The Most Dangerous Animal: Human Nature and the Origins of War

The Most Dangerous Animal: Human Nature and the Origins of War

by David Livingstone Smith

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Almost 200 million human beings, mostly civilians, have died in wars over the last century, and there is no end of slaughter in sight.
The Most Dangerous Animal asks what it is about human nature that makes it possible for human beings to regularly slaughter their own kind. It tells the story of why all human beings have the potential to be hideously cruel and destructive to one another. Why are we our own worst enemy? The book shows us that war has been with us---in one form or another---since prehistoric times, and looking at the behavior of our close relatives, the chimpanzees, it argues that a penchant for group violence has been bred into us over millions of years of biological evolution. The Most Dangerous Animal takes the reader on a journey through evolution, history, anthropology, and psychology, showing how and why the human mind has a dual nature: on the one hand, we are ferocious, dangerous animals who regularly commit terrible atrocities against our own kind, on the other, we have a deep aversion to killing, a horror of taking human life. Meticulously researched and far-reaching in scope and with examples taken from ancient and modern history, The Most Dangerous Animal delivers a sobering lesson for an increasingly dangerous world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781429994637
Publisher: St. Martin''s Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/07/2007
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 545,997
File size: 443 KB

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.

Dr. David Livingstone Smith is the author of Why We Lie and The Most Dangerous Animal. He is professor of philosophy and cofounder and director of the Institute for Cognitive Science and Evolutionary Studies at the University of New England. He and his wife live in Portland, Maine.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One A Bad-Taste Business Evil is unspectacular and always human, and shares our bed and eats at our own table. --w. h. auden, herman melville on monday, september 20, 2004, Islamic militants in Iraq executed an American construction worker named Eugene Armstrong. Four men, masked and clothed in black, tensely clutched their automatic weapons while the bound and blindfolded Armstrong knelt in front of them. "God's soldiers from Tawhid and Jihad were able to abduct three infidels of God's enemies in Baghdad," the leader intoned, ". . . by the name of God, these three hostages will get nothing from us except their throats slit and necks chopped, so they will serve as an example." 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. Do you think that this is a shocking image? When the video was broadcast on national television, it was interrupted before any blood was spilled. Perhaps this discretion was a good thing; the image was, after all, very disturbing. But perhaps it would have been better to show it. Armstrong's execution was an act of war, and war is terrible. Like many terrible things, it is something that we do not want to think about too much if we can help it. Many people conceive of war in terms of manly, granite-chinned heroes duking it out with the forces of evil. The reality is very different from this comic-book picture. It is something from which we collectively avert our gaze. The news and entertainment media obligingly maintain our illusions, protecting our sensibilities from too potent a dose of reality. This is why, during the dark days of the Cambodian genocide, the Associated Press rejected photographs of a smiling soldier eating the liver of a Khmer Rouge fighter whom he had just gutted and a soldier lowering a human head by the hair into a pot of boiling water. And it is why U.S. newspapers avoided British photographer Kenneth Jarecke's photograph of the charred head of an Iraqi soldier who was among those burned alive on Mutla Ridge during the closing chapter of the First Gulf War.1 When the British journalist Martin Bell reported on the war in Bosnia, he quickly realized that he was expected to sacrifice reality to "good taste." The version of the war presented to television audiences was, he remarked, "about as close to reality as a Hollywood action movie," later remarking that "in our desire not to offend and upset people, we were not only sanitizing war but even prettifying it. . . . But war is real and war is terrible. War is a bad taste business."2 The cosmetic transformation of war is nothing new. Painters of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries denuded war of its horror, portraying soldiers with "neatly-bandaged head-wounds" and "manly and heroic expressions." Much the same is true of popular literature. The literary misrepresentation of war is exemplified by the writings of Rudyard Kipling, who, despite having no combat experience himself, confidently portrayed war in ludicrously glowing terms. Kipling's romantic fantasies lured a generation of young men to their deaths in the trenches of World War I. With the advent of photography in the early nineteenth century, representations of war took on a new dimension of realism. But even the early photographers of the American Civil War, Spanish-American War, and World War I were not above manipulating things to suit their expectations. They dragged bodies into position before snapping them and passed off cleaned-up reenactments of military engagements as the genuine article.3 The advent of moving pictures opened new vistas for dishonestly representing battle. Most filmmakers steer safely clear of the horror and degradation of war, and most film viewers have no direct experience to act as a corrective to the Hollywood version. Consequently, many of us have an extremely distorted picture of combat. A real battlefield is not much like the typical movie version. "On the screen," writes General Sir John Hackett, "there are particular conventions to be observed." 