The Most Dangerous Animal:
Human Nature and the Origins of War.
David Livingstone Smith
Book review by William A. Spriggs, December 27th, 2007
I am writing this as the 2007 holiday season celebrating the major world religion of Christianity passes over my doorway; the message of the season from the echo chamber of various commercial outlets is still reverberating in my ears with the wishes that all humankind experience Good Will and Peace On Earth. While all this good cheer emanates from my TV during commercial break time, the news at 11 tells me of the horrors of a war in Darfur. David Livingstone Smith's book on the origins of war comes along to remind the human animal that they are living self-deceptive lives of ignoring wars in faraway places that promote violence and ill will while promoting good will and peace at home. As he points out in his book: "Right now, as you read this, somebody, somewhere, is planning a war." P. xiii.
The Most Dangerous Animal is a very well constructed, multi-discipline tour de force explanation of how war is rooted in human nature by dwelling into anthropology, evolutionary biology, history, philosophy, and psychology in search for answering the question as to why we humans are the most destructive animals on the planet in our relationships to each other while being just as capable of behaving in the exact opposite manner by showing kindness, compassion, sacrifice, and succor to others in times of distress. He deftly explains this dual behavioral mechanism in a most persuasively strong book that finds his most credible moments when he presents the biological and primate origins of such dichotomy.
He does however; open his book by telling us that:
"I come to this task not as a soldier, but as a philosopher - a paradigmatic ivory-tower dweller. I have never set foot in a war zone, and I am far more familiar with the rarefied violence of philosophical debate, of words tearing into arguments, than I am with bullets tearing through living flesh." P. xiv.
Now, in all fairness, this should not disqualify Mr. Smith from exploring the biological roots of war like a biological chemist searching for the cause of cancer - in fact, I will argue that this book is such a excellent guide on this subject to date that you should include it in your permanent library because: "This book is unashamedly rooted in an evolutionary biological perspective," p. wvii. I brought Mr. Smith's non-war experience to the forefront of this review not to discredit Mr. Smith, but merely to prepare the reader for the ending discussion of his book.
He begins his work by calmly describing the normality of all participants in war atrocities. In citation after citation, Smith teaches us that the most horrible or horrors are usually committed by seemingly normal, average persons. "They could be your neighbors, parents, or children. They could be you." P. 5. He asks the question, What Is War? and takes us on a voyage in philosophy that then leads us to studies of our primate cousins, the chimpanzees. From there he teaches us about terrorism, atrocities, and genocide and bombards us again with history, both ancient and modern.
He stops to ask the question: The return of the killer ape? "One explanation for the prevalence of war is the idea that a bent for violence was bred into our species over eons of evolutionary time." P. 21. It is at this point that Smith debates the Man the Hunter or Man the Hunted theory and then leads us into a brief history of the neurochemistry that makes our brains operate and, somewhat boldly makes this statement woven through several paragraphs:
"Lesser beings blindly, rigidly, and mechanically act out their biological programming, whereas we humans choose how to live…Free will makes us morally responsible for our actions, but explaining human behavior biologically robs us of our responsibility and reduces us to the stature of mere animals…Human beings wage war because it is in our nature to do so, and saying that war is just a matter of choice without taking into account how our choices grow in the rich soil of human nature is a recipe for confusion." P. 26.
Has he made a final decision yet? Nature or Nurture as the root of war? Well, not yet, but it does appear to us that he is leading us down the path to the belief that it is biological in its roots, and that "it is obvious that the more we know about ourselves, the more skillfully and effectively we can pull the strings that control our own behavior." P. 27. And again,"science may be unable to find a solution to the problem of war, but it is our best shot." P. 29.
