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  • Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others
  • Peter Swirski
Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others, by David Livingstone Smith; 336 pp. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2011. $24.99 cloth.

St. Martin’s Press is not known for sawdust-dry, bible-long monographs that are as apt to put you to sleep as to broaden your intellectual horizons, and Less Than Human is no exception. One part detective story, one part horror story, and one part evolutionary philosophy, it wears the monumental amount of research that went into it lightly. This is in no mean measure due to its style. Befitting the subject, it is sinewy, no frills, factographic—and a pleasure to read, from first page to last. Parcelled out into nine chapters and two short appendices, it “draws from a rich palette of sources—including history, psychology, philosophy, biology, and anthropology—to paint a portrait of dehumanization and the forces and mechanisms behind it” (p. 3).

Does David Livingstone Smith succeed in this task? Admirably. One of the chief pleasures of racing through the book in the course of an evening—it won’t take you more than that, designed as it is to be a fast and furious read—is having historical events and philosophical concepts disassembled in front of your eyes with the assurance of a marine disassembling his M16A2 assault rifle. Smith clearly believes in reaching out to as wide an audience as possible, and he accomplishes this goal expertly, on the journey into the heart of darkness that is our biologically driven and socially activated propensity for demeaning, enslaving, and exterminating other human beings.

Chapter by chapter, his battle plan is clear and effective: explain why reading philosophy about dehumanization is worth the reader’s while; describe how the concept of dehumanization evolved over the centuries; psychologize and philosophize the concept while telling the relevant parts of the still largely untold story of the colonization of the Americas; investigate the role of dehumanization in slavery and racism; play back the reels of history on six major genocides of the twentieth century (Angola in 1904, Armenia in 1915–16, the Holocaust, Cambodia in the 1970s, Rwanda in 1994, and, most recently, Darfur); put war and cruelty under the microscope in order to argue that they are uniquely [End Page 263] Philosophy and Literature human; explain our ambivalence about killing and trace its evolutionary roots; and, finally, reflect on where to look for solutions.

This is not to say that a critical inquirer will not find things to argue with in this otherwise commendable study. Smith’s multiple evocations of Andrea Dworkin on objectification cannot but raise an eyebrow, given her notorious claims that all instances of lovemaking are pure, sterile, formal expressions of men’s contempt for women. Similarly, the mileage that the author attempts to wring out of Twin Earth (p. 33) or Twin Schmearth (pp. 85–86) thought experiments is meager at best. As extensive critiques of such far-out thought experiments in ethics (Of Literature and Knowledge, 2007) and aesthetics (Literature, Analytically Speaking, 2010) make crystal clear, Twin Earth counterfactuals are notoriously unreliable as intuition pumps about things we can say reliably about this physical Earth. The farther we stray in our counterfactual speculation from the familiar realm of midsize objects, causal relations, and daily behaviors, in fact, the more prone we become to fallacies and inferential errors—interestingly, for the very biological-evolutionary reasons that form the backbone of Smith’s eloquent argument about dehumanization.

None of this takes away, of course, from the importance of this study, which—riding the crest of the neo-Darwinian wave that is sweeping the social sciences and, to a lesser extent, the humanities—sets out to argue “that dehumanization is a joint creation of biology, culture, and the architecture of the human mind” (p. 4). And argue it does, in a magisterial sweep across the history of a species capable of alternating between acts of bestiality and prosociality seemingly at will. The mind boggles not only at the seemingly bottomless sea of horrors documented in the book but also at the amount of research...


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pp. 263-265
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