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Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others 1st Edition

4.5 out of 5 stars 27 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-1250003836
ISBN-10: 1250003830
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Smith (The Most Dangerous Animal), cofounder and director of the Institute for Cognitive Science and Evolutionary Psychology at the University of New England, interrogates why man alone, in Mark Twain's words, can go "forth in cold blood and calm pulse to exterminate his kind." Smith explores the ancient practice of labeling rival tribes; specific ethnic, racial, or religious groups; and species as undeserving of compassion. He is intent on untangling the mystery of dehumanization: it's insufficient to merely demonize the criminals, he argues; we must understand why, say, the Nazis believed they had a "moral duty" to annihilate the Jews. He looks into possible biological bases, psychological and developmental roots, clues in paleolithic art, and how, over the ages, philosophers and artists have criticized or goaded on the practice. Vivid and horrifying examples of incidences (and consequences) of the harassment, torture, and extermination of certain groups saturate the book—from the European decimation of indigenous peoples in the Americas to Israeli soldiers' attacks on Palestinian children. Smith's compelling study and his argument that the study of dehumanization be made a global priority to prevent future Rwandas or Hiroshimas is well-made and important. (Mar.)
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“Smith reasonably argues that dehumanization is rooted in human nature…. He offers a rigorous philosophical theory... informed by his discipline's precision, and by certain well-founded suppositions about the mind...an interesting and unusually lucid book about an under-studied subject.” ―New York Times Sunday Book Review

“Smith's compelling study and his argument that the study of dehumanization be made a global priority to prevent future Rwandas or Hiroshimas is well-made and important.” ―Publishers Weekly

“Smith offers an impressively thorough survey of 'dehumanization' as it has been deployed against Jews, African-Americans, and other 'Others' -- as an accompaniment to exploitation or extermination.” ―Barbara Ehrenreich, Los Angeles Review of Books

“Books like Smith's should be required reading for all with a social conscience, and his ideas ought to find their way into every school curriculum.” ―Valerie Curtis, Ph.D., Journal of Evolutionary Psychology

“In this powerful and original work―ranging widely and with impressive interdisciplinary scope over different epochs and cultures while remaining compellingly readable―David Livingstone Smith demonstrates that our practice of representing our fellow-humans as subhuman is both inhuman and all too human. He forces us to recognize that monstrous atrocities are routinely carried out not by monsters but, alas, by ourselves.” ―Charles W. Mills, Ph.D. author of The Racial Contract, John Evans Professor of Moral and Intellectual Philosophy

“David Livingstone Smith produces a clear and illuminating vision of why human beings are the way we are and how we got this way. The scholarship is broad, the insight is deep and the prose is compelling. Less Than Human will change the way you think about things that matter profoundly. This is dazzling stuff.” ―Steven E. Landsburg, Ph.D., author of The Big Questions

“Warning: This book will challenge you! Not that it's hard to understand -- in fact, it's wonderfully accessible -- but it raises some terrible realities. For this reason, it is all the more important that you read Less that Human. It is brilliantly written, carefully researched, and a wonderful and much-needed opportunity for us to explore what it might mean to be ‘truly human'.” ―David P. Barash, author of Payback: Why We Retaliate, Seek Revenge and Redirect Our Aggression

“This is a beautiful book on an ugly topic. David Livingstone Smith uses the newest research in cognitive science to address the problems of racism, genocide, and atrocity, presenting a provocative theory as to why we come to see others as less than human. There are deep and important ideas here, and this engaging book should be read by anyone interested in the worst aspects of human nature -- and how we can come to transcend them.” ―Paul Bloom, author of How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like and professor of psychology, Yale University

“Smith is a philosopher with a strong interest in cognitive science and evolutionary psychology. His book offers a gripping history of the horrific ways in which human beings have turned other humans into "sub-humans" and "beasts in human form," from American rhetoric rationalizing African slavery, to the Nazi persecution of the Jews, to the justifications offered for the genocide in Rwanda. He identifies a key thematic in all these campaigns of dehumanization: namely, convincing the persecutors that, when it comes to the persecuted, there is a difference between being essentially human and merely appearing human. He then speculates...that the propensity to draw an essence/appearance distinction is a legacy of natural selection itself. One need not find the evolutionary speculation convincing to nonetheless find his synthesis of the ways in which the essence/appearance distinction figures in the rhetoric of hatred and genocide throughout history insightful and memorable.” ―Brian Leiter, Karl N. Llewellyn Professor of Jurisprudence, University of Chicago Law School

“One part detective story, one part horror story, one part evolutionary philosophy, Less Than Human is actually a book about what it means to be human. As such, there are few of us who can afford to miss it.” ―Peter Swirski,Ph.D., author of American Utopia and Social Engineering in Literature, Social Thought, and Political History, Professor of American literature and culture at the Department of English, University of Missouri, and Research Fellow at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies

“Dehumanization is a thoroughly human behavior. It is a tool we have used for millennia to bolster our self-esteem, to justify slavery and exploitation, to get ourselves to kill and exterminate. Yet, despite its terrible significance, surprisingly little scholarly attention has been trained on the phenomenon -- on its origins, how it works, and how we might avoid its dreadful toll. Bringing enviably acute skills as a philosopher to bear on the subject, David Livingstone Smith draws on an impressive range of sources to argue that dehumanization emerges from the very core of our humanity, our ability to reflect upon our own thoughts. Writing in an engaging and accessible style, he uses an incisive logic to pare away the layers of his subject to reveal this troubling conclusion. This is an important book for anthropologists, who are interested in ethnocentrism, and for any human concerned about our capacity to harm one another.” ―Paul Roscoe, Ph.D., Professor of Anthropology, University of Maine.


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin; 1 edition (February 28, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1250003830
  • ISBN-13: 978-1250003836
  • Product Dimensions: 5.7 x 0.9 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #265,533 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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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Format: 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.Read more ›
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