UNE philosopher David Livingstone Smith discusses his new book 'Less than Human' on NPR's Talk of the Nation

January 05, 2011

"Cockroach." "Vermin." "Dog." "Beast." These and other terms are often used to dehumanize groups of people for political, religious, or ethnic reasons. 

Human beings' tendency to regard certain members of their own kind as less than human has made atrocities like the Holocaust, the genocide in Rwanda, and the slave trade possible. And today, we still find it in phenomena such as xenophobia, homophobia, military propaganda, and racism.

In his new book, Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others (St. Martin's Press, March 2011), David Livingstone Smith, University of New England associate professor of philosophy, draws on a rich mix of history, psychology, biology, anthropology and philosophy to document the pervasiveness of dehumanization, describe its forms, and explain how and why we so often resort to it.

The book has been reviewed in the New York Times Book Review, and Smith discussed the book with Neal Conan on National Public Radio's Talk of the Nation on March 29, 2011

Dehumanization is the belief that some beings only appear human, but beneath the surface, where it really counts, they aren't human at all, Smith explains. The Nazis labeled Jews as Untermenschen ("subhumans") because they were convinced that, although Jews looked every bit as human as the average Aryan, this was a façade. Concealed behind it, Jews were really filthy, parasitic vermin. 

Smith relates that it's sometimes said that dehumanization is a social construction that's at most a few centuries old. According to this story, dehumanization was, paradoxically, a child of the Enlightenment idea of universal human rights. This idea was the moral and political touchstone of the Enlightenment, but it conflicted with the brutal colonialism perpetrated by Europeans. The dissonance between theory and practice was resolved by denying the humanity of the oppressed. 

This story expresses a truth, Smith says, but it is a partial truth that obfuscates the real nature, history and extent of the dehumanizing impulse. Dehumanization is neither uniquely European nor uniquely modern. It is far more widespread, vastly more ancient, and far more profoundly intertwined with the human experience than