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.4 Life imitates art, and the glorification of war in modern cinema has had serious consequences for the lives of its consumers. Amazingly, many young men chose to join the U.S. Marines during the Vietnam War under the influence of John Wayne films. In their minds, going to war was like being a character in a movie: good guys killing bad guys, cowboys killing Indians. In fact, during the first four months of 1968, sixty U.S. soldiers in Vietnam died trying to outdraw one another just as they had seen actors do in cowboy films.5 Because of these and other compelling illusions about war, it is easy--in fact, all too easy--to regard the perpetrators of mass violence as depraved monsters or madmen. For example, George W. Bush proclaimed that he ordered the invasion of Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein's regime because he "was not about to leave the security of the American people in the hands of a madman." French president Jacques Chirac described Osama bin Laden as "a raving madman," while British foreign secretary Jack Straw described Bin Laden as "psychotic and paranoid."6 What evidence was there that these people were insane? There is usually none at all. The psychologists who painstakingly sifted through data on the senior Nazi officers brought to justice in the Nuremberg trials found that "high-ranking Nazi war criminals . . . participated in atrocities without having diagnosable impairments that would account for their actions."7 They were "as diverse a group as one might find in our government today, or in the leadership of the PTA."8 If the Nazi leaders were not deranged, what about the rank and file who did Hitler's dirty work? What about the members of the Einsatzgruppen, the mobile killing units that committed atrocities like the mass killing at Babi Yar, where 33,000 Jews, as well as many gypsies and mental patients, were machine-gunned to death during two crisp autumn days in 1941? Do you think that these men must have been psychopaths or Nazi zealots? If so, you are wrong. There is not a shred of evidence to suggest that they were anything other than ordinary German citizens. "The system and rhythm of mass extermination," observes journalist Heinz Hohne, "were directed by . . . worthy family men." The men of the German Reserve Police Battalion 101, a killing squad in Poland who were involved in the shooting of at least 38,000 Jews and the deportation of a further 83,000 to the Treblinka death camp, were ordinary middle-aged family men without either military training or ideological indoctrination. "The truth seems to be," writes social psychologist James Waller, "that the most outstanding characteristic of perpetrators of extraordinary evil lies in their normality, not their abnormality."9 Purveyors of violence, terrorists, and merchants of genocidal destruction are, more often than not, people who fit the profile that Primo Levi painted of his Nazi jailers at Auschwitz: "average human beings, averagely intelligent, averagely wicked . . . they had our faces." To Hannah Arendt they were "terribly and terrifyingly normal."10 They could be your neighbors, parents, or children. They could be you. This book is about where war lives in human nature. It is not only, or even primarily, about people like Hitler, Stalin, or Saddam: It is about people like you and me, our ancestors, our children, and our children's children. It tells the story of why human beings, all human beings, have the potential to be hideously cruel and destructive to one another. Other animals attack and sometimes kill members of their own kind, but they do not organize themselves into groups to destroy neighboring communities. Mark Twain made this point over a century ago. Man is the only animal that deals in that atrocity of atrocities, war. He is the only one that gathers his brethren about him and goes forth in cold blood and calm pulse to exterminate his kind. He is the only animal that for sordid wages will march out . . . and help to slaughter strangers of his own species who have done him no harm and with whom he has no quarrel. . . . And in the intervals between campaigns he washes the blood off his hands and works for "the universal brotherhood of man"--with his mouth.11 In fact, Twain's portrait of human nature is far too charitable. Men not only march out to slaughter their own kind on a scale so huge that it beggars the imagination, they often do so in ways that are diabolically cruel. A small taste of this side of human nature is conveyed in the following passage from Thomas Alfred Walker's classic History of the Law of Nations. When Basil II (1014) could blind fifteen thousand Bulgarians, leaving an eye to the leader of every hundred, it ceases to be a matter of surprise that Saracen marauders should thirty years later be impaled by Byzantine officials, that the Greeks of Adramyttium in the time of Malek Shah (1106-16) should drown Turkish children in boiling water, and that the Emperor Necephorus (961) should cast from catapults into a Cretan city the heads of Saracens slain in the attempt to raise the siege, or that a crusading Prince of Antioch (1097) should cook human bodies on spits to earn for his men the terrifying reputation of cannibalism.12 Walker was writing about events that unfolded long ago and far away and that are safely confined to the pages of history books. But others that occurred before and after them equal these horrors. The screams of Basil's victims mingle with the screams of the men, women, and children whose mute remains lie in prehistoric burial sites. They mingle with the cries of the residents of Babylon when King Sennacherib's Assyrian warriors put them to the sword, and the cries of Native Americans cut down by