A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

The Birth of Human Exceptionalism

(. . . and join us at the
“I Am Not an Animal!”
symposium in Atlanta,
February 24-25, 2017.
Register here.)

“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
One: What’s driving us to treat our fellow animals as commodities – even as we drive them to extinction. And why the animal protection movement can never succeed.

What Happened at the Tree of Knowledge
Two: How the birth of civilization changed our relationship to the other animals.

The Birth of Human Exceptionalism
Three: How and when we humans decided we didn’t want to think of ourselves as animals.

Taking Dominion and Subduing the Earth
Four: Nothing says “We’re superior” better than having tigers jumping through hoops.

The Psychology of “I Am Not an Animal”
Five: When we’re reminded of our mortality, we react by having a more negative view of other kinds of animals.

The Post-Human Future
Six: Finally, we ask: Where do we go from here, and is there any way out of our situation.

Video: “I Am Not an Animal” – the signature cry of our species.
Michael Mountain on why we humans need to pretend to ourselves that we’re not animals.

(Third in a series about how and why our relationship to our fellow animals has deteriorated to the point of an unfolding mass extinction.) 

How and when did we humans decide we didn’t want to think of ourselves as animals any longer? How did we go from thinking of the other animals as essentially our equals to treating them as commodities that exist to be mined from the oceans by huge factory ships and manufactured from birth to death on factory farms?

It didn’t happen all at once, but we can get an idea of how it took place over thousands of years in various parts of the world.

Early cave art, dating as far back as 30,000 years ago in Europe, suggests that our ancestors saw other animals essentially as equals. Even as they were developing hunting skills with increasingly sophisticated weaponry, their depictions reflect a level of respect for every animal, not just as a food source but as an individual in his or her own right, with whom one was intimately connected through the cycle of nature.

We humans were now becoming preoccupied with rising above death and subduing the animal powers of life and death.

The empathy that enabled people to think like their prey – for example by wearing their skins and imagining what it might be like to be one of them – must have made them more aware that in feeding themselves they were also ending the life of another.

(Animistic traditions that survive in some cultures today, the physical animal is seen as a representation of the great and immortal spirit of, for example, Buffalo, Stag or Bull, which engenders a level of respect that’s rarely seen in modern civilization.)

By 11,000 years ago, however, the relationship between humans and other animals was changing dramatically, with humans assuming a belief in their superiority over other species. A good indication of what had happened comes from recent archeological finds in Turkey at the ruins at Gobekli Tepe, which is now seen by many as the world’s oldest-known temple.


Until serious archeology began there in the 1990s, Gobekli Tepe was thought to have been a medieval cemetery. Conventional wisdom held that projects on this scale could not possibly have begun until the agricultural era was well established and civilization had taken root. The pyramids of Egypt, for example, weren’t built until thousands of years later, when agriculture had made it possible for thousands of people to dedicate their time to massive construction projects.

But Gobekli Tepe was built in the time of hunting and gathering, several millennia before the agricultural era – as far back in time from the Pyramids and Stonehenge, in fact, as those monuments are from today. (And there must be even early sites like this one since its architecture and stonework make it quite clear that Gobekli Tepe could not the earliest temple complex of its kind.)

Gobekli_Tepe_4_thumb.jpgNor was this 22-acre Stone Age site a living space. There are no signs of homes, cooking hearths or trash pits. No fertility figurines like you find at nearby contemporary sites. Instead, T-shaped pillars 16 feet tall, clearly representing humans, are contrasted with depictions of other animals, whose much smaller size and low positioning on the pillars suggest a relationship that is no longer one of equality.

Human skulls that are lying around appear to have been first buried and then dug up for some purpose. And there are wall carvings of men with no heads.

We can’t know precisely what was going on in the minds of people who lived twice as long ago as the Ancient Egyptians, but all of this suggests a deep and growing preoccupation with death.

Chief archeologist Klaus Schmidt says the evidence points to the likelihood that this huge building project was the center of a major death cult.

Clearly, something had changed from a time when we humans were continually striving for a closer relationship to our fellow animals, to one where we were trying to see ourselves as superior beings who could subdue the animal powers of life and death that ruled our lives.

Within a few thousand years, we would have launched the agricultural era. And with the domestication of animals came a new relationship to them.

Next: Taking Dominion and Subduing the Earth.