“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.
Starting around 9,000 years ago, the agricultural era brought about the large-scale domestication of animals and a fundamental shift in our relationship to them.
Less and less beings of great mystery and power, they were becoming, instead, commodities.While serving as food and transport, domesticated animals were still viewed symbolically as the gods and goddesses of the new agricultural societies and their religions. But these animal deities were less embodiments of sacred animal power, and more representations of the growing power of humans over nature.Egyptian divinities were now increasingly under the control of humans, with the Pharaoh as the incarnation of the supreme sun god. And nonhuman animals were being held in captivity for all manner of religious and secular purposes.
For example, a young bull representing Osiris, the god of death and rebirth, was kept in captivity his entire life before being sacrificially killed and replaced by another young bull. While considered a symbol of great power, the bull god spent his life languishing in captivity, awaiting execution and replacement – a symbol of humankind’s growing power over nature and the cycles of life and death.
By the time the Hebrew Bible was being compiled, its creation story had been rewritten into a form in which humans are given “dominion” over the other animals and are commanded to “subdue” the whole Earth.
Humans as souls; other animals as spare parts.
Much of the modern Western world’s relationship to nonhuman animals was forged in Ancient Greece, where, for example, Aristotle argued that “the divine intellect, of which each man has a potential share and which distinguishes man from other animals, is immortal and transcendent.”
For the Christian world that built on Greek and Jewish thought, there was no place in heaven for nonhumans. Augustine argued that in heaven “there will be no animal body to weigh down the soul in its process of corruption.”
But the notion that only humans had a soul reached its apotheosis in the work of 17th-Century Catholic philosopher René Descartes, who asserted that since “animals” have no self-awareness and don’t “think”, they are therefore not really even alive, but are simply biological machines that don’t have to be treated as living beings at all.
In his Introduction to Animal Rights, Gary Francione explains:
Descartes and his followers performed experiments in which they nailed animals by their paws onto boards and cut them open to reveal their beating hearts. They burned, scalded and mutilated animals in every conceivable manner. When the animals reacted as though they were suffering pain, Descartes dismissed the reaction as no different from the sound of a machine that was functioning improperly.
A crying dog, Descartes maintained, is no different from a whining gear that needs oil.
Descartes’ work represents the culmination of the psychological separation of humans from the mortal, corporeal world of other animals. And even though most of us would acknowledge today that nonhuman animals can suffer, we see it as a lesser kind of suffering. So, while it would be viewed as criminal and sociologically insane to keep a human in a body-sized crate where she can’t even turn around or lie down, it’s entirely legal and routine to do this to a pig.
The Animal Protection Movement
The Animal Welfare Act, for example, regulates the treatment of animals in research, exhibition, transport and other commercial arenas. But these welfare laws fail to acknowledge the inherent value of the animals themselves. And entire species, including mice, rats and all birds, are even excluded from the provisions of the Animal Welfare Act by the convenient workaround of not classifying them as “animals” at all.
In other words, we offer protection to nonhuman animals only to the extent that these protections do not impinge on the needs and wants of our own species.
Not a single nonhuman animal has any legal rights at all.Similarly, state legislatures pass laws that address certain forms of cruelty and neglect. But such laws always prioritize the welfare of powerful business interests. (Consider, for example, the recent “ag-gag” laws being passed in several states to make it illegal for animal welfare groups to capture video of the atrocities that are routinely committed at factory farms.)
And while many animal welfare organizations talk of promoting animal rights, the very term “animal rights” is an oxymoron since not a single nonhuman animal has any legal rights at all. Steven Wise of the Nonhuman Rights Project explains:
In Western law, every nonhuman animal has always been regarded as a legal “thing”. We can buy, sell, eat, hunt, ride, trap, vivisect, and kill them almost at whim. The reason is that legal things don’t exist in law for their own sakes. They exist for the sakes of legal “persons”, which we humans are.
“Things” are invisible to civil judges. They possess no legal rights and no hope of having them. A court confronted with a plaintiff’s claim to possess any legal right need only determine the plaintiff’s species. If the plaintiff is human, the answer is “It is possible. She is a legal person.” If the plaintiff is a nonhuman animal, the answer is “Impossible. He is a legal thing.”
So, while science has demonstrated unequivocally that certain nonhuman animals share a number of morally-relevant qualities with humans, such as complex cognition, self-awareness and autonomy, they remain nothing more than pieces of property that have no capacity for even the most basic right to live their lives as nature has intended for them. What says “We’re superior” better than having tigers jumping through hoops?
None of this, however, has done anything to allay our anxiety over the fact that we, like they, are animals ourselves, subject to the same laws of nature and the same cycles of life and death. So we keep having to shore up our attempts to distance ourselves from them. To disguise who they really are, we buy meat in shrink-wrapped packages labeled as pork and beef, rather than pigs and cows, and describe animals in research as biomedical “models” or “systems”.
Most blatantly in our attempt to see ourselves as masters of the Earth, we capture great iconic animals like elephants and orcas and lions and tigers, and force them to perform for our entertainment. (What says “We’re superior” better than having tigers jumping through hoops or a killer whale leaping out of a pool with a pretty young lady on his rostrum?)
The endless ways we use other animals as spare parts, commodities and property are so embedded in most cultures that they are barely ever even questioned.
In today’s world, human exceptionalism – the idea that we humans are fundamentally different from and superior to all other animals – is critical to a culture and way of living that’s consumed with protecting itself from the reality of its mortal animal nature.