“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.
Part Six in the series “I Am Not an Animal.”
In previous posts, we looked at how our anxiety over our mortal, animal nature drives us to distance ourselves, psychologically and literally, from our fellow animals; at how ancient mythologies told of a “fall” from a time when we were in harmony with the other animals; and at how our belief in “human exceptionalism” has led us to treat them.
Where, then, do we go from here, and is there any way out of our situation?
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Whenever I’m interviewed about how our denial of death and our animal nature affects our relationship to our fellow animals, I’m invariably asked for “an optimistic note to end on.”
That’s like asking what we can all do to bring an end to war and poverty. Indeed, at the end of his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1973 book The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker concluded that it’s impossible to escape the terror that’s inspired by the knowledge that we are mortal animals. His grim conclusion:
There is no way to overcome creaturely anxiety unless one is a god and not a creature …
Men are doomed to live in an overwhelmingly tragic and demonic world … Creation is a nightmare spectacular taking place on a planet that has been soaked for hundreds of millions of years in the blood of all its creatures …
Whatever man does on this planet has to be done in the lived truth of the terror of creation, of the grotesque, of the rumble of panic underneath everything. Otherwise it is false.
Not exactly an optimistic note to end on!
But while nature may be “a nightmare spectacular,” violence among our fellow animals is limited to very specific survival needs. It is we humans who are really “soaking the planet in blood.” We like to tell ourselves that people who commit murder and mayhem are “behaving like animals,” but that’s not how the other animals behave. (While, for example, we humans kill approximately 100 million sharks a year, sharks kill maybe five humans, and mostly by accident.) The more we try to distance ourselves from the other animals, the more unnatural, irrational and destructive our behavior becomes.
The truth is that the more we try to distance ourselves from the other animals and place ourselves above the natural world, the more unnatural, irrational and destructive our behavior becomes. We are not outside of nature, and never can be.
But is there a way for us humans to come to terms with our mortal, creaturely nature? John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, wrote that when he understood our place in nature, death was no longer something to be feared. Henry David Thoreau said he had come to appreciate that in death we are reunited with the earth, which is itself the wellspring of life. And Albert Einstein took up the same theme when he wrote:
A human being is part of the whole, called by us the Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, 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 affection for a few persons nearest to us.
Our task must be to free ourselves from his prison by widening our circle of compassion – to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is, in itself, a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.
Consciously and deliberately fostering a relationship where we acknowledge a basic equality with our fellow animals would not only begin to address the serious destruction we’re wreaking on the natural world; it might even help to alleviate the mortality anxiety that’s plagued us humans for thousands of years.
But that’s a tall order. It goes against our very nature, and you’d have to be living in Fantasyland to believe that within the next few decades nine billion of us are going to change who and what we are.
We are, in the final analysis, a tragically flawed species: large-brained, curious, precocious apes who have mastered language and technology and can make plans years into the future; yet who are plagued with anxiety over that future, consumed by the knowledge that whatever else we may be able to plan, we’re going to end up just the same as all the other animals: dust to dust and ashes to ashes.
Thousands of years ago, in Ancient Athens, everyone – young and old, free and slave, rich and poor alike – would gather at the great amphitheater for the annual drama festival to see the latest plays of poets like Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus. These dramas re-told the mythological stories of kings and queens, heroes and villains, as they struggled to deal with the passions, the loves and the hatreds that were part of human nature, and who were laid low by fate or the gods or what the Greeks called hubris, the kind of arrogant, overweening confidence that inevitably leads to a fall.
Today, our belief in human exceptionalism – the idea that we are fundamentally better than and superior to the other animals – is our ultimate hubris. And so it is that we find ourselves in the final act of the human tragedy that has been unfolding since we first began trying to shape nature to our will.
Human exceptionalism, the idea that we are fundamentally better than and superior to the other animals, is our ultimate hubris.Clinging to the idea that we can transcend who and what we are and progress toward some utopian future on Earth, in space or in heaven has driven us to tear apart the very fabric of life on this planet. Far from progressing, as we like to tell ourselves, toward that “post-human utopia”, we have, instead, brought on a mass extinction of life that will, in all likelihood, also consume our own species.
The very idea that we can come up with a solution to the problems we’ve created for the other animals is just more of the same hubris. As long as we’re in denial about our own nature, we can never be the solution to anything; we can only go on being the problem.
Typically, in the last act of a Greek tragedy, the characters come to understand their tragic flaw, how it has brought about their undoing, and perhaps what they can do in some gesture toward those who have been so deeply harmed by their actions.
In the coming decades, we will all be coming face-to-face with the catastrophe we have brought about. Rather than looking for “an optimistic note to end on,” the only question for each of us will be how, in the final scene of our human drama, we choose to relate to those who have been the greatest victims of our need to tell ourselves that “I am not an animal.”
See also our 18-minute video “I Am Not an Animal”, which explores how our denial of our own nature leads not only to a destructive relationship to our fellow animals, but also to endless war with each other.