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19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Step Towards A Theory of Dehumanization
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...
Published on March 14, 2011 by Amazon Customer

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good, not great.
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...
Published 9 months ago by S. Dunne


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19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Step Towards A Theory of Dehumanization, March 14, 2011
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This review is from: Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave and Exterminate Others (Hardcover)
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.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Dehumanizaiton, April 9, 2011
This review is from: Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave and Exterminate Others (Hardcover)
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."
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17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Well, not quite dehumanization...., April 28, 2011
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This review is from: Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave and Exterminate Others (Hardcover)
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.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Distressing, Well-Researched, Strikingly Original, and Eloquent, 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
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good, not great., December 10, 2013
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S. Dunne (Bennington, VT) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
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.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Less Than Human" is an superbly written book., April 4, 2013
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"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
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent, But We Don't See Eye To Eye, July 7, 2013
Dr. Smith provides prodigious examples of dehumanization. On page twenty he quotes from Army specialist Matthew Wilson's testimony regarding Abu Ghraib:

I saw two naked detainees, one masturbating to another kneeling with its mouth open. I thought I should just get out of there. I didn't think it was right ... I saw SSG Fredrick walking toward me, and he said, "Look what these animals do when you leave them alone for two minutes."

Notice that pronoun "it" used to describe the prisoner. Smith goes on to say that Abu Ghraib commander, General Janis Karpinski, disclosed that Major General Geoffrey Miller had insisted that the inmates be treated like animals. He told Karpinski that she would lose control of the inmates if they believed they were more than dogs. There is no reason to multiply examples, the reader gets the point.

One notices a theme to these examples; they all involve metaphors that reduce humans to animals. The author correctly identifies the issue and identifies the ideological problem as a belief in "the great chain of being" by which he means hierarchy of greater to lesser beings. Here I want to use Smith's own words because he so nails the issue:

Perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of Darwin's work lay in reducing the ancient, vertical model of biodiversity with a more egalitarian horizontal one. He denied that life progresses toward a goal of perfection and insisted instead that it simply diversifies ...But even now, in today's post-Darwinian world, we find ourselves clinging to the more ancient vision of the cosmos. We still unblushingly speak of organism being "higher" or "lower" on an evolutionary scale ...

He goes on to point out that even the term primate, which includes humans, derives from the Latin word "primas" -- meaning "of the highest rank." I truly believe that Smith likes animals; he clearly wishes to exonerate them of wrong doing in their social relations and predatory activities. In chapter seven, he states: "I'm going to defend the proposition that Homo sapiens are the only animals capable of cruelty and war." Most animal activists, I suspect, would agree with Smith. I, however, am unconvinced by his arguments in chapter seven. Perhaps rightly he dismisses combat among ant colonies as instinctive; but he admits of the possibility of chimpanzee warfare -- which was first observed by Jane Goodall and team in Tanzania. Smith goes on to explain the similarities and differences between tribal community warfare and chimp warfare.

He points out that tribal communities, referring specifically to Brazil's Yanamamo, have more complex motives involving symbolism, ritual, norms and supernatural beliefs. In a nutshell, he argues that the Yanamamo have a richer thought life and that this constitutes something like a fundamental disparity between the species. This is where I find his case dubious; I do not believe that we have established that there is such a gulf between human and nonhuman animals. Some zoologists such as Marc Bekoff have argued that at least some nonhumans make moral choices and exhibit something similar to human culture. If one takes the anecdotal evidence seriously (which most scientists do not because of a defect in their thought processes - quite honestly) the case is substantially buttressed.

I am quite amazed at how easily Smith dismisses the thought lives of ants. In his discussion on ant xenophobia (ie: fear or hatred of strangers or foreigners), he uses the term in a strictly metaphorical way. He asks "Do ants have concepts of us and them?" "No they don't" he states unequivocally, explaining that the ants are merely responding to chemical scents that differ among colonies when they engage in violent conflict. Very interesting; because ants identify by scent, they must have no concept of "us and them." Really? How does Smith know this? I find myself wondering whether the great scholar has read Zhana Reznikova's work on insect intelligence testing. Does he know they are comparable to mice, for example, in maze testing?

He goes on to belittle the intelligence of cats and other animals. He states that it is wrong to think of animal brains as merely simpler versions of our own. In doing so he refers hypothetically to Beatrix the cat. She can't believe there is a mouse nibbling crumbs on the dining room floor because Beatrix would need to know the words mouse, floor, crumb, etc. Now Smith realizes there is something very wrong with his unqualified statement, and quickly admits that Beatrix must have some belief about the mouse, just as I believe an ant may have some belief about an intruder. He even goes on to suggest that human brains are hardwired for anthropomorphic thought; ie, for seeing everything in human terms. Well probably so. Nonetheless, it strains credibility to believe that complex thought life and emotion emerged like a "Big Bang" on the evolutionary scene.

What really good reason do I have for NOT anthropomorphically interpreting what I observe in nonhuman beings? The fact is, as Dr. Bekoff has pointed out, we have no other templates for interpretation. Unwittingly, Smith has played a trick on his own mind; he has eliminated in very circular fashion the possibility of finding human traits in nonhumans. Upon discovering evidence of human qualities in nonhumans, scientists can always tell themselves, "well it can't be what it looks like."

And just as unwittingly, he contributes to "the great chain of being philosophy" that he claims not to endorse. Thus far I have been building up to my point, which is, that one way to undermine the dehumanizing process is to undermine the basic analogy that enables it to operate; ie, to very simply deny that there is anything wrong with being a nonhuman animal. Of course, this would not be a 100% cure for dehumanization, because, of course, the haters have other analogies in their arsenal; eg, pond scum, debris, filth, dirt bag, trash, etc.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A profoundly important book, April 11, 2014
This is a most important and well-written book. Although disturbing in its content, it is vital that the message is heard widely. I found it hard to put this book down.
Frederick Toates (Emeritus Professor of Biological Psychology, The Open University)
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5.0 out of 5 stars The Essence of Dehumanization, May 21, 2013
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Phyllis Antebi Ph.D (IRVINE, CALIFORNIA, US) - See all my reviews
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"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.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Very Insightful, March 25, 2013
This is a very insightful book. I applaud the author for his thorough research and presentation of facts and examples taken from history as well as recent events. The reading explores the cognitive mechanisms and processes of the human psyche in an attempt to identify the roots of dehumanization. Perhaps most interesting was the topic of human essence. Citing ancient philosophers such as Aristotle and Saint Augustine, the author explores the difference(s) between essence and appearance and posits that humans often percieve one another as possessing such. Although the author touches on alot important topics, he only scratches the surface of the violent and often trivialized conditions of the human pysche.
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Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave and Exterminate Others
Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave and Exterminate Others by David Livingstone Smith (Hardcover - March 1, 2011)
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