on March 14, 2011
Professor Smith states in the Preface that, "In this book, I will argue that dehumanization is a joint creation of biology, culture, and the architecture of the human mind. Grasping its nature and dynamics requires that we attend to all three elements. Excluding any of them leaves us with a hopelessly distorted picture of what we are trying to comprehend." And by dehumanization, Professor Smith simply means that, "To dehumanize a person is to regard them as subhuman." Dehumanization doesn't mean to deny someone their individuality, to objectify them, to denigrate them, or even to treat them cruelly (although that certainly does happen). So, it is to this end that Professor Smith sets about explaining the psychological roots of dehumanization.
Through 275 pages, divided into nine chapters, Smith examines such topics as the past thoughts of Aristotle, Augustine, Boethius, Pico, Paracelsus, Hume, and Kant; and modern thinkers such as Erik Erikson, Konrad Lorenz, E. O. Wilson, Jane Goodall, and Iranaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt. He also analyzes themes like `The Great Chain of Being,' Slavery, Nazi's, and Genocide; "In this book, I will argue that when we dehumanize people we think of them as counterfeit human beings - creatures that look like humans, but who are not endowed with a human essence - and that this is possible only because of our natural tendency to think that there are essence-based natural kinds. This way of thinking doesn't come from "outside." We neither absorb it from our culture, nor learn it from observation. Rather, it seems to reflect our cognitive architecture - the evolved design of the human psyche." In regards to cognitive architecture, I think Professor Smith's strongest argument for why we dehumanize is based on our modularity of mind (best discussed in Robert Kurzban's book: Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind, and also to a lesser extent in David Berreby's book: Us and Them: The Science of Identity).
In conclusion, Professor Smith certainly knows the material very well, and the book stays extremely focused on explaining what dehumanization means. I think Smith also shifts gears from hard scientific evidence to mere speculation very smoothly and with plenty of prudence and caution; he certainly takes a skeptical attitude, which I appreciated. The only thing that irked me a bit about the book was Chapter 6: Race. Here is a quote: "A more scientific-sounding version of the same idea [that human essence is carried in the blood,] is that essences are located in one's DNA (a notion helped along, no doubt, by the folk-theory that racial essences are transmitted in seminal fluid). Although it has a veneer of scientific respectability, this DNA theory is only marginally less baseless than the theories about blood and milk, for, as we have seen, conventional racial categories are fold categories rather than scientific ones, and don't have any genetic justification." Now, I don't know what the real answer is, but I know there are a lot of (scientifically well-versed) individuals who might find the idea that DNA has nothing to do with 'race' a bit of a stretch. Also, I would have liked to see Professor Smith mention Malthusianism (the very real, and very omnipresent struggle for existence due to scarce resources), and give it a modicum of attention because, to my way of thinking, it is really the primary evolutionary reason we dehumanize others in the first place. Nonetheless, I think this is an exceptional book and I highly recommend it.
This is a wonderful history of people abusing other people. It covers a vast range of cases, from local to international, from ancient times to now. It digs into the psychological mechanisms more than trivially.
But it seems to me to be based on a false premise. The author holds, or seems to hold, that people abusing other groups really dehumanize them and treat them like the most hated kinds of animals, and thus can torture, rape, enslave, and exterminate them with fairly guilt-free consciences. The only problem with this is that nobody treats real rats, pigs, cockroaches and snakes the way we treat enemy humans. We kill the rats and so on as quickly as possible, period. Nobody keeps a rat in prison and systematically tortures it for weeks. Moreover, as Roy Baumeister pointed out in his great book EVIL, it requires exquisite empathy and understanding of common humanity to work out the horrible tortures and abuses that people figure out for each other.
Conversely, it is very easy to see where people DO learn how to torment others: family and neighborhood violence. The countless horrible cases of torture, control, and abuse in Smith's book are indistinguishable from what goes on in lots of families. A nurse I know, helping a Vietnam vet suffering PTSD, heard him say of battle: "it was chaos and shouting, everything out of control...like when my old man got drunk and started beating on my mom."
So I think the dehumanizing labels that genociders and slavers use are more like the name-calling in a family or barroom or schoolyard brawl than like real animal labels. There is enormous pressure on genociders and slavers to make the "others" as far from them, psychologically, as possible--but common humanity does set a limit. We can't really think of them as rats and flies. If we did, we would at least kill them quickly and cleanly instead of devising ever more awful ways to drag the process out.
