“I Am Not an Animal”
This project explores how the psychological dynamics of our fear of death shape our relationships with other animals, leading to our need to claim superiority over them in ways that are often exploitative and abusive.
Despite the enormous growth of the animal protection movement over the last 50 years, the situation for animals in almost every area has deteriorated.* Numerous approaches and strategies have been tried, but advances have been marginal, and have been outweighed by enormous setbacks. For instance, we are currently facing mass extinctions, more vivisection, and more factory farming on a global scale. Clearly something is being overlooked in seeking better protection for nonhuman animals.
We claim that these dynamics have to be understood in order for humans to enter into a healthier and more respectful relationship with the other animals.
In 1973 cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker published his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Denial of Death. Becker’s central thesis was that when we humans are reminded of our own mortality (even unconsciously), we tend to deny our mortal animal nature and any equality with the rest of the animal world. Instead, we are driven to claim superiority and human exceptionalism in an attempt to transcend our mortality.
Scientific studies on Terror Management Theory (how we deal with the anxiety of mortality awareness) show that reminders of our own mortality create a strong psychological need to proclaim that “I am not an animal” and, thus, drive the need to dominate, exploit and abuse other animals.
This Kimmela project includes two main components. First, we are working on a theoretical paper to be submitted to a peer-reviewed journal, in which we discuss the evidence for this general claim and propose that it is an important factor in our fraught relationships with other animals. We presented an earlier version of this work at the Ernest Becker Foundation Meeting in 2012 to much acclaim.
Second, the Kimmela Center is collaborating with Jeff Greenberg and Melissa Soenke in the Department of Psychology at University of Arizona, where they are conducting studies on how mortality awareness affects attitudes toward nonhuman animals. We intend to use these findings to better identify the factors and contexts in which humans try to disconnect themselves from other animals by exploiting them as resources rather than recognizing them as sentient beings in their own right.
In accordance with our mission to apply science to animal advocacy, these findings will provide opportunities for deeper glimpses into our relationships with other animals and help us to determine how animal protection efforts and messaging might be made more effective.
References: Marino, L. and Mountain, M. The denial of death and our relationship with the other animals. Ernest Becker Foundation Meeting, Seattle, Washington (October, 2012).
* Note: One major exception in this negative trend is for homeless pets in most Western countries. But this a classic “exception that proves the rule” in terms of how we relate to companion animals compared to other species.