“I Am Not an Animal”
It’s the signature cry of all humanity. For thousands of years, we humans have sought to see ourselves as superior to all the other animals.
How did this come to be, and how has it led to the unfolding of a Sixth Mass Extinction?
“I Am Not an Animal!” the Signature Cry of Our Species
What Happened at the Tree of Knowledge
The Birth of Human Exceptionalism
Taking Dominion and Subduing the Earth
The Psychology of “I Am Not an Animal”
The Post-Human Future
Video: “I Am Not an Animal” – the signature cry of our species.
The psychology behind the deteriorating relationship between us humans and our fellow animals, and how this has led to an unfolding mass extinction.
Most of us like to think of ourselves as wanting to be kind and generous toward other kinds of animals. Over the last 25 years, for example, we’ve all worked to bring down the number of homeless pets being killed in shelters in the United States from more than 17 million a year to around 3 million.
But when it comes to how we actually treat most of our fellow animals, dogs and cats aren’t the rule; they’re the exception to the rule
In every other sphere of animal protection, the situation is getting worse, not better.In every other sphere of animal protection – from factory farming to vivisection to wildlife to entertainment – the situation is getting worse, not better. And the thousands of animal protection organizations, large and small, professional and grassroots, are barely making a dent in the situation.
And for every dent they do make, like getting some of the factory farms to provide a few extra inches of space in cages where the animals spend their entire lives, the destruction and abuse just balloons out in another direction. From 1950 to 2013, the number of animals slaughtered in factory farms in the United States alone ballooned from 100 million to more than nine billion. And, like a nuclear plant in meltdown, those same factory farms generate chemical poisons and waste that contaminate land and water for hundreds of miles around.
Meanwhile, almost half the birds that once flew across North America have vanished. Most of the great iconic species in Africa – elephants, lions, rhinos, giraffes, many more – will all be gone in about 25 years. And there are almost no fish left in the oceans, so a whole new fish farm industry has grown up.We’ve created a way of living that’s destroying our home and bringing on a mass extinction that will most likely consume us, too.
The “what you can do to help” messages that worked so well in saving homeless pets, like getting people to spay/neuter their pets and adopt them from shelters, don’t have parallels in the wider world of animal protection. Sure, you can carpool, ride a bike, go vegan, join a march, use less water, whatever. But even the device I’m writing this post on is adding to the problem, powered by lithium that involves more destruction to the homes of the animals we think we’re helping to protect.
And even while the situation is better for homeless pets, that doesn’t mean it’s better overall for dogs and cats. Most of them still come from puppy mills that churn out “pure” breeds so genetically deformed that their lives are a painful misery. These designer dogs still make up most of the pets in this country.
So how come we’ve created a way of living that’s destroying the only home we have and bringing on a mass extinction that may well consume us, too? And all in the name of “progress.” Why can’t we stop?
The reason lies at the core of the human condition, and is probably best summed up by the French author Albert Camus, who wrote:
“Humans are the only creatures who don’t want to be what they are.”
And what we absolutely don’t want to be is an animal.
Our central problem, as humans, is that as much as we reach for the stars and create profoundly beautiful works of art, we cannot escape the knowledge that, just like all the other animals, we are destined to die, go into the ground, and become food for worms.
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Denial of Death, social anthropologist Ernest Becker wrote that the awareness we humans have of our personal mortality creates a level of anxiety that drives much of our behavior. Certainly other animals experience bursts of terror in the face of death, but for us humans it’s a lifelong awareness, and one that brings about a chronic level of anxiety that we spend our whole lives – and build whole civilizations and cultures – trying to cope with.
And so it is that, to alleviate the anxiety we feel over our animal nature, we try to separate ourselves from our fellow animals and to exert control over the natural world. We tell ourselves we’re superior to them and that they exist for our benefit. We treat them as commodities and resources, use them as biomedical “models” or “systems” in research, and force them to perform for our entertainment in circuses and theme parks.
To the extent that companion animals fare better, this is largely because we’ve come to treat them less as animals and more as family – part of our human “in-group” to whom we can relate a bit like children.
We even enshrine the abuse of animals in our most sacred belief systems. The Catholic Catechism, for example, states that “Animals, like plants and inanimate beings, are by nature destined for the common good of past, present, and future humanity.”
These belief systems also offer us hope in some form of immortality that’s not accorded the other animals. They’re just one of the ways we have of distancing ourselves from the rest of nature, and they’ve become so embedded in our cultures that they’re typically not even questioned, much less stopped.
But, as in all forms of denial, we cannot escape what we are. And the more we try to bend nature to our will, the more we end up harming the planet and all its living creatures, quite possibly now beyond repair.
The more we try to bend nature to our will, the more we end up harming the planet and all its living creatures.Becker’s theory about the denial of death has given rise to a field of psychology known as Terror Management Theory (TMT), which explores how we humans try to manage our terror of death. TMT has produced some fascinating studies demonstrating that when people are reminded of their mortality, even unconsciously, they have more negative attitudes toward animals.
Denial of death comes in many flavors. In his book Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization, Stephen Cave explores the ways we humans attempt to deny our mortality. These include:
• life extension through medical and scientific developments
• bodily resurrection, either as promised by many religions or through technology like cryonics
• survival of a non-physical “soul” (or, more recently, uploading your brain to a computer)
• building a legacy, like fame or fortune or works of art, through which your name will live on.
Whether or not any of these approaches or belief systems may actually work, none of them has successfully relieved our existential anxiety. Underlying them all is our fundamental need to demonstrate to ourselves that we’re not animals.
Human exceptionalism – the notion that we are superior to the other animals – drives our need to control the other animals and treat them as though they exist primarily for our benefit.
But telling ourselves that we’re not animals does not make it so. And the more we try to “subdue” the Earth, take “dominion” over the other animals, and bend nature to our superior will, the worse the situation becomes. Ultimately, in denying our own nature as animals ourselves, we’ve ended up causing destruction to the planet and all its living creatures, possibly beyond repair.
What to Do
There’s no simple answer to turning the situation around, any more than there’s a simple answer to how to bring an end to war or poverty or any other evil of the human condition.
But, as any psychologist can tell you, the first step toward stopping compulsive, destructive behavior is to understand what’s causing it. At least then we have the ability to see ourselves more clearly.
And for those of us working to relieve the suffering of the billions of animals caught up in this nightmare, an awareness of the psychological issues behind human behavior can at least give us some perspective on why this work can be so frustrating.
Albert Einstein wrote:
A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.
This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us.
Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.
Any of us can begin to do this, individually or together. And when we reach out to make our peace with our fellow animals, not only does this make an immediate difference for them; it also helps us to feel connected once again to nature, and so to our own true nature.
That’s because when we feel connected to nature, we’re connected to life. And that in itself provides relief from our debilitating anxiety about death.
Next in this series: The Tree of the Knowledge of Our Mortality. How some of the world’s great mythologies and creation stories have described the birth of mortality salience and our “fall” from innocence.