on April 9, 2011
I found this book, "Less than Human," in our Library's new acquisitions section and thought it worth a look. However, a quick look turned into an all night read as I discovered myself fully absorbed and engaged with Dr. David Smith's fascinating work. "Less than Human" addresses our ability to dehumanize our fellow man thereby allowing us to perpetrate all manner of violence upon him, from war to outright genocide. Dr. Smith makes it clear that he is investigating the processes behind dehumanization, cultural, biological and psychological, that lead to humans treating others as less-than-real people and is not exploring the extensive assortment of additional concepts this wide ranging term encompasses, such as the objectification of women or the social marginalization of specific people. One aspect of the book that I enjoyed was its balanced approach. Often many of the works emanating from academia have an inherent anti-Western bias, but "Less than Human" is free from such indoctrination instead dealing with dehumanization as a worldwide characteristic, originating in per-historic societies and displayed in both tribe and polis. In addressing dehumanization, Dr. Smith uses a vast array of investigative tools to set the stage, such as specific historical illustrations (like Sub-Saharan slavery and the Armenian genocide), evolutionary explanations (citing Jane Goodall's field work with chimpanzees) and explicit psychological confessions (such as quotes from fellow soldiers like WWI stormtrooper Ernst Junger). After outlining the problem, in the later half of his book, Dr. Smith takes a more detailed look at the actual mechanisms of dehumanization, such as its essential racial component and uniquely Homo sapiens quality. Though the reader will find points of disagreement with Dr. Smith's seminal study (for example, I don't think the divide between man and animal are as liminal and that our pseudo-laws, such as the Nuremberg Laws, Dhimmitude or Jim Crow, provide a shameful veneer of legality that somewhat complicates outright dehumanization), I feel most readers will be impressed with Dr. Smith's reasoning and argumentation. Though a scholarly endeavor, Dr. Smith has created an engrossing, readable and compelling work that is directly relevant to our daily lives. As he states: "The architecture of our minds makes us vulnerable to these forms of persuasion. Images like these speak to something deep inside us. If you still believe that you are the exception, and are immune from these forces, I hope that by the end of the book you will have embraced a more realistic assessment of your capacity for evil."
on December 10, 2013
I found this book somewhat tedious for much of the first half. I know Smith was trying to establish the various universal patterns that fall under the concept of dehumanization, but at a few points it just felt redundant (how many quotes from people calling other ethnic groups "rats" or "vermin" do you actually need?). I thought the last 100 pages or so were far more interesting, and the concept that people have a tendency to think of people from different ethnoraces as different species was particularly interesting.
I felt he could've cut a lot of the quotes (which sometimes just seemed like padding), and included a) one in-depth example of a non-western case of dehumanization and genocide and b) he could've extended the discussion on how to 'solve' the problem of dehumanization. Otherwise, it's a very solid read.
on March 24, 2012
If you harbor any doubts about man's capacity for inhumanity to his fellow man, you will lose them when reading this disturbing, important book.
In "Less than Human," David Livingstone Smith unblinkingly describes the darker side of mankind's history. He focuses on horrors perpetrated upon "Jews, sub-Saharan Africans, and Native Americans" due to their "immense historical significance" and because they are "richly documented." But the awful tales he relates come from across the world and date back to pre-history.
There are stories of mass murder, rape, slavery, and torture. But most poignant are the stories of individual victims. There is, for example, the heart-rending tale of Ota Benga, a Batwa ("pygmy") tribesman whose family was killed in the Congo Free State by the mercenary forces of King Leopold II of Belgium, who was sold into slavery and purchased by an American entrepreneur, who was put on display in 1904 in the Bronx Zoo (where he shared a cage with an orangutan), and who, freed but longing to return home, killed himself with a bullet to his own heart.
What makes it possible for us homo sapiens to treat other members of our species so horrifically, Smith argues, is our unique mental ability to "essentialize" the world around us. We divide living things into species, and species into kinds. We then rank species and kinds from highest to lowest. There are very good evolutionary reasons we are built to view living beings this way. Conceiving of animals and insects as inferior things enabled our ancestors to thoroughly exploit these creatures, while seeing other groups of homo sapiens as either human or inhuman gave our forebears a potent psychological prop for choosing either trade or war as a means to acquire resources.
Smith convincingly argues that, since all homo sapiens have the capacity to dehumanize other homo sapiens, each of us also possesses the potential to commit atrocities--and even to take pleasure from such acts. We should not think of, say, German troops and New World settlers as "monsters" for what they did to Jews, Native Americans, or African slaves. Instead, what we should find troubling is just how ordinary many of them were.
As distressing as this idea may be for some, for U.S. service members, the most disturbing facet of this book will be reading the words of fellow service members and realizing just how neatly these words fit into humanity's dark tradition of dehumanization.
