Home / Book Review – The Most Dangerous Animal: Human Nature and the Origins of War by David Livingstone Smith

Book Review – The Most Dangerous Animal: Human Nature and the Origins of War by David Livingstone Smith

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To say that much has been written on the topic of war seems like a gross understatement. At the time of this writing, a search for 'war' on Amazon.com yields 639,124 results. Tightened to display only non-fiction books on war still yields 183,839. History teachers, no doubt many with heart-felt sincerity, repeat the tired cliche, 'fail to study history and you are doomed to repeat it.' Have none of those in positions of power and influence, those directly or indirectly responsible for the wars being waged as I write, studied history? Have we the people not studied history? They, and we, have. At least versions thereof.

Almost one hundred years ago, WWI was touted as the war to end all wars. It didn't. David Livingstone Smith writes in the preface to The Most Dangerous Animal: Human Nature and the Origins of War, that "almost 200 million human beings, mostly civilians, have died in wars over the last century, and there is no end in sight." Why do we continue? That is the question Smith attempts to answer in The Most Dangerous Animal. He combines two sharply polarized historical views — that war is, behind the layers of artificial civility, our base nature and conversely, that war is a corruption of an otherwise gentle, kind, pure nature — to argue that war is caused by both "forces working in tandem; it is a child of ambivalence, a compromise between two opposing sides of human nature."

As is often the case, perhaps more obviously so for non-fiction than fiction, to understand an author's approach and biases, it is instructive to look at some biographical details. Perhaps it is the controversial nature of his approach, more than his topic or thesis, that compelled Smith to be as transparent, one could almost say defensive, as he is in the preface. Smith, born in New York City and educated partially in London, England, practiced and taught psychoanalytic psychotherapy for some time. After becoming skeptical of psychotherapy in general, he turned to the study of the philosophy of mind and the philosophy of psychology, leading him eventually to the significance of evolutionary biology in the study of human nature. He is currently associate professor of philosophy at the University of New England, where he is also the co-founder and director of the New England Institute for Cognitive Science and Evolutionary Psychology. He is also the author of Why We Lie: The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind.

The Most Dangerous Animal is, as he puts it, "unashamedly rooted in an evolutionary biological perspective," and he moves, again in his own words, "promiscuously between disciplines — from psychology, to philosophy, to prehistoric archeology, with forays into anthropology, psychoanalysis, and even microbiology." Aware that some may thus regard him as a jack-of-all-trades and master of none, he counters that "Nature does not respect the artificial boundaries between disciplines carved out by university departments." Fortunately for Smith, not only does his argument absolutely depend upon an interdisciplinary approach, but interdisciplinary studies are increasingly in vogue nowadays. His unashamedly evolutionary biological perspective will no doubt push many religiously conservative readers away. It is his hope, and mine as well, that this book will reach not only an exclusively secular readership, but that even those uneasy with his perspective will follow his argument through to its conclusion.

Another aspect Smith obviously suspects will make some readers uneasy is the fact that he neither has combat experience, nor relies much on interviews of military personnel returning from battle. Here, too, he feels compelled to offer preemptive justifications. Though scientific in nature, in that the argument is rooted in evolutionary biology, this is not a difficult read, technically. It is merely difficult because so dark, so ugly, so horrific an aspect of human nature is discussed.

Smith begins the body of the book with an image the Western media chose not to air in its gruesome detail. "Like many terrible things," he writes, "it is something that we do not want to think about too much if we can help it." Here is the description of the decapitation of Eugene Armstrong by four Islamic militants in Iraq on September 20, 2004:

The long knife sliced through Armstrong's flesh. He screamed. Blood gushed from his neck. His body shuddered and became limp. The executioner placed the dripping, severed head on the back of Armstrong's lifeless body.

