The Worm at the Core
Why do we have such a deep need to deny that we’re animals?
In this session from the “I Am NOT an Animal!” symposium, psychologist Dr. Sheldon Solomon begins with a question that philosophers and scientists have been trying to answer for thousands of years:
“What (if anything) is unique about us humans?”
Typically, people will tend to say things like that we’re more “intelligent,” but in 1860, Scottish writer Alexander Smith suggested:
“It is our knowledge that we have to die that makes us human.”
William James followed up in the 1890s with the thought that death is “the worm at the core” of the human experience. (Sheldon and his colleagues borrowed that phrase for the title of their very readable book The Worm at the Core.)
Digging deeper into this idea, Ernest Becker wrote in his 1974 Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Denial of Death that what makes us humans different is that we’re able to think about things in abstract and symbolic ways. In other words, we can imagine things that don’t yet exist, transform dreams into reality, travel to the moon and beyond.
The upside of being able to think so deeply is we can know that we’re here and can reflect on our own existence. The downside: It also means we can reflect on our future and inevitable non-existence – i.e. the fact that we’re going to die.
And that’s the problem. Our ability to think abstractly about ourselves means we can’t escape the fact that ultimately we are simply dust to dust and ashes to ashes, just like all the other animals. As Sheldon puts it:
“We are, from a purely biological perspective, simply breathing pieces of defecating meat, no more significant or enduring than a lizard or a potato.”
… a rather disconcerting thought, and one that, if we dwell on it, can make it hard even to get up in the morning, let alone fly to other planets.
When people are reminded of their mortality, their attitude and behavior toward animals changes considerably.Sheldon explains that we manage our existential terror of death through the creation and maintenance of culture – all the things we tell ourselves and teach each other about the nature of reality.
These beliefs and behaviors give us a sense that life has meaning and that we have value. And the study of those coping mechanisms is known as Terror Management Theory – as in how we manage the lifelong anxiety that’s born of our terror of death.
All cultures include creation stories that tell us where we came from. Our cultures also tell us what we should do while we’re here. They offer promises of immortality in one form or another: maybe by telling us that some vestige of our existence, like a soul, will live on; or by encouraging us to do things we’ll be remembered by: for example, raising children, leaving a legacy, or putting our name on lots of tall buildings.
Every culture sets its own standards about what makes us valued members of society. And when we meet those standards, we gain self-esteem, which is something we all seek throughout our lives.
So far, so good. But what happens when we run into people who are different and whose cultures offer paths to self-esteem and immortality that may be contradictory to our own?
Answer: We must prove to those people (and most importantly to ourselves) that our cultural values are the right ones and that theirs are wrong. How do we do this? As Sheldon describes it:
We denigrate them and belittle them and dehumanize them. And even just kill them, thus proving that my ideas and my god are better than yours and I’ll kick your ass to prove it.
Death anxiety accounts for many more of our behaviors and attitudes in our daily lives:
Studies show that our need to shop and procure more stuff is amplified considerably when death is on our minds.
Mortality anxiety also drives us to embrace charismatic leaders (as in “Make America Great Again!”) in times of uncertainty.
It also drives our destructive behavior toward our fellow animals. That’s because we’re uncomfortable with the fact that we’re animals, and we’re bothered by any reminders of that.
Numerous studies have demonstrated that when people are reminded of their mortality, their attitude and behavior toward animals changes considerably. (Some of the most recent studies of this are the topic of the next session at the symposium.) Existential anxiety also drives our attitudes toward the natural environment.
When we remind people of their mortality they become uncomfortable in nature and more apt to greedily exploit natural resources.
So, what to do about it? Sheldon’s answer is that death anxiety itself is not the problem:
It becomes a problem when we bury it, when we deny it. If we can come to terms with it, then we can deploy our creativity and ingenuity to move our society along in a more benign or benevolent direction.
In the discussion that follows this talk, two questions arise: How best to communicate with people to lessen their destructive behavior toward nature?
And second: If mass extinction (as is now unfolding) is the ultimate death, and if death reminders cause people to go deeper into denial and to behave even more destructively, then isn’t it the case that trying to raise awareness of the unfolding mass extinction is just going to make the situation worse?
There are no easy answers, but such questions are critical to our future and to the world that we will leave as our own legacy.