Denying We Are Animals
The biggest error of our historical, civilized period as humans is that we deny that we are animals. Our dominant cultural teachings insist that we actively deny this. To ascribe animal behaviour to a person is a grievous insult.
In our capacity for abstract thought and imagination of ourselves and the future, we have transcended the capabilities of other animal species on Earth, to be sure. Yet most of what motivates us, much of the time, are concerns and desires that we share with the other animals. We are driven by needs for food, drink, shelter, personal security, and reproduction, as are all other animals. We spend much of our “bandwidth” managing and optimizing co-operation and competition in the quest for surer survival, by forming complex hierarchical social groups, as do most “higher” animal species. Occasionally, we have the time to muse about, or futz about with “higher” concerns like literature, cosmology, and baseball, that other animal species can’t get around to. Occasionally.
Plato separated the ideal from the real. Descartes the mind from the body. But notions of soul and body, of sacred and profane, long predate these, probably being included among the earliest forms of abstract thought. It is one thing, though, to notice a separation between the human soul or mind and its thoughts on the one hand and the rest of the world on the other, but quite another thing to denigrate the latter and exalt the former. Certainly not all belief systems did. West Coast North American spiritual belief places human people as equals among bird people, bear people, and tree people, and I suspect most “Animist” religions did the same. The grand denial occurs only in the more “advanced” religions and philosophical and legal systems.
By denying we are animals, we lose a lot. We fail to understand the reasons for our conflicts, and for our societal structures. We fail to understand the raison d’etre for the moral guidance that our cultural stories provide us; that they glue our societies together against individual organismal selfishness; that they provide ancestral wisdom needed to reign in the dangerous combination of our animal motivations and our big brains’ imaginative capacity to invent many forms of unsuccessful life story.
By denying we are animals living animal-motivated lives of varying abilities and fortunes, we fail to acknowledge the primary causes of despair, depression, schizophrenia, and addiction, and we fail to appropriately counsel our young and our troubled.
By denying we are animals, we fail to understand the interdependency we have with the eco-systems we live in. We naively assume we can engineer something better, without understanding the essence and value of what we are destroying in the process.
This is not a very high form of transcendent intelligence, that misguides itself so.