Spanish steel and American lead. Victims of the Armenian genocide, the Jewish Holocaust, and a million other brutalities join them in a tortured chorus that echoes through history, but to which we turn a deaf ear. These facts are an embarrassment. They deflate our pretensions to moral superiority, our conception of ourselves as standing at the pinnacle of creation. Consequently, we prefer fairy tales, turning reality on its head to keep the truth at a reassuringly safe distance. Like it or not, war is distinctively human. Apart from the raiding behavior of chimpanzees, which I will describe in chapter 4, and the so-called wars prosecuted by certain species of ant, there is nothing in nature that comes anywhere near approximating it. Despite this, we often describe warfare as "brutal" (literally "animal-like") or "inhuman"--conceiving of it as something remote from our true humanity. Another distancing tactic is to treat war as a social illness, a deviation from the naturally peaceable state of humankind, a strange cyclic malady like a fever that causes us to periodically shed the garments of civilization and fall prey to the wild beast within (Leonardo da Vinci called it "bestialissima pazzia," "the most bestial madness"). Even the extraordinary war correspondent Martha Gellhorn, a brave and insightful woman who reported on most of the major military conflagrations of the twentieth century, fell into this trap when she characterized war as "a malignant disease, an idiocy, a prison."13 However much one might like it to be true, the first member of Gellhorn's trilogy of metaphors is false. War is not a pathological condition; it is normal and expectable. It is, as she went on to remark, "our condition and our history" and has been so for tens of thousands, and perhaps hundreds of thousands or even millions, of years. War is not antithetical to civilization, the brotherhood of man, or the great spiritual and cultural traditions of East and West. It is deeply and perhaps inextricably bound up with them. What about Gellhorn's second metaphor? Is war an idiocy? Yes, in the sense of being a hideously costly way to settle conflict. Forget about the sanitized images of combat churned out for public consumption. War is grotesque. "You tripped over strings of viscera fifteen feet long," wrote William Manchester in Goodbye, Darkness, his memoir of World War II, "over bodies which had been cut in half at the waist. Legs and arms, and heads bearing only necks, lay fifty feet from the closest torso."14 Guy Sajer, who fought for the Wehrmacht on the Russian front during World War II, makes no concessions to delicacy. Unlike many, he did not feel the need to put a noble gloss on unspeakable horror when he describes in his memoir The Forgotten Soldier how tanks grind human flesh into the dirt to make a bloody paste, their massive treads plastered with pieces of human bodies. His accounts read like descriptions of scenes from hell. There is nothing but the rhythm of explosions, more or less distant, more or less violent, and the cries of madmen, to be classified later, according to the outcome of the battle, as the cries of heroes or of murderers. And there are the cries of the wounded, of the agonizingly dying, shrieking as they stare at a part of their body reduced to pulp, the cries of men touched by the shock of battle before everybody else, who run in any and every direction, howling like banshees. There are the tragic, unbelievable visions, which carry from one moment of nausea to another: guts splattered across the rubble and sprayed from one dying man onto another; tightly riveted machines ripped like the belly of a cow which has just been sliced open, flaming and groaning.15 War is mangled bodies and shattered minds. It is the stomach-churning reek of decaying corpses, of burning flesh and feces. It is rape, disease, and displacement. It is terrible beyond comprehension, but it is not senseless. Wars are purposeful. They are fought for resources, lebensraum, oil, gold, food, and water or peculiarly abstract and imaginary goods like God, honor, race, democracy, and destiny. Later on, I will argue that self-deception is an indispensable element of war, and that despite the fact that wars are calculated and planned, there is a sense in which human beings do not know what they are doing when they cut one another down on the battlefield. A smokescreen of self-deception is required to make most human beings capable of such acts of slaughter. Gellhorn's third and final metaphor is both apt and powerful. War is like a prison. We seem to be in bondage to war. No matter how vehemently we condemn it, how forcefully we repudiate it, we are unable to free ourselves from its morbid attraction. Prisons constrain us from the outside, but there is something about human nature, something inside of us, that binds us to war. And so, year after year, century after century, millennium after millennium, the tragedy drags on. Like all living things, Homo sapiens possess an ancient heritage; over the course of many millions of years, the forces of evolution have honed and sculpted our minds and bodies, and this patrimony has an enormous impact on how we live our lives today. The genetic programming bequeathed to us by our ancestors has many constructive, life-affirming aspects. It incites us to seek attractive mates, to savor the flavor of nourishing food, to nurture our children, to understand and control the world around us, and even to compose exquisite music and create wonderful works of art.16 But our evolutionary legacy also has a much more disturbing face: it moves us to kill our fellow human beings. Violence has followed our species every step of the way in its long journey through time. From the scalped bodies of ancient warriors to the suicide bombers in today's newspaper headlines, history is drenched in human blood. Copyright © 2007 by David Livingstone Smith. All rights reserved.

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Most Dangerous Animal: Human Nature and the Origins of War 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
Wow.Finally, a completely unbiased viewpoint of humankind's tendancies to war. And oddly enough, the skill the book is written with dosen't make it any harder to understand. Although, to be honest, i think he could've taken a little more time with his explanation on the three parts to dehuminization of an enemy. Great if you're wondering about what the weight that going to war imposes on (or should impose on)our world leader's today.
Guest More than 1 year ago
From the very beginning The Most Dangerous Animal is a compelling read. The author begins by reminding us of the certain fact that as we read his words ¿someone, somewhere, is planning a war¿ -- a truth confirmed by our history. This is a book that speaks to the zeitgeist. It is carefully researched, the arguments are nuanced but sound, and it is clearly and beautifully written. One does not need to be well versed in the topic or its constituent topics to appreciate the force of the arguments and the ultimate story that the author weaves. If you are interested in understanding humans¿ disposition to war and peace (as surely we all are) then you need to read this book. This is not just another book on war no, Smith has done something new, responsibly using the resources of evolutionary psychology as well as those of other disciplines to make the case that the most dangerous animal is among us. It is us. The book calls us to observe the facts of human nature: we are creatures fashioned through evolution to be both prey and predators. And understanding this duality of our nature will aid us in curbing our appetite to harm and kill our own. Smith¿s focus in the book is not on the moral aspect of war. Rather, he focuses on the fact that the capacity to wage war lives in us, all of us. He notes that the reality of war is not pretty, nor is it heroic war is scary and brutal beyond just the killing. War tears human flesh, and it destroys human lives. In Chapter One, Smith argues, convincingly, that because war is ¿a bad taste business¿ we turn away from it. We create stories about it: ¿our women and men are heroes¿, ¿they gave their lives¿. Our media, rightly or not, censor the images of war. Our leaders triumphantly exclaim our ¿victories¿ over the evildoers. Our enemies are described as ¿madmen¿ with psychological problems. They are evil and we need to protect ourselves from them. Against all the hyperbole though, the author reminds us that some of history¿s most horrific killers had no discernible psychological problems. In other words, men who wage and fight wars are like the rest of us, they have families, they have jobs, and they are every bit as human as the rest of us. In Chapter Two, two of history¿s most influential geniuses discuss the question of ¿why war?¿ Smith argues that we can do better than Freud did when he attempted to answer Einstein¿s question. In the 21st century scientists have more sophisticated tools to address the question of why we war. We can build on Freud¿s answer, Smith argues, that indeed war is in our nature. When one reads Chapter Three, one cannot help but acknowledge that the penchant for war is rooted in our history ¿ our evolutionary history. Here, Smith draws on various disciplines to make the case forcefully that war has been waged by humans from the beginning of time. It is in our nature, because it works. Throughout the book the case for war in human nature is made, but in Chapters Eight, Nine and Ten Smith deals with our inhibition against killing. Chapter Ten is the most novel. Anyone who ascribes to an evolutionarily account of human nature will find it compelling and insightful. Smith¿s idea is that we override our disinclination to kill through self-deception ¿ we ¿see¿ the enemy as other than human: they are vermin rife with disease, or deadly predators, or game to be slaughtered for sport. Nature has fashioned in us the ability to deceive ourselves, and this is an indispensable feature of humans' ability to wage war. I very clearly, strongly recommend this book. If you are open to the possibility that there is something to the author¿s thesis, then you will have benefited, and the book will have done its job. Anyone who wants to understand why we wage war needs to understand that war is a fact of our nature. It is only then, Smith notes, that we have a chance of curbing our appetite to kill.