There is the Gulf War pilot who, in language reminiscent of that used by the Hutus during the Rwandan genocide, said, "It's almost like you flipped on the light in the kitchen at night and the cockroaches start scurrying, and we're killing them." There is the 82nd Airborne soldier in Iraq who said, "A lot of guys really supported the whole concept that if they don't speak English and they have darker skin, they're not as human as us, so we can do what we want." There is the soldier at Abu Ghraib who, while forcing one detainee to masturbate above the face of another detainee, remarked, "Look at what these animals do when you leave them alone for two seconds." And then there is the senior U.S. general who compared Fallujah to "a huge rat's nest" that was "festering" and needed to be "dealt with"--an image uncomfortably close to the depiction of Jews as a scurrying horde of rats in the infamous Nazi propaganda film, "The Eternal Jew."
Readers may protest that such statements by U.S. service members are colorful metaphors rather than genuine instances of dehumanization. However, if one has served for very long in our military, it is probably not hard to recollect other examples of dehumanizing comments that reinforce Smith's point--such as, perhaps, jokes heard about dirty "hajis" or "ragheads" when one served in the Middle East.
The lesson that military leaders should draw from Smith's exhaustive research is clear. You can dehumanize the enemy and, at least at first, make the task of killing fellow human beings easier for your soldiers. But you do so today at great peril, for wherever dehumanization goes, mission-, life-, and soul-destroying atrocity almost certainly follows.
As good as this book is, it ends on a disappointing note. After masterfully employing the fields of history, anthropology, psychology, and philosophy to illuminate an evolution-wrought flaw of the human condition, Smith's final somewhat-feeble recommendation is that "the study of dehumanization . . . be made a priority" so that we understand "exactly how dehumanization works and what can be done to prevent it."
Left unanswered is what such prevention might even look like. This gap is glaring when one considers that those who most exhibit the impulse to dehumanize others are precisely those who are least receptive to a cure for their condition. Did senior members of Hitler's regime wish to be cured of their anti-Semitism? Of course not. Also problematic is the idea of any government deciding to cure its members of their worst impulses toward others (as vividly depicted in Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece, "A Clockwork Orange").
Still, Smith's accomplishment is stunning. He has written a book that is strikingly original, clearly and eloquently written, and--for anyone who believes that truth is preferable to untruth, no matter how ugly this truth--an absolutely "essential" read.
Douglas A. Pryer
on August 30, 2015
"Less than Human" by David Livingstone Smith is a well referenced book about how we, as members of the human race, can demean, enslave, and exterminate other members of the human race. There are numerous examples from throughout history about how we have been inhumane. There is also speculation of the origins of hate, racism, and ethnocentrism going back to our ape ancestors. There are a few places in the book where the author lapses into sociological jargon, but fortunately that doesn't occur frequently. Consequently the book is enlightening even though it provides few answers.
on May 21, 2013
"The distinction between essence and appearance isn't just an academic matter" (Smith,P.33). Smith shows us, in startling detail, why dehumanizing influences and strategies truly reflect the way many people think. Where moral intuition is cultivated, sociocultural attitudes view the exploitation of and demeaning of other human beings, as repugnant to their senses. An intuition of this nature is simply how something seems to you. That old adage, "I'll know it when I see it", applies especially to the mistreatment of others and to the degradation of spirit that follows, for victim as well as abuser. I have no problem with Smith's decision to limit the focus of his study to just three areas: systematic atrocities of the Germans toward the Jews, the brutal enslavement and treatment of Africans, and the destruction of the Native American civilization. Gender and sex are unique in that the scale of the horrors perpetrated are circumscribed and may reflect somewhat different features. Nevertheless, the element of enmity is clearly apparent in targeting any group or individual and is the core feature of the theory of dehumanization. "The sheer pervasiveness of dehumanization", Smith tells us, 'makes it impossible to discuss all its manifestations". The core constituent in each and every paradigm concerning this topic, is the evidence of a lack of empathy. Without the ability to identify, it becomes ever easier to objectify. This interpersonal dynamic is fundamentally exploitative and inherently disrespectful. Without the notion of moral value, the relationship is by definition an immoral one. I highly recommend Berreby's book, "Us and Them:Understanding Your Tribal Mind" (2005). It is through the prism of psycho-biology that the structure and function of dehumanizing tendencies take hold and becomes habitual. Denying others their right to feel is depriving them of their spirituality and individuality. Devaluation destroys the dignity of a person by turning a "Thou" into an "It". Systematically and in lucid detail Smith gives us an education in philosophy, science, religion and history. For a "Theory of Dehumanization", encompasses every dimension of human existence one can imagine.
on June 25, 2015
Good book but it's downright unsettling how sick the human race can be. The research is comprehensive. I'd like to see a more pointed treatment of Darwinism and Social Darwinism's role in the dehumanization process. It seems to be a theme over the last 150 years of dehumanization practices.
on April 4, 2013
"Less Than Human" is written in a lucid & compelling style. Author David Livingstone Smith has backed up his conclusions with thorough annotations. Furthermore, the author presents hypotheses from researchers whose conclusions differ from his own; therefore, Mr. D. L. Smith is respecting the intelligence of his readers to weigh the various arguments by means of their own logical abilities.
