Why We Tell Ourselves We’re Not Really Animals – Video
“I Am Not an Animal!”
February 24 – 25, 2017
Second in a series of short videos about the upcoming “I Am NOT an Animal” symposium.
In most ways, we humans aren’t very different from other kinds of animals. Some of our faculties are more developed; others less so.
But there’s one faculty that appears to be unique to us: our ability to reflect on the future – not just the near future, but to imagine ourselves 10, 20, 50 years ahead.
In some ways that’s been quite a blessing. But in another way, it’s a real curse. That’s because when we reflect on our future, the one thing we can’t help seeing is our mortality – our ever-approaching, inevitable death.
All animals, of course, have a fear of death. That’s a basic survival instinct. A deer or a rabbit will have moments of terror when they’re being chased by a predator. But death isn’t something that haunts their lives. For us humans, it’s different. We have a constant sense of anxiety over our mortality – even when we’re not actively thinking about it.
And how we deal with this dread, this terror, was the subject of a Pulitzer Prize-winning book in the 1970s by social psychologist Ernest Becker.
The Denial of Death
Becker’s book, The Denial of Death, explores the fact that we humans have a fundamentally conflicted nature. On the one hand, we reach for the stars, and it seems there’s no limit to what we can achieve. But we cannot escape the fact that, just like all the other animals, each of us is going to end up dust-to-dust and ashes-to-ashes.
Our solution to this is to deny our mortality and to tell ourselves that we’re not really animals at all.
Becker writes that this lifelong awareness of our mortality creates a level of anxiety that drives much of our behavior, not only as individuals, but as groups, nations and as a whole species.
“This is the paradox: we humans reach for the stars; yet we go back in the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever.”And since our fellow animals are a constant reminder of our own “creatureliness”, one of the chief ways we suppress our death anxiety is by denying the fact that we’re animals at all.
So we tell ourselves that we’re not really animals; we’re special beings of a higher order.
In Ancient Greece, for example, Aristotle proclaimed that “The divine intellect … which distinguishes man from the animals, is immortal and transcendent.”
The Great Chain of Being
Aristotle developed what became known as the Great Chain of Being, a scale that places humans in a category that’s separate from and superior to the “animals.”
This idea was picked up by Christianity a few centuries later, and St. Augustine captured the whole notion when he wrote that “In heaven there will be no animal body to weigh down the soul in its process of corruption.”
In the centuries that followed, the Great Chain of Being was adopted by medieval science with all sorts of fancy diagrams and charts and scales and ladders.
Even today it’s still accepted by most people, even by many scientists, even though it goes against all the evidence of how we humans fit into the picture of life on Earth.
It’s become part of our language – like how we refer to other animals as “it” rather than him or her.
And this, of course, is really bad news for our fellow animals. Becker writes that as soon as we humans had developed the kind of skills and technology to subjugate the other animals, we began to exercise our power over them as a way of proving to ourselves that we were fundamentally superior.
This aggression toward our fellow animals is so routine, so matter-of-fact, so easily accepted that we barely notice it. Check out the short clip in the video above where Gov. Chris Christie welcomes a group of elementary school kids to his office. Watch what he does, and how he tells the kids that “Another fun part of being governor is you’re allowed to kill any bugs on your desk without getting into trouble.”
This need to dominate all nonhuman life – to kill and to subjugate – permeates our entire culture and society as we turn our fellow animals into things – commodities and resources that exist simply for our personal benefit.
After all, we tell ourselves, if we can control the lives and deaths of these animals, perhaps this will give us the sense of having control over death itself.
Next video in this series: What cave paintings tell us about our relationship to our fellow animals.