Why are humans so repulsed by the idea that they are animals?

| December 3, 2008 | 10 Replies

Why are humans so repulsed by the idea that they are animals?  Perhaps “Terror Management Theory” can shine some light on this important issue.

When I started this blog in 2006, one idea that motivated me was that human beings simply can’t deal with the idea that they are animals. It seemed to me, based upon my own personal observations, that we go to great lengths to shelter ourselves from the idea our lives are guided by the same basic things that guide other animals. I am speaking of the four F’s: feeding, fleeing, fighting and reproduction.

I have repeatedly posted on this reluctance of humans to consider themselves to be animals (see, for example, my posts on the uncanny sameness of humans, the predictability of personals adsour relatedness to spongesmy own skeleton my not-so-distant ancestors, ubiquitous synonyms for poop the common aversion to breast feeding or this description of the work by a Martian anthropologist).

It has long seemed to me that if we could more squarely acknowledge our animal roots, we would have a better foundation for understanding ourselves and each other. The idea of sharing the planet with the other animal species might come more naturally, for instance. And instead of thinking about morality, we might prefer to think in terms of ecology; we might prefer working to maintain some sort of healthy homeostasis rather than continuing our excruciatingly unproductive bickering employing the language of good and evil. Perhaps, if we could accept that we are (extremely impressive and extremely clever) animals, we might find it more interesting to talk of what is to be healthy, meaning healthy in the same way that other animals are healthy (when they’re healthy in the wild, they don’t sit around eating terrible food and watching TV). In my opinion, it makes more sense to use words like “healthy” and “ecological” as guideposts for human conduct, rather than trying to live according to the terms of an a priori, top down, un-embedded facetiously objectivist version of “morality.” Convincing large numbers of people of this approach would be a tall order, though.  It would require, for one, a substantial commitment to humility and a willingness to consciously recognize the importance of these gooey animal bodies that are us.

Recently, I happened upon an article that squarely addressed many of the issues which have fascinated me about human animal-ness: “I Am Not an Animal: Mortality Salience, Disgust, and the Denial of Human Creatureliness,” by Jamie L Goldenberg and her colleagues (Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 2001, Volume 130, No. 3, 427-435).  Consider the opening paragraph:

We humans engage in a wide variety of behaviors that serve, at least in part, to deny or minimize our commonalities with other animals. In our culture, we exercise our bodies to more closely approximate an idealized physique; alter and dress our bodies in the latest fashions; rigorously clean our hair and body so that there is no scent other than that which comes out of a bottle; disguise the animal origin of our food by calling it “beef,” “pork,” or a “Big Mac”; cook our food and prepare it with fancy sauces and garnishes; go to the bathroom in sanitary and “appropriate” receptacles; refine our manners . . . However, whether or not we use forks and knives to eat, squelch our inclinations to belch, or otherwise tightly control our bodily activities, humankind is widely recognized to have evolved from the same genetic stock as all other primates and to be closely related to all living things. Why, then, do we engage in so many activities that seem to minimize our connections with other animals?

The authors suggest that human culture forcefully serves the function of the shielding us from our beastliness because whenever we consider that we are beasts, it brings on an immense “anxiety associated with the awareness of death.”

The authors rely heavily on “terror management theory,” developed by Sheldon Solomon, who relied upon the work of Charles Darwin, Otto rank, Soren Kierkegaard we have James and many others. TMT recognizes that, among all the animals, humans are uniquely aware that they face certain death. TMT proposes that human behavior can be productively understood through this lens.

TMT suggests that a “cultural anxiety buffer” (consisting of faith in a cultural worldview and self-esteem that is dependent on compliance with this worldview) “functions to manage the terror associated with the awareness of death.” As the authors suggest, though, “the body is a particular problem for humans because it serves as a reminder of our animal limitations.” We work hard to elevate bodies “from their flesh and bones reality to a higher plane, as objects of beauty or dignity.” Therefore, we do our best to minimize our consciousness of excretory behavior, menstruation, and human sexuality (transforming the latter “from animal to symbolic by embedding it in a system of meaning, e.g., love and marriage and value or self-esteem”).

In the TMT model, death is especially disgusting to us “because it is a very strong reminder of the animal nature of humans.” The authors go so far as to argue that humans can psychologically distance themselves from their animalness (and therefore, death), by expressing intense disgust toward death. Experiments run by the authors demonstrated that mortality salience caused subjects to feel more disgust in reaction to a variety of disgust elicitors (various scenarios involving cockroaches, maggots on a piece of meat, body products, sexual images, spoiled milk and human carnage).

To what extent does culture shield us from our beastliness? “The human body and its functions are so controlled by the dictates of culture that the body often becomes a source of distress, shame, and embarrassment when people fail to sustain such control.”  Culturally dictated measures are often detrimental to our health (consider cultural preferences for bodies that are too thin or too muscular).  Consider, also, the cultural attempts to cover up human sexuality–In the year 2008, we are still uptight about informing schoolchildren about their bodies plumbing and methods of preventing accidental pregnancies.