But as a philosopher professor, it was only a matter of time before Mr. Smith gets drawn back into the "thinkers" of history, and I suspect, Sigmund Freud may have had a considerable influence on his early years as a student, as he has had many times before with other students. Although generally discredited in the evolutionary psychology community, particularly for his views on the female of the human species, he is given full credit alongside Darwin in finding "something at work beneath the surface of human behavior" not seen by the conscious mind (personal correspondence). But I wanted to quote Smith teaching us about Freud because it gives us a tremendous clue to the missing pieces in the puzzle of human behavior:
"Over the course of his long career, Freud came to the conclusion that human beings are self-deceptive creatures that are moved by instinctual urges operating outside the jurisdiction of conscious awareness and control. For many years, Freud had thought that sexual desire is the most potent of these motivational powerhouses, but the unprecedented carnage of World War I caused him to reconsider his position. While continuing to embrace the idea that sex is an extremely important moving force in human behavior, Freud reluctantly came to believe that our destructive urges are equally significant, and that these twin conflicting forces drive our lives from birth to death." P. 33.
Let me just stop here for a moment in this book review to dwell on a thought about this "reluctant" change in direction by Freud concerning sex. I am not a student of Freud, nor have I studied any of his works, but I get a sense that in this historical moment of World War I and because of its overwhelmingly "manly" presence, it may have influenced Freud turning away from the sex drive as a motivating force in human behavior. The institution of "manliness" was in full swing following the historical prominence of the Victorian era British Empire along with its sense of "white-male" self-determination hubris and swagger. I strongly argue that Darwin was also strongly influenced by this "manly" culture when he "flip-flopped" in his belief that the female chooses the male in Darwin's sexual selection theory in his early work, The Origins of Species. But, suddenly, when Darwin wrote, his "man" book, The Descent of Man, he "flipped" the sexual selection theory to that of man sexually choosing the female.
I very rarely do this, but since my book reviews are also books that I include in my studies, I sometimes cross reference material if I deem it worthy because that is where my brain is leading me from the material presented before me and mixed from the well of past studies; but I do it for the reader of this web site as well -- besides, the stakes are too high not to mention it. Here is a quote from Charles Darwin: The Power of Place, by Janet Browne, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2002.
"Darwin certainly believed that the moral and cultural principles of his own people, and of his own day, were by far the highest that had emerged in evolutionary history. He believed that biology supported the marriage bond. He believed in innate male intellectual superiority, honed by the selective pressures of eons of hunting and fighting. 'To avoid enemies, or to attack them with success, to capture wild animals, and to invent and fashion weapons, requires the aid of the higher mental faculties, namely, observation, reason, invention, or imagination. These various faculties will thus have been continually put to the test, and selected during manhood...Thus man has ultimately become superior to women' [The Descent of Man: 2: 327-28]. The possibility of female choice among humans hardly ruffled the surface of his argument, although he repeatedly claimed that female choice was the primary motor for sexual selection in animals. Primitive societies, he conceded, may be matriarchal or polygamous. However, he regarded this as an unsophisticated state of affairs, barely one step removed from animals. Advanced human society, to Darwin's mind, was patriarchal, based on what was then assumed about primate behaviour and the so-called 'natural' structure of civilised societies." p. 346 from The Power of Place.
Do you see a similar thought conversion taking place with Darwin and Freud? Both were products of highly "manly" cultures where males dominated and formed coalitions; men depended on men to advance them in their lives, and thus, pass on their genes. Men went to schools of higher learning run by males; men went into professions headed only by males; men went to males to be healed from their sicknesses; men went to banks headed by males to borrow money for business investments or merely to borrow money to invest in a home. Could we also not assume that in Darwin and Freud's time, that males formed collations to plan, finance, and organize wars? So then, is the answer about who starts wars in our genes or in our surrounding "manly" culture? After all, it is males who go off to war, right? Why would Freud start with theories "rooted in an evolutionary biological perspective" where the biological sexual desire starts as the most potent motivational force in human behavior -- and then "flip?" Why would Darwin consider the female choosing the male in his sexual selection theory in Origins of Species and then when he writes his "man" book, The Descent of Man, -- "flip" and decide that it is the male who selects the female?
