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Theses Toward a Theory of Generative Death Anxiety: Thesis #2

We continue the presentation we began in the last column, here offering:

Thesis #2 – Human beings share completely in the evolution of species, and much of human psychology, emotions and social life, as well as basic physical and nervous makeup, reflect that shared animal heritage.
Although it is something we all well know, it is still somewhat startling to really place it front and center in our conscious mind: We human beings are an animal species, no less an animal species than any other. We have our place in the evolutionary line in just the same way that every other species has its place in the evolutionary line. Our very bodies, our physiology, not only yield our place in the evolutionary line, but also reveal to us just how close we are to other animal species. This proximity to other species is found not only in the arena of physiology. Recent studies in evolutionary psychology, behavioral ethology and zoology clearly point toward the same proximity between humans and other species in areas of basic and complex emotions, mimetic learning habits, mating behaviors and rituals, sexual selection processes, ‘pack’ (tribal) mentality and power hierarchies. These are numerous other areas of inquiry make their contribution, each one demonstrating the rhyming harmonies of connection between the human species and other species. It is all but a commonplace in the academic sciences that we cannot really understand anything at all about human beings without starting with a thorough grounding of our species as one among all other species.

Yet we also cannot ignore there is a voice within us that rebels at this proposition. I remember my young daughter, probably about five years old at the time, becoming quite indignant when I made this claim to her. “Dad,” she cried out, “we are NOT animals, we are human beings!” I answered her by saying, “Well, dogs are dogs and cats are cats, but they are also all animals. Yes, we humans beings are human beings, but we also belong to the larger category call animals.” It was an entirely new concept to her, and while she did come to accept it at some point (and, BTW, following her own moral compass became a vegetarian from that point on – she is now 21 and has never eaten a hamburger in her life) in the immediate she was very offended by the notion and strongly wanted to cling to the idea she had developed, based we must suppose on the messages of our culture that filtered down to her (even through the very protected filtering her parents worked so hard to keep in place during her young life) that there is a large, distinctive and even qualitative gap between “animals” and human beings.

In the coming theses we will see that this Theory of Generative Death Anxiety yields some major clues as to why maintaining this distinction is so important to so many people, even people who know intellectually that it is a social fiction we employ, and will even on some level also justify the claim of qualitative differences between our species and other species. We will come around to the ‘specialness’ of human beings soon enough. For the present, however, I simply want to establish the commonplace truth of human beings as one among other animal species as a second thesis, another stepping-stone, on the way to building this Theory of Generative Death Anxiety.

Click here to see all Parts of this Series.

Daniel Liechty is a Professor in the School of Social Work and Arts & Sciences Distinguished Lecturer at Illinois State University, Normal IL. Read more about Daniel Liechty here.

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