One aspect of "Less Than Human" which I most admired was that his main hypothesis is consistent with the modern day fusion
of cognitive psychology & the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (EEA). For a better understanding of this fusion see the works of Pascal Boyer, who is a French anthropologist.
Signed by Lucien Francesaco Brancaccio
on July 12, 2015
We need to dehumanize others in order to kill them. It is as simple as that. But why is this so? Seeking the answer to this question Smith takes us on a philosophical journey into the programming of the human mind and how it functions in order to discern how the "us and them" perceptions and feelings are developed. How much of this is natural to our human nature, are biological and genetic inheritance? How much is the result of cultural programming in the face of this inheritance.
Certainly Smith's pages remind us we seem to have developed the ability to dehumanize in order to pillage, maim, and kill others from the earliest moments that we describe as human history to the present moment. The documentation in the earlier pages of the book of wars and genocides in the defense of our human identity against those who we have determined are lesser beings so is both is both enlightening depressing.
The author investigates both the rhetoric of the times in which these the events occurred and the gists of biologists, philosophers, theologians, psychologists, anthropologists and sociologists both during and after them, both supporting them and opposing them. Some up seems to be that humans are mixed message capable of moral reluctance to take life as well as able to find ecstasy in doing so. Somehow we learned to hunt in our evolutionary past and then somehow found reasons to hunt each other. The author explores multiple theories about how this came about, but theories they remain, at least until time travel enables us to observe firsthand our own evolution.
In short, it seems that at least, currently, three elements have to be in place to let the slaughter begin. First of all authorization – someone that we believe, respect and are compelled to obey has to approve the go-ahead, thus transferring upward in theory the responsibility for the carnage. Secondly, routinization – making the activity normal, part of one's job, so the ultimate meaning of what is being done is buried in the practical concerns of how to do it. Finally, there needs to be a discourse of dehumanization – a shared perception that the objects of our persecution are lesser beings than our kind. This can take many and multiple forms, religious belief, propaganda campaigns, common bias about difference in race, ethnicity, gender, political persuasion, etc. etc. Dehumanization penetrates the first two elements allows them to occur.
Overcoming moral reluctance to harm others can be the result of our getting even harm they may have done to us. This largely personal, perhaps familial need for retribution or vengeance then needs to be projected in some way when the enemy is no longer personal, thus the need for dehumanization.
Fellow interculturalists may even be shocked to know that besides the creation of everyday language, which describes the enemy as subhuman or animal, monsters, rats or vermin, military training involves making sure that soldiers think of their potential enemies as inferior life forms. To quote from a citation in the text referring to the programming once undertaken by the U.S. Navy for its seamen: "They are given lectures and films which portray personalities and customs in foreign countries whose interests may go against the USA. The films are biased to present the enemy as less than human: the stupidity of local customs is ridiculed; local personalities are presented as evil demigods rather than as legitimate political figures." Those of us who are in the intercultural business of creating human understanding for effective collaboration can only shudder reading this. Today of course long-range weapons and drones insulate the perpetrator from the effect, making it somewhat easier to kill.
I must confess that I read this book with growing dislike. It was not just the ugliness of the displays of vicious human behavior described in documented in the pages – I had seen these before. Likewise, the explorations into philosophical, religious, and political biases were not easy to review, but again were things that I had known about. My perception is that there was an elephant in the room, and that elephant was the rank essentialism of too much Western thinking. Of course the atrocities discussed were not simply European, but circled the world as they continue to do today, but the analysis seems so Western that I started calling it into question. There is a brief appendix on the principles of essentialism and psychology and the assumption that that essentialism is inherent in culture and consequently in cultural studies, which, if once true, is being called into serious question today.
Going forward, the reader keeps hoping for insightful approaches to dealing with the phenomenon under discussion, perhaps new perspectives beyond the obvious ones, perhaps a combination of the various insights and approaches into more effective and practical management of dehumanizing behavior. Only in the final chapter does the author explicitly raise the question, which, he assumes correctly is on everyone's mind as they plow through the previous two hundred pages, "what can we do about dehumanization?” After dismissing several current approaches, the best Smith can do is propose prioritizing dehumanization as an urgent topic of scientific and academic research. Not good enough! It is obvious throughout the book that there are things that we must stop doing and start doing, and things that we must continue doing such as highlighting the awareness and dynamics of bias, developing intercultural competence and its practices. Of course more study might uncover more of the dynamics of dehumanization and ways to deal with it, but the world cannot wait for or expect that philosophy will provide a silver bullet to slay our inner vampires.