A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

The Tree of Knowledge

(. . . 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.

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

In the story of the Garden of Eden, our early ancestors find themselves confronted by a choice.

They’re already developing an increasingly complex self-awareness that gives them the ability to think in terms of contemplating the past and imagining far into the future. And this means they’re also acquiring an existential understanding of their personal mortality.

As this awareness grows, they find themselves hearing two “voices”: one calling them back to a state of innocence; the other beckoning them forward to a future where they might become “as gods” in their own right, taking dominion over the world, and freeing themselves from their animality and even their mortality.

Both voices are true to the extent that if they could somehow go back, our ancestors would once again find themselves in a world of innocence; and if they follow the other voice, they will keep going forward into a new world where they can indeed become “as gods” – sort of.

But both voices are also a lie in that:
a) there is no going back; and
b) there’s no escape from our mortal animal nature, however godlike we might be able to make ourselves.

The choice, then, is a false one, and the self-awareness and apparent autonomy our species comes to possess as civilization develops is inevitably both a blessing and a curse. Over the centuries, the more we eat of the fruit of that forbidden tree, the deeper is our “fall” into linear time, where we are always making “progress” toward a promised utopia. And in place of the paradise of childlike innocence comes the duality of a god-like ability to reach for the stars along with the painful, ungod-like shameful and unshakeable awareness of our animal nature as naked, sexual, physical beings who are doomed to die.

Many of the creation stories that tell of this “fall” recount how, within just a few brief generations, things have gone so wrong that humankind has to be wiped out. Flood narratives tell of how one family gets to ride out the destruction and start over in an attempt to build a more peaceful world. But that, of course, is not how things turn out.

(And in a chilling coda to the story of Noah’s Flood (Genesis 9), the author tells us that in this new world humankind will, for the first time, be killing and eating other animals.)

It’s a story of amazing insight into the human condition and how we got into the mess that today is leading irrevocably to mass extinction. In a chilling coda to the flood story, we learn that humans will now begin killing and eating other animals.

The Hebrew creation story is by no means the only one that tells of a time when we humans once lived in harmony with the rest of nature, and of a “fall” through which this benign relationship with the other animals was torn asunder by something we did to bring suffering and death into the world.

Many of these mythic tales even tell us that before the “fall” there was no death. And since there’s no evidence of this as literal truth, it makes sense to interpret this as referring to a time when our ancestors were not preoccupied with death and not suffering from death anxiety. Like the other animals, they lived in a kind of “eternal present” where fear of death was limited to immediate threats rather than an ongoing existential angst.

In Memories and Visions of Paradise, Richard Heinberg sums up the story of a “golden age” that ends with the loss of innocence and a disconnection from the animals and nature:

From earliest times, humans have believed that there is a quality in themselves that sets them apart from the animals – a quality that manifests itself as a sense of alienation and insufficiency and as an abnormal capacity for destructiveness and cruelty.

Ancient peoples insisted that evil in this … sense has not always existed, and that it had a specific cause. … [It] is described as having resulted from the Fall, the tragic end that brought the Golden Age to an end.

Many African myths describe a time when people lived forever, understood the language of animals, and lived at peace with them. According to the Mayan Popol Vuh, the creators of the first humans were afraid that their creation would become “as gods”. The Cheyenne people tell of when we humans were naked and innocent before receiving a gift of knowledge that turned out to lead to war, famine and other disasters. These creation myths all tell of the end of innocence and of a growing existential terror of death.

In an Ancient Greek version of the story, Prometheus steals heavenly fire for humanity, thus launching civilization. Fire is often used as a metaphor for expanded consciousness, and in Prometheus Unbound, he recognizes that this gift has turned out to be a curse that afflicts humans with the knowledge of their mortality and consequent lifelong anxiety. Prometheus tells the chorus that in an effort to make up for his mistake, he’s now given us humans the ability to live our lives in denial:

Prometheus: I prevented mortals from foreseeing their death.
Chorus: By finding what remedy for this malady?
Prometheus: I caused blind hopes to dwell within them.
Chorus: In this you gave a mighty benefit to mortals!

(A mighty benefit in some ways, perhaps. But Prometheus was apparently suffering from a few blind hopes himself if he thought that living our lives in denial could lead to a happy ending!)
As well as understanding this fall, our ancestors also looked to a future redemption at the end of time – a return to that peaceable kingdom where, as the prophet Isaiah put it:

The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. (Isaiah, 11:6)

But those early prophets could not have imagined that instead of lying down with the lion and the leopard, we would instead have hunted all these great iconic species to extinction and brought on a catastrophe that would take thousands, maybe millions, of years for the Earth to have even a chance of recovering.

We present-day humans like to think we know so much more than those who came before us, but thousands of years ago, all over the world, our forebears were telling their children how we had come to lose sight of our true connection with the other animals. They understood what was driving those twin voices in our heads: one calling them back to something akin to a lost innocence; the other driving them forward with the promise of immortality in a utopian future.

One of them offers a parody of supposedly “spiritual” values, while the other promises a bright new utopian future through soulless humanism.A much distorted version of those voices still drives our human world today. But we’re no longer even able to recognize them as projections of our mortality anxiety and our need to tell ourselves that “I am not an animal.”

And so it is that at every level of society, we always find ourselves being presented with a duality of competing ideologies: a “conservative”one calling us back to a “better” and more “spiritual” past; and a “liberal” one promising ever more “progress” in pursuit of an ideal future.

But the two voices – the competing ideologies – are just distorted echoes and images of a long-forgotten knowledge. Instead of pointing us toward a new relationship with our fellow animals that might give us a way to relate positively to our own animal nature, they can only play our fears back to us. Seemingly opposites, they agree on the one fundamental lie: “I am not an animal.” So, neither of them can free us from the anxiety we feel over our mortal, animal nature.

And so it is that we live in a world of continual conflict, externally in our endless wars, and in the inner torment of our own minds.

Is there any way out? Any way to rediscover who we really are and find a meaningful place with all the other living beings with whom we share the planet?

Next: The Birth of Human Exceptionalism