Though very disturbing, Smith believes it would perhaps have been better for our media to show it, rather than stopping short before any blood was drawn. "Armstrong's execution was an act of war, and war is terrible." These images we reserve for our video games and action movies instead. Smith returns, as part of his argument, to these contradictory facts — we do not want to see the horrific details of war, whether perpetrated by us or on one of us by 'them', yet can hardly get enough of war imagery, in all its gruesome detail, through games and movies. Many young men, he writes, chose to join the Marines during the Vietnam war under the influence of John Wayne films. And indicative of the power of propaganda and film is the story of the sixty U.S. soldiers who died within the first four months of the war trying to outdraw one another, as they had seen done in cowboy movies. Though the cosmetic transformation of war is nothing new, Hollywood movie versions paint a picture that is not only way off the mark, but dangerous. Most filmmakers steer well clear of the true horrors of war. Apparently, according to General Sir John Hackett, quoted by Smith, there are certain conventions to be followed on the screen:

Men blown up by high explosives in real war…are often torn apart quite hideously; in films there is a big bang and bodies, intact, fly through the air with the greatest of ease. If they are shot…they fall down like children in a game, to lie motionless. The most harrowing thing in real battle is that they usually don't lie still; only the lucky ones are killed outright.

Throughout the book, Smith brings up uncomfortable and shocking realities. Though chapter one opens with an image from the current war in Iraq, that is not what the book is about. It is not about any specific war. It is not an anti-war book, per se. It is about war in general, about the roots of war in human nature. He points to many gruesome and shocking events, reaching back to screams of war victims evident in prehistoric burial sites, up to the present, where "a million other brutalities join them in a tortured chorus that echoes through history, but to which we turn a deaf ear," facts that are an embarrassment, facts that "deflate our pretensions to moral superiority, our conception of ourselves as standing at the pinnacle of creation." Though we prefer fairy tales, "turning truth on its head to keep the truth at a reassuringly safe distance," he will not let his reader off the hook.

Smith moves from an examination of the definitions of war, through its ambiguities, its broad and narrow definitions, to distinctions between murder, raids, battle, terrorism, atrocities, crimes against humanity, genocide, ethnocide, and democide. He examines the distinction between "primitive warfare" and "civilized warfare," arguing that such hard boundaries drawn between them are arbitrary and serve only to throw "obstacles in the path of anyone trying to understand the relationship between war and human nature." Defining war ultimately as "premeditated, sanctioned violence carried out by one community (group, tribe, nation, etc.) against members of another," a definition that encompasses all the rest, he goes on to describe, in very simple, straight-forward terms, the reasons for war — territory, food, water, but also less tangible commodities like souls, honor, and justice. And most importantly, something at the very heart of his thesis, something to which he returns again and again, he argues that, "Like it or not, war is distinctively human."

To prove his thesis, that both our warlike nature and our aversion to war are part of human nature, Smith takes us along, chapter by chapter, to look at beings from ants to wolves to primates, with special focus on chimpanzees, our closest living relatives. By seeing how other, especially closely related social animals wage war, we can learn about ourselves. He traces our evolution from prehistoric humans to nomads and settled, agricultural, 'civilized' peoples. He draws on evolution of body and mind (evolutionary biology and psychology) to show how we have been shaped by biological factors into beings fit for war, and simultaneously into beings repulsed by war. Early on in the book Smith is careful to note that "saying that war is driven by biology is not the same as saying that it is inevitable. Indeed, the most important reason for teasing out the biological roots of war is to find better ways to prevent it." Saying war is natural, a case he makes very well with overwhelming evidence and a solid line of reasoning, could easily lead to the accusation that he is supporting war, indeed justifying it.

Going back to definitions for a moment, it is worthwhile to point out how vital it is to question, as Smith does, the easy, euphemistic definitions of war-related terms bandied about by supporters of war. As America continues to justify its 'war on terror', first in Afghanistan, then in Iraq, and possibly soon in Iran (see Impending US Attack on Iran?), Smith's discussion of euphemistic language, designed to conceal the true nature of what is happening and employed in the service of self-deception, is of utmost importance. He spends a good deal of time around definitions of 'terrorism' and 'atrocity', not unlike Noam Chomsky in Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance, and Arundhati Roy in War Talk. "As with terrorism," Smith writes, "we imagine that such acts are committed exclusively by the other side and that they are fundamentally alien and profoundly antagonistic to our own way of life."

