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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
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? When I was an undergraduate I argued against the affirmative with others and in particular with one of my psychology professors. In the final argument it came down to the definition of war. If war is any violence of humans against humans, then, yes, war will never end until our nature changes, possibly through some kind of biological engineering. But if war is tribe against tribe, nation against nation, then it is possible that through the rule of law imposed internationally upon all people, war may end. Possibly. Smith is pessimistic, and I can say--no longer an undergraduate--that unless human nature changes, there will always be disputes that sadly cannot be settled in any other way. War is "politics by other means."

Smith defines war as "premeditated, sanctioned violence carried out by one community (group, tribe, nation, etc.) against members of another." (p. 16) He recalls the work of Jane Goodall and others who observed chimpanzees carrying out "raids" against other chimps in a purposeful way that is very much like humans going to war. Since we are genetically very much like chimpanzees, their behavior suggests a common inherited source of warlike violence. But Smith also points to the bonobos, the smaller chimps who practice what can only be called "love not war"--or at least "sex not war." They too are our close cousins. And how like caricatures of the human left-right political dichotomy they are! I think what we need to understand is that those who believe in the war system and those who do not, come by their beliefs genetically. Their beliefs are ingrained. And in many of us both beliefs are held simultaneously.

What we do, as Smith so painstakingly demonstrates, is we lie to ourselves. We practice self-deception to an amazing degree. Smith even argues that self-deception is adaptive in the Darwinian sense. He cites biologist Robert L. Trivers as arguing that self-deception is adaptive because it is easier to fool others when we have first fooled ourselves. (p. 126) Furthermore, how do we avoid guilt and self-loathing after killing another human being in cold blood on the battlefield? Or better yet, how do we get our young men to do this killing? We convince ourselves first, and then them, that our adversaries are monstrous vermin, that they are subhuman, that, although they have a human form, they lack the "essence" of being human. Smith gives many examples of people from ancient times to the present day as doing exactly this. The prelude to genocide is the dehumanization of others.

But this book is about more than the war system. Professor Smith demonstrates a profound understanding of human psychology in other areas as well. His take on consciousness is one of the best I have ever read. He writes: "...it is a mistake to imagine that there is something in the brain corresponding to our notion of consciousness. Consciousness is not a thing inside the brain rubbing shoulders with the anterior cingulated gyrus or tucked away discretely behind the amygdala. Consciousness--if one wants to use this slippery term at all--is something that the brain does. The fact that the word "consciousness" is a noun half-seduces us into thinking of it as a thing. The word `consciousness' should have a verbal equivalent: we should be able to say that the brain is `consciousnessing'." (p. 104)

Actually we do have such a verbal equivalent. It is "perceiving." Consciousness is perception, but perception writ large, including partial perception of our inner states and our mental activities, and the feelings that come from our emotions, as well as what has happened, is happening, and is likely to happen, around us. This is in addition to the perception that comes from the "third eye"--the mind. This perception, at which we are the planet's clear leaders, combines knowledge from perceptions about things past and present, about things seen and heard and told about, and puts all that information together in a grand mental perception about what has happened, is happening or is to come.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
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. What has in the meantime become common sense for at least some people, namely that "evil" is first and foremost to be found within us, can now be confirmed by evolutionary biology. As if it wasn't bad enough that the "paragon of creation", in Hamlet's noble words, has been reduced to a bundle of selfish genes - now we are told that even culture and civilization, our pride and joy, are basically rooted in the wars we have fought, are fighting and will be fighting for years to come!
The first half of the book presents a baffling amount of historical, anthropological and of course biological evidence to show just how advantageous war has been for the spreading of human genes on the planet. It is particularly interesting to observe the transition from more disorganized and limited raids (also practiced by chimpanzees) to "true wars" - involving far more premeditation, ideological preparation, resources and manpower (as well as victims). The latter date back only ten thousand years, when the development of agriculture and sedentary populations made battles for territory and resources all the more appealing... and unavoidable. Ever since, humans have been busy developing the most exquisite forms of torture and slaughter, including manhunts, concentration camps and of course the atomic bomb (in a nutshell). Smith provides countless quotations of astonishingly violent acts across the cultures and eras, basically proving that "the history of humanity is, to a very great extent, a history of violence."
The second part of the book concentrates on the "cognitive" aspect of war, i.e., how come that such sensitive organisms as ourselves (who can even write heartfelt love songs and organize mega-charity spectacles) can so ruthlessly slay other humans without a flicker of doubt. As it turns out, wars are not only messy, filthy and smelly, but also quite traumatizing for the killers. Tricky as usual, evolution has endowed us with extreme empathy as well as indifference towards the suffering of others. The question is how to make the switch from friendly neighbour to greatest enemy. Recovering some of the arguments he had already convincingly used in his previous book `Why We Lie', Smith shows that our ability to be (unimaginably) "cruel" when appropriate is fundamentally connected with our great knack to deceive ourselves. In fact, most of human consciousness consists of self-deception. It should be no surprise then that when it comes to killing, our brains are able to conjure up all kinds of arguments that justify and embellish the act. In a typical example of (self-defensive) vanity, we tend to convince ourselves that "the enemy" is not human at all. Again Smith uses various examples from testimonies, historical accounts, current political propaganda, to show to what extent our minds produce mild (and socially sanctioned) hallucinations that make the process of killing not only endurable but even pleasant.

By the end of this spooky tour through the realities of war there is very little space left for optimism. Smith does try to wrap it up in a faintly hopeful humanistic message - now that we understand where we come from, maybe we can work hard against our evolutionary legacy, etc - but it doesn't sound very convincing. After all, wars are still tremendously useful and necessary (which is why all "civilized" and "peaceful" countries are engaged in proxy wars abroad). Hundreds of battles are being fought as we speak. New deadly weapons are busily being developed by impartial scientists in the best laboratories. If anything, given the state of the world (depletion of resources, lack of space), we can expect even greater wars in a not too far future. Understanding where we come from hardly means that we can influence where we're going to. We are left with little more than the consolation of recognition.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 5 May 2011
Two other reviewers have provided ample and excellent reviews so not having the academic and scholarly muscle all I can say is reading this book by David Livingstone Smith was eye-opening and mind widening. The book does not make for pleasant reading and at times was akin to exposure therapy to the brutality and sheer cruelty of the human animal towards its own species. But for an intelligent seering contribution to the psychology of war, the evolutionary origins of war and the horrendous impact of war throughout history it is in my opinion unsurpassed. Livingstone-Smith's theories on the role of deception and self-deception both at the individual and cultural level, the role of the media, politics ect is fascinating.

A must read for anyone interested in evolutionary psychology, war, politics and deception, but be prepared to be shocked.
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