In their conclusion, the authors recognize that some cultures go to more lengths to distinguish himself from animals than others. They recognize that those cultures that are at ease with nature “tend to imbue nature with supernatural significance,” which “strips nature of its more threatening mortality-related qualities.” In the end, they suggest that there is much more work to do with regard to the application of TMT to human behavior.

This is my first foray into TMT. I am quite interested, as you can probably tell, but I’ll need to study TMT more and see where it has led since the Goldenberg paper was written in 2001.  I would like to know more about how well TMT dovetails with sexual selection.  What I especially like about TMT is that it starts with the difficult truth that humans are animals and studies human behavior through that lens.  I can’t think of a better place to begin.

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Category: Culture, Good and Evil, Human animals, Psychology Cognition, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich and his wife, Anne Jay, live in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where they are raising their two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. The things that bother us | Dangerous Intersection | December 6, 2008
  1. We're all beastie boys and girls, and to that I say: Wroof!

  2. Tim Hogan says:

    We eat, sleep, poop, go pottie and die. Death is just one of these. I think the anxiety is not because of the certainty of death but, the uncertainty of whether we will die well.

  3. grumpypilgrim says:

    I recently saw an interview in which the speaker said that the chemical processes in trees that cause them to send roots into the ground and shoots into the sky are nearly identical to the chemical processes in the human brain that enable us to think. Maybe we're not animals after all, but rather plants….

  4. Karl says:

    People can believe anything they want about the animal nature of the human condition. Today you can be the goat and tommorrow I'll be the goat. Sounds like a deal to me.

    In this world our animal nature is obviously present – no one can deny that physically we share much in common with the same physical materials that make up the majority of physical existence.

    Grumpy is right, we could also be part plant, or crystal or just the rejects from the fully functioning warrantied editions based upon the "real gods." Think as highly or as lowly as you want to about yourself, none of it matters to you anyway.

    Trying however to convinvce others of the commonalities we all share with the physical world in which live, makes us all devalue what ever is of any real significance in our lives.

    The only lasting significance in any of our lives are the relationships we share and the virtues we can possess and encourage in each other.

  5. Erika Price says:

    One of the graduate students I assist does a lot of work involving TMT. Mortality salience does a number of wacky things- it makes people adhere more strongly to their cultural values, punish moral infractions with greater severity, and even makes one’s political ideology more polarized. Fun stuff.

  6. grumpypilgrim says:

    Karl writes, "Trying however to convince others of the commonalities we all share with the physical world in which live, makes us all devalue what ever is of any real significance in our lives.

    Karl's assertion is unsupported by facts, and is apparently driven by the unproven notion that belief in invisible deities somehow infuses human existence with meaning that it would not otherwise have. How absurd!

  7. Karl says:

    Lets see:

    commonalities means something like – what we share with others in the sense that it is not really special or unique.

    This is one definition from Websters — common implies usual everyday quality or frequency of occurrence.

    Examples such as "a common error," "lacking common honesty," and may additionally suggest inferiority or coarseness as in "common manners."

    It certainly looks from my perspective that it everyone was suppose to emphasize their sameness in the sense of commonality then anyone's individuality would be seen as counter productive to society. Then to be tolerant of everyone's need to be like everyone else we should discourage any extreme individualists that might actually be able to improve the human experience or at least solve some of the problems other people have made for the rest of us.

    Invisible dieties don't need to infuse people or human existence with meaning. People look for that meaning themselves in anyplace they believe they can discover it for themselves. Sometimes they look for it in the wrong places and from the wrong people. It is never a wrong reason to want to discover meaning and purpose in life. People can however be convinced that they might be able to find that meaning in ways that leave out or are actually contrary to their spiritual nature.

    Some look for it in material goods, physical pleasures, psychological or physical experiences such as drugs or hedonism. Others look for meaning from science or artistry. Some look for meaning from other people in their lives, which sounds noble in and of itself.

  8. Hank says:

    "Grumpy is right, we could also be part plant, or crystal or just the rejects from the fully functioning warrantied editions based upon the “real gods.” Think as highly or as lowly as you want to about yourself, none of it matters to you anyway."

    What glaring, ridiculous & wilful misunderstanding. We ARE part of nature, made of the same basic elements as every other organism. It stands to reason that we may display characteristics/systems similar to other organisms. It doesn't mean we're "part plant" or "part crystal" (I'll leave that predictable nonsense about "real gods" alone), it just means we're organisms from Earth. Reductio ad absurdum – taking someone's argument to a ridiculous extreme so as to de-bunk it – is a transparent and very immature tactic. Attack the actual argument, not some fantastic version of it that you've invented.

    There's nothing 'lowly' in describing a human as an animal. It's simply a fact. We're animals. Smart, adaptable, inventive animals, but still animals. There is, however, a peculiar arrogance in assuming humans are NOT animals, when all real evidence points to exactly that conclusion.

  9. Karl says:

    And of course all real evidence is physical and can't include anything but natural philosophy.

    Case closed, Hank, you win!

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