There is much in this book to make people uncomfortable. Hardly a stone is left unturned in the quest to discover the roots of war in human nature. Not even cornerstones. To those who see science as the source of evil, the source of war, he counters that "if we were an essentially kind and peaceful species, it would not occur to us to use this tool for destructive purposes. We exploit science to make war because we are warlike creatures." And to those who would believe that religion is the solution, the source of all that is good, that institution without which humanity would be but brute beasts, devoid of morality, he has this to say: "Not only is there no evidence that religion makes people morally responsible, but history confronts us with a long, bloody record of wars, genocides, and other atrocities inspired by religious devotion and often executed by religious institutions." He follows this up with examples from various cultural and religious traditions.

Much of The Most Dangerous Animal is very dark and depressing. Indeed most of it is. Our track record is horrible almost beyond imagining. Here's an example, in numbers, sparing the gruesome details:

…around 87 million people have been killed in wars over the last century. If we add the victims of democide we get, at a conservative estimate, around 170 million deaths in the twentieth century alone… an average of 1.7 million a year, 4,630 a day, 193 an hour and 3 a minute. In the 1990s alone, around 2 million were killed in Afghanistan, 1.5 million in Sudan, almost 1 million in Rwanda, 500,000 in Angola, 250,000 in Bosnia and the same in Burundi, 200,000 in Guatemala, 150,000 in Liberia, and 75,000 in Algeria.

Among forty-one modern nations, Russia and the United Kingdom have been the worst offenders, with 3.6 and 5.9 wars per generation (and 49.3 and 48.3 years of conflict per century respectively), followed by France, Spain, Turkey, and Italy.

Though Smith's discussion is ultimately rooted in evolutionary biology, he is very good at breaking down complex theories and systems into very understandable, digestible parts, putting it well within reach of the intelligent, non-specialist, reader. Evolution, for example, he says is very easy to grasp. And when he explains it, it is. "It consists of three phases, which spiral through time in an endlessly recurring pattern of variation, selection, and reproduction…. Nature brings forth a huge number of slightly different organisms, makes each one run the gauntlet of life, discards the failures, and retains the successful models for further tinkering." Another wonderfully simple scientific explanation pertains to consciousness: "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… [it] is something that the brain does." Just as one cannot find washingness among the parts of a washing machine; it is something that it does.

There were a few things not addressed to my satisfaction in The Most Dangerous Animal. While a fair bit of time was devoted to the use of language to deceive, especially to deceive ourselves, relatively little was said about the role of religious, cultural, and political leaders in deceiving the masses. And even less was said about the role of economics in motivating these leaders to deceive themselves and us. Perhaps these require too much specificity, straying too far from his broad focus on the bedrock of human nature as it relates to war in general. Still, the role of economics in leading a relatively small number of people (and corporations) to deceive the masses, to exploit the vulnerabilities of the masses, for their own benefit, needs to be discussed. And it would fit right in.

Also, he devotes the last few chapters to an exploration of the mechanisms that allow us to deceive ourselves, so that we learn to recognize and thus avoid falling prey to those elements of our own nature that lead us to war. His approach, it seems, is to lift the veil, so to speak, and show us our own nature. Perhaps he will follow this book up with another, but I was really hoping for more insight into how we can, collectively, rise above our warlike nature. Self-knowledge is an individual endeavor, whereas war is a collective one. Though there are a few hopeful comments scattered throughout the text, it is only in the last chapter that Smith brings in a very cautious, subdued, almost forced, optimism.

He is wary of substituting "platitudes for thinking." The following, near the end, is perhaps the most optimistic statement to be found in this book:

If this analysis is anywhere near correct, then our best hope of stopping war is stopping this kind of self-deception, or at least becoming intolerant of it. If we do not take refuge in illusion, we will find it much more difficult to go to war.

Indeed, if his well argued analysis is correct, we all should read this book. There is obviously much more to be said, and much left to be discovered about human nature and about war. In a time when war, though fought far away, is pursued at great cost to both the imagined enemies and the soldiers who fight them, the light this book sheds on human nature, both on our warlike nature and on our natural repulsion to war, makes The Most Dangerous Animal a very relevant and important read.

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About Abram Bergen