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The Most Dangerous Animal: Human Nature and the Origins of War Paperback – February 17, 2009

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Right now, as you read this, somebody, somewhere, is planning a war": from its opening sentence, Smith's book demands the reader's attention. A professor of philosophy and the cofounder and director of the Institute for Cognitive Science and Evolutionary Psychology at the University of New England, Smith has written a stark study of human nature, examining how we are biologically wired to fight. The human need for war is based on two powerful evolutionary factors: an innate aggressiveness born of a need to fight for food, shelter and the right to breed, and the human craving to belong to a group. Dispelling illusions of the peaceful, noble savage, Smith discusses anthropological and archeological evidence of war, raids, terrorism and genocide between hunter-gatherer societies: mass graves of people executed by blows to the head; human bones scarred by butchering or with arrow and spear points lodged in them. Human settlement brought wars of conquest and industry devoted to making weapons. Now we attempt to disguise the facts of war with euphemisms like "target" (instead of person), "friendly fire" and "collateral damage." Smith's writing, reinforced by one grim example after another, is crisp and sobering, never blunting the fact that we are "our own worst enemy." (Aug.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


“'Right now, as you read this, somebody, somewhere, is planning a war': from its opening sentence, Smith's book demands the reader's attention....a stark study of human nature, examining how we are biologically wired to fight. Smith's writing, reinforced by one grim example after another, is crisp and sobering, never blunting the fact that we are 'our own worst enemy'.” ―Publishers Weekly

“..erudite, informed, and persuasive...highly readable...a thoughtful, provocative and clearsighted argument...” ―Metapsychology

“Highly original and tighly woven...meticulously researched...” ―Portland Press Herald

“If you have the intestinal fortitude to confront the horrors of war, as well as the intellectual fortitude to confront its basis in human nature, then you are ready for THE MOST DANGEROUS ANIMAL. David Livingstone Smith knows evolutionary biology, and history,and psychology, and philosophy, and anthropology, and has put them together to produce a riveting, unflinching and disturbingly accurate account of human warfare, from the "commanded wars" of the Old Testament to Bush's Blunder in Iraq.” ―David P. Barash, professor of psychology, University of Washington and author of THE CAVEMAN AND THE BOMB

“Here is the unvarnished tale of human gangs, driven by built-in survival mechanisms and an uncanny ability for self-deception, romping through history--raiding, pillaging, terrorizing, waging wars, and committing large-scale atrocities in the name of abstract gods, holy lands, master races, and political systems. David Smith's rapid-fire account of our uniquely lethal nature makes a mockery of our dreams for peace. We could always try, though, but seeing ourselves as we truly are is a necessary first step. This book shows us how.” ―Anouar Majid, author of FREEDOM AND ORTHODOXY: Postcolonial Islam in a Polycentric World

“This is the most important post-9/11 analysis of war and it comes none too soon, as hundreds are daily dying and commentators continue to ask why. David Livingstone Smith has provided a cogent answer to the deeper why question of war; not why Iraq? or why Afghanistan? or why Darfur?, but why war at all? Smith's answer--that war is buried deep in our evolutionary past--will be controversial, but his case is irrefutable. We have seen the enemy in the mirror, and until we gather the courage to accept our true nature, men will fight and people will die. Every politician should read this book before deciding on war.” ―Michael Shermer, Publisher of Skeptic magazine and author of THE SCIENCE OF GOOD AND EVIL

“In The Most Dangerous Animal, David Livingstone Smith illuminates an exceedingly dark subject: humankind's deep-seated penchant for war. The result is a discerning, insightful, highly original, and very disturbing book.” ―Andrew J. Bacevich, author of The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War

“Deftly combining concepts and analytical skills from traditional philosophy with an impressive grasp of contemporary science in several disciplines, Smith has produced a unique work that is at once chilling, invigorating, enlightening, and ultimately hopeful. Believing that truth is the best medicine, I recommend for every thinking person a full dose of this fiercely argued and deeply insightful book.” ―Dale Peterson, author of Jane Goodall, The Deluge and the Ark, and co-author of Demonic Males

“A remarkable and accessible book that provides original and compelling insights into the human capacity for war. Professor Smith's keen psychological analysis reveals how we unconsciously deploy self-deceptive strategies to override our horror at human bloodshed in order to indulge our universal penchant for inter-group violence. A must read for anyone interested in the psychological depths of human nature.” ―Barbara S. Held, Barry N. Wish Professor of Psychology and Social Studies, Bowdoin College, author of Psychology's Interpretive Turn: The Search for Truth and Agency in Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology

“This is a brilliant book. It weaves together a wealth of insights from science, history, literature, philosophy and contemporary affairs into an accessible, lucid, and cogently argued defense of the role of human nature in war.” ―Robert L. Holmes, Professor of Philosophy, University of Rochester, and author of On War and Morality


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin; 1 Reprint edition (February 17, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312537441
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312537449
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (29 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #431,394 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

I was born in New York City, and grew up in South Florida, where I spent many happy hours observing, catching and studying the insects, fish and especially reptiles that abounded in the area. I moved to London in 1976, where I continued my education and became a psychoanalytic psychotherapist and director of the MA program in psychotherapy and counseling at Regents College.I eventually became skeptical of the field of psychotherapy in general, and turned to philosophy to gain conceptual clarity. I earned a Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of London (Kings College) where I did work on the philosophy of mind and philosophy of psychology. These studies introduced me to the significance of evolutionary biology for understanding human nature, enabling me to come full circle by fusing my interest in the human mind with my earlier love of the natural world.

In 2000 I moved from the United Kingdom with my wife Subrena to take up a position at the University of New England, a private liberal arts college in southern Maine, where I am associate professor of philosophy. I teach a range of courses on philosophy of biology, ethics, metaphysics, philosophy of mind, philosophy of psychology and the history of philosophy. I am the co-founder and director of the New England Institute for Cognitive Science and Evolutionary Studies. The New England Institute hosts an lively program of public lectures, including the annual William D. Hamilton Memorial Lecture.

More information about me and my work, visit and

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

36 of 38 people found the following review helpful By Dennis Littrell HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on June 16, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Once upon a time we were little australopithecine animals living in mortal fear of the great carnivores as we tried to steal bones from their kills, sleeping at night in trees where great snakes and huge eagles treated us as prey. Then some time later we grew larger and smarter and begin to ward off the carnivores with sticks and stones and group cohesion. And then there came the day when we became the most feared predator of them all.

This little history, according to the lengthy and perceptive analysis in this most engaging book, sheds important light on why we wage wars and kill with such ferocity.

"The Most Dangerous Animal" is us. We have guns and walls and locks to protect us not from lions and tigers but from each other. But to gain the right ferocity and the sheer bloodlust needed to defeat our human enemies, we had to turn them into beast and vermin and other non human creatures because, simultaneously with our ability to kill, we had a mental module that urged us not to kill our kind. Therein lies, according to Professor Smith, who is both a philosopher and a psychologist, the terrible dialectic that is the human mind as warrior. For the tribe to survive it had to be able to stir its young men to a killing rage like chimpanzees tearing a strange chimp to bits with their bare hands. But at the same time, this violent ferocity must not be turned upon family, friends and other members of the tribe. And so these two assortments of mental neurons (mental modules) exist simultaneously in the human brain, and depending on circumstances lead us to brotherhood or to genocide.

The question that confronts us today is will we always have war?
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Clary Antome on December 30, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Perhaps due to so-called consciousness, our species seems to be the only one affected by vanity. We like to imagine not only that we are in control of our fate, that we "dominate" nature, but also that we are superior to all other animals due to our "morality". No other organism seems particularly concerned with distinguishing between "good" and "bad" (whereas we can fill whole libraries with boring treatises debating this most pressing issue). Ironically, humans are also the ONLY species on this planet that practices war: planning, meticulously preparing, and finally killing hundreds to millions of members of our own kind. If everything goes well, the "victorious" side then gets to compose poems, make blockbuster movies and erect monuments in honour of the "heroic" soldiers who so bravely slaughtered away the "enemy" in the name of God, freedom or democracy. The obvious fact that humans are the greatest killers (and are quite innovative at it, too!) seems nevertheless to cause some discomfort. Invariably we are told that wars are "senseless", "evil", or even "inhuman". Yes, and we would all like to end all wars forever, and live in global brotherhood (at least once we get rid of the "enemies of freedom").
Unfortunately such idyllic fantasies do not impress Mother Nature. And for better or for worse, it's Nature's (or more specifically Evolution's) game we are playing here.

Smith's `The Most Dangerous Animal' proposes a rather cheerless approach to the issue of war: instead of endlessly moralizing about it, he leads the reader on a tour through our evolutionary past, to show how our capacity and necessity to fight wars developed via natural selection, and is therefore deeply ingrained in our minds.
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19 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Carmi Turchick on September 21, 2007
Format: Hardcover
I want to avoid being too negative here since this is the best book on the incredibly important issue of humanity and war that is available today, in my opinion having read at least 85% of them. I have a paper very much along the lines of this book which both myself and the author regret his having found only after he finished writing it. What complaints I have are not that I disagree with the contents generally but more a frustration with the little errors which are inevitable when covering this much ground and with the lost chance to go further than he does.

In general philosophers tend to do poorly when they turn their hands to evolutionary psychology, but he mostly pulls it off. However, there are notable weaknesses. He does not know enough about evolutionary biology to avoid believing, and repeating, some dumb and illogical ideas heard elsewhere and he does not manage to present speculative notions in a scientific manner, carefully framed. Instead we get statements presented as fact which one can dismiss with a few minutes thought. These will leave his work vulnerable to attack by all of those with far weaker and more illogical, and more ideological, ideas about humanity and war, unfortunately.

A few examples then. When discussing chimpanzees and bonobos, their peaceful cousins, he states that "A lot hangs on whether the trunk from which the two branches grew was chimpanzee-like or bonobo-like....if the prehistoric ape that gave rise to the human and chimpanzee-bonobo lines was more like the sensual, affable bonobo than the violent, patriarchal chimpanzee, this might indicate that the heart of human nature is more gentle than truculent."

There is no logic to this assertion.
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