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The Most Dangerous Animal: Human Nature and the Origins of War by [Smith, David Livingstone]
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The Most Dangerous Animal: Human Nature and the Origins of War Kindle Edition

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Review

"This is the most important post-9/11 analysis of war..... 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"

About the Author

Dr. David Livingstone Smith is the author of "Why We Lie" as well as a professor of philosophy and cofounder and director of the Institute for Cognitive Science and Evolutionary Psychology at the University of New England. He and his wife live in Portland, Maine.

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  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 1004 KB
  • Print Length: 286 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 031234189X
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press; 1 Reprint edition (7 Aug. 2007)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B00FO94G1Q
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  • Enhanced Typesetting: Enabled
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars 3 customer reviews
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #351,217 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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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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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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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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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: HASH(0x9014a420) out of 5 stars 30 reviews
37 of 39 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x90154f48) out of 5 stars War from an evolutionary psychological point of view 17 Jun. 2008
By Dennis Littrell - Published on Amazon.com
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? 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.
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x90154f9c) out of 5 stars The Bummer of Being Human 30 Dec. 2007
By Clary Antome - Published on Amazon.com
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. 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.
19 of 24 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9832d3f0) out of 5 stars A Decent Try 21 Sept. 2007
By Carmi Turchick - Published on Amazon.com
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. If the common ancestor was peaceful, still we see that chimpanzees evolved in these five million years to not be peaceful anymore and there is no reason not to think that humans could not also do so. It also may be that the common ancestor was unlike all three of it's descendants in terms of these behaviors. Sussman makes this same error in Man the Hunted asserting that what our ancestors were like behaviorally millions of years ago is of some import to the question of what we are like now. We are talking about creatures with brains a third as large as our weighing up to 60lbs when adults. We are different from them in hundreds of other ways and there is no reason to an asserion that this trait must have remained fixed despite so many other changes.

Late in the book he asserts a connection between exposure to unfamiliar germs and xenophobia, saying that "When human beings lived in small isolated groups, encounters with strangers were potentially threatening because you might not have acquired a resistance to the germs carried by the outsider." There is a lot wrong here. First, our ancestors were not so isolated as he seems to imagine and second, we are pretty welcoming of strangers. It is the known outsiders who are in danger. Anthropologists have wandered into thousands of isolated societies without being killed most of the time. In fact we are attracted most to those whose immune systems differ from our own to the greatest extent, and some reproduction with outsiders is needed to maintain the genetic health of a human group. Furthermore, cultural exchange with outsiders is known to be important to maintain and advance the group culture and knowledge. Highly isolated groups are known to lose their knowledge of various technology over time.

There are other examples but the general issue is that some things he did not think through for himself and there are lots of others out there quite happy to lead you astray, and they did.

Still he gets a lot right including things that trip up most others, dismissing the connection between hunting and aggression for example. And as far as he goes his general argument is sound and in my view correct.

He sees the paterns of labelling enemies as threat animals and so on and rightly concludes that this helps us justify killing them psychologically, not a hugely novel insight but he does go the next step to say that there is an evolved component to this. In my work I assert that this is because we are using our evolved altruism to compel each other to go to war, he stops simply with the view that this helps us not see the other we kill as human and become repulsed by our own actions.

He also never mentions the quite commonly expressed sentiment that soldiers volunteer for war for nation and ideals but once there they fight for each other and nothing else. They form very strong bonds with each other and they kill to keep their brothers in arms from being killed.

Finally I was puzzled by his failure to mention those who die to save others in combat. These actions also seem to indicate a strong altruistic component to the psychology of war, in my view.

