- Producing works of art and culture that can represent who and what we are once we’re gone;
- And creating for ourselves a symbolic or “spiritual” identity that transcends our animal nature – a self that is immortal and indestructible beyond the purely animal.
Most of us humans like to believe that we will live on or live again when we’re dead – that some other form of life awaits us. But we feel the need defend this belief at all costs, insisting that the “immortality projects” of other cultures, religions and individuals are wrong, maybe even “evil”, and that only ours will prevail.
Most of all, we fight the fear of our own animal nature by raising ourselves, at least in our own imagination, above the other animals, talking of “human exceptionalism” and treating other animals as though they exist largely for our own benefit.
In their renowned paper I Am Not an Animal: Mortality Salience, Disgust and the Denial of Human Creatureliness, a group of psychologists argued that “… being an animal is threatening because it reminds people of their vulnerability to death.”
In our culture we exercise our bodies to more closely approximate an idealized physique; 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.
However, whether or not we use forks and knives to eat, squelch our inclinations to belch, or otherwise tightly control our bodily activities, humankind is widely recognized to have evolved from the same genetic stock as all other primates and to be closely related to all living things. Why, then, do we engage in so many activities that seem to minimize our connections with other animals?
. . . [Our] cultures promote norms that help people to distinguish themselves from animals, because this distinction serves the very important psychological function of providing protection from deeply rooted concerns about mortality.
Studies such as this one are part of a growing field of psychology known as Terror Management Theory (TMT). It’s a theory that explores how and why we humans spend our lives trying to manage the terror of our own mortality, our own creatureliness, our own animal nature.
A new relationship with our fellow animals
Here at Earth in Transition, we’ll be coming back frequently to the topic of terror management. That’s because it explains so much about our relationship to other animals. And unless we keep it in mind, we and others in the animal protection movement are fighting an endlessly frustrating, uphill battle against what is so basic to the nature of our own species – and so basic to ourselves. The way through begins with the simple acknowledgement that we humans are animals, like all the other animals.
So when, on this website, we look at the way we treat our fellow animals, we’ll often be exploring it through the lens of the human denial of death. When we look at major issues like climate change, we’ll see how those who deny that it’s happening are such a classic example of the kind of fear that leads to this absurd level of denial. When we look at factory farming, we’ll see how and why it is that we treat other animals in ways that reduce their lives to “beef, pork and Big Macs.” And we’ll see how and why people who support medical experimentation on animals tie themselves in knots trying to explain how, from mice to chimpanzees, the animals they exploit are so much like us that we can learn by experimenting on them, while at the same time arguing that these animals are so much notlike us that it’s ethically OK to treat them this way.
One of the areas where the animal protection movement has made a good deal of progress is with homeless pets. But we’ll see that this is largely because people have made “pets” part of what psychologists call our “in-group”. And many people with pets go to great lengths to reinforce this, like breeding them in ways that diminish their true nature and then treating them as if they were baby humans. The age-old Golden Rule tells us it’s in our best interest to treat other living beings as we ourselves would want to be treated.
The end result is an entirely dysfunctional relationship to our fellow creatures and to the world of nature.
There’s no simple way out of the trap that we humans have created for ourselves. But there is a way through. It begins with the simple acknowledgement that we humans are animals, like all the other animals. And while we have our own special abilities, other animals have abilities that we lack, and no species is fundamentally superior to any other.
With that understanding in place, we’re able to see that our wellbeing and even our survival are tied to establishing a new and more meaningful relationship with our fellow animals and the Earth.
What will be at the core of that relationship? The bottom line is very simple: it’s nothing more or less than the age-old Golden Rule that tells us that it’s in our best interest to treat other living beings as we ourselves would want to be treated.
From that simple understanding, everything else follows.