The book continues to give us glues as to how Mr. Smith will
conclude his theories as found in his sub-chapter heading: The Naturalness of
War. He tells us: "…the evidence that I will present
to you in this book overwhelmingly supports the naturalness of war." P.
He introduces us to the philosopher David Hume, whom Mr. Smith announces will be "making many more appearances in this book," and invites us to read Hume's "monumental" Treatise of Human Nature. His insight of Hume leads us to an important crutch in human behavior:
"The naturalness of war lies in its role as an innate, biologically based potential: something that nature has built us to be capable of. Potentials are like coiled springs. They are events waiting to happen…Even organism has a behavioral repertoire, a set of potentials that lie dormant until or unless they are triggered by something in their environment." P. 37.
I really feel that The Most Dangerous Animal begins to gain momentum with Chapter Four: The Origins of Human Nature. Once again, he dips into Freud to quote him when he describes the essence of the human male:
"As a result their neighbor is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him." P. 61. [quoting Freud in Civilization and its Discontents, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 21 (London: Hogarth Press, 1961].
Smith then, once again, gets into primate behavior, in particular, the chimpanzees under the sub-chapter titled, Warring Primates, and brings up an extremely important point when you re-read the paragraph above regarding Freud views on the human male. You should burn this paragraph into your memory.
"Chimpanzees are intensely status conscious, and live in communities bounded by high-powered alpha males at the top of the social ladder; low-prestige nobodies at the bottom, and everyone else occupying intermediate rung. Dominant individuals get more food, more space, and more sex with more desirable partners than lower-ranking individuals. They are also, like big shots in the world of human politics, subject to the greatest amount of stress. Since dominance is usually established through victory in aggressive displays, dominant chimpanzees are often the brawniest and most intimidating members of their community." P. 75.
Smith then attempts to it together by teaching us that women don't have these aggressive urges but "use" their male mates as "tools."
"University of London historian Joanna Bourke concludes that 'women satisfied their aggressive urges by pestering their menfolk to act on their behalf and decimate the enemy.'" P. 41.
Under the sub-chapter titled, Sexual Selection Again, Smith continues the same theme:
"If war is a product of biological evolution and evolution is driven by reproduction, then men's penchant for bloodletting must have something to do with their sexual relations with women. They key to understanding this connection is captured in a comment by the pacifist and feminist Helen Mana Lucy Swanwick, who 'ruefully admitted that, although men made war, they could not have done so had women not been so adoring of their efforts.' Transposed to a biological context, Swanwick's remark suggests that the masculine warrior mentality is a sexually selected trait, bred into ancestral men by women who preferred warrior mates…Stone Age women may have been especially attracted to warriors. If warriors were preferred mates, this may have caused the genes for warlike behavior to proliferate." pp. 86 & 87.
This is perhaps the book's most promising moment, bringing up the sexual selection process of the human female being responsible in shaping the aggressive personalities of our primate male ancestors. I know that Mr. Smith presented this evidence as further proof of innate male aggressiveness, but I see it as proof of something else. A whole sub-science of thought is now emerging titled evolutionary feminism that basically starts with the premise that males will do anything for sex, including going to war to kill and maim as a mechanism in order to return with resources as display to win the right for sexual access; not the other way around of female's swooning over and grasping at the ankles of warrior celebrities. But, here's the real reason for the re-emergence: It re-introduces Darwin's sexual selection theory, and Freud's sex drive motivation theory back to their proper place on the mantle of knowledge.
I don't want to give away the whole book, but just enough for you to be convinced that is one of the most important books of this decade in regards to the subject of war's origins in the biological realm within the human Chapter 10 is titled, Predators, Prey, and Parasites. It is the most important chapter because it deals with the human ability to de-humanize their fellow humans as a threat. The threat is either a Predator ready to hunt you down and eat you; Prey, as in, the human turning the tables and becoming the hunter before the Predator has a chance to strike, and lastly, treating "the other" as a potential disease carrying parasitic threat that must be stamped out before "us/we" die out from the disease. All three of the human behaviors make the human mechanisms of torture and killing equated to survival; it's the compassionate side of the human animal mind shutting down and deceiving itself that what it is doing is "good" and "moral" in the name of (insert your Cause de Jour).
On page 87, Smith gives us a clue as why wars are really begun:
"War is outwardly driven by the need to acquire and retain valuable resources. Resources can make the difference between well-being and starvation, and groups that are able to monopolize them will be more successful than those that cannot."
And again on page 215:
"Robert E. Lee was right when he remarked, 'It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.' War is terrible for warriors, and for civilians. But it is not necessarily terrible for those who send men to war, who stand to gain wealth, power, or a place in heaven while paying little or no price."
And that my friends, is the most important message in this book. That a social hierarchy exists in which those in dominate positions can manipulate and exploit those below them like pawn pieces on a chess board and make them go off to war and be willing the die for the "alpha people" and bring back the oil, gold, cattle, women, heads on a stick, or anything that substitutes for resources and present it to them before their feet. The Oil Extraction Industry, the Mitt Romney Five, and 99% of the members of Congress who "have better things to do then go to war" know for certain that it won't be their genes that face a dead end in the gene pool.
David Livingstone Smith is a formidable rising star in the study of human behavior -- but he needs more diverse "gene's eye view" education. I strongly suggest that his next multi-discipline set of studies should be within social psychology, and in particular the social dominance theories of Jum Sidanius and Felicia Pratto, Social Dominance: An Intergroup Theory of Social Hierarchy and Oppression, Cambridge University Press. 1999; along with a re-reading of Geoffrey Miller's work, The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature Doubleday, New York, 2000. And of course, he should not miss, A Mind of Her Own: The Evolutionary Psychology of Women, by Anne Campbell, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2002.
I think Darwin and Freud were on to something about the sex, but the "manly" cultures of their time made them "blend like the reed in the wind in order to survive in their day" - I suggest that this human ability to assimilate by "conforming" is also innate; I also strongly suggest that it was done with complete submission and acceptance by the female populations at that time and in their longitudes and latitudes on the planet in reproductive competition with their fellow sisters. I certainly hope that Mr. Smith is not influenced in his scientific views in any way by his "manly" self-image or surroundings.
And a final message that comes from Mr. Smith to which I would like to comment:
"If I am right, we will never stop men from enjoying war, and trying to do so is a fool's errand." P. 215.
Well then, call me a fool.
I think we can, and do you know why? Because a wise philosopher once wrote: "We are an extremely social species, and it is important to bear in mind that our ancestors triumphed not as individuals, but as members of victorious communities." David Livingstone Smith, from the book, The Most Dangerous Animal, p. 215.
You see Mr. Smith, once we understand that we all are - that is every living person on this planet - part of the community of humankind, then Peace On Earth is just a matter of flipping a perception switch in the noggin; all of us instantly become "us" instead of "them." Victorious communities means the study of intergroup conflicts found in social psychology; that in our evolutionary voyage, we humans triumphed in survival because we love living too much. When faced with extinction or living with our neighbors, we used our innate abilities to assimilate. I firmly believe that our human species is way too smart to be so stupid as to eliminate itself; if evolution has proven anything, it's that, beyond a reasonable doubt -- more people want to live then die; that is also an innate part of human nature.
I'm placing this book in my level two, highly recommended book to read list because it is unashamedly rooted in an evolutionary biological perspective. It's a bit on the academic and philosophical side, but still readable to the common person if they persist. Mr. Smith's arguments are well placed and highly convincing concerning the 40% equation regarding the biological innate origins of war [nature]. Now, he must start his voyage and tell us the rest of the human behavior story that includes the other 60% of human behavior that is influenced by the individual human species' education and cultural surroundings at their location on the planet [nurture].
I don't want to give away the whole book, but just enough for you to be convinced that is one of the most important books of this decade in regards to the subject of war's origins in the biological realm within the human mind.
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William A. Spriggs
December 27, 2007
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