A good effort and I do recommend this book. The philosophy side is very strong and there was much there I had not found. But those of you with an interest should not stop here. If you want my own fairly similar take on it (the author said "What a usefull paper!") then you can find it here [...]
21 of 28 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9832d7bc) out of 5 stars unfortunately, there's no ought from is 10 May 2008
By Daniel B. Clendenin - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
In the last century alone over 200 million people, mainly civilians, have been slaughtered in war by their fellow creatures. It's mind boggling to imagine what that number would be if we could calculate the figure beginning with antiquity. In this book written for a broad readership, philosopher David Livingstone speculates about the "big question" of war. Why do humans kill each other on such a mass scale and with such ferocious cruelty? How and why do we ignore or overcome our deepest inhibitions about taking another's life? Livingstone frames the question as a choice between two broad alternatives. He rejects the idea that war is a matter of nurture, a learned behavior, or mere "cultural artifact." Rather, he argues that war is deeply embedded in human nature, that it's innate and, if you will, our natural impulse. As such, war is not so much a pathology or aberrant choice, it's "a normal feature of human life."

To make this point Livingstone appeals to science. Much of his book is not about war at all but about neurobiology, Freudian psychology, evolutionary biology, anthropology, history and archaeology. He's a strict materialist who rejects the notion that there is any "credible alternative to a materialistic conception of mind" (96). As for ethics, "the idea that moral values are objective simply does not hold water" (132). He's convinced that "our taste for killing was bred into us over millions of years by natural and sexual selection" (161) and a "hideously cruel" evolutionary process. That being the case, war might be tragic and regrettable, but in my mind Livingstone has a hard time transcending the conclusion of Arthur Schopenhauer who described nature as a "scene of tormented and agonized beings, who only continue to exist by devouring each other, in which, therefore, every ravenous beast is the living grave of thousands of others, and its self-maintenance is a chain of painful deaths" (67). Life without transcendence is difficult.
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9832d8a0) out of 5 stars Hard-Hitting and Uncensored Look At War 15 Dec. 2007
By AG - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
In what is a well researched and ambitious argument concerning the origins of war, the author paints an uncensored depiction of this uniquely human endeavor.

"War is mangled bodies and shattered minds. It is a stomach turning reek of decaying corpses, of burning flesh and feces. It is rape, disease, and displacement. It is terrible beyond comprehension," Smith says early on.
This image however, is rarely the one that most Americans, not to mention most nations who are usually aggressors seldom see. Indeed, most Americans DO NOT WANT TO SEE this picture.

Pictures like the one that Iraq veteran and Marine Nathaniel Fick writes in One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer,

"We pass a bus, smashed and burned, with charred human remains sitting upright in some windows. There's a man in the road with no head and a dead little girl, too, about three or four, lying on her back. She's wearing a dress and has no legs."

Michael Massing of the New York review of books continues with another stark depiction of wars ugly reality,

"Marine named Graves goes to help a little girl cowering in the back seat, her eyes wide open. As he goes to pick her up, "thinking about what medical supplies he might need to treat her...the top of her head slides off and her brains fall out," Wright writes. As Graves steps back in horror, his boot slips in the girl's brains. "This is the event that is going to get to me when I go home," he says."
[...]

When is the last time you heard something like that on the evening news?
And this fact constitutes a large portion of his argument: That self deception, which entails dehumanization and sanitized language (they are animals and we are going to "take them out.") among the other mechanisms, helps soldiers overcome the natural aversion to taking human life. As long as that self deception is allowed to continue in the soldiers mind, he (as most soldiers responsible killing are male) will remain relatively safe from the awesome psychological burden of killing. When the truth occurs to him however, it is devastating, reaping a horrible psychological wound that many times has no cure. Just look at the stories of World War II hero Audie Murphy or the men who fought in Normandy, of which 98% of the survivors suffered psychiatric damage.

In the end, the author concludes that while he is not at all optimistic that war will be eradicated, or even that we can stop men from enjoying war, a notion that he considers a fool's errand, he says, "... our best hope of stopping war is stopping this kind of self deception, or least becoming intolerant of it."

Professor David Barash, an evolutionary biologist who contributed the blurb above, recommended the book to me and so I will recommended to you, with the hope that you will do the same to your friends. This book should be read by both supporters and opponents of the current Iraqi occupation, as well as anyone who wishes to better understand human nature and origins of war.

For a brief interview of the author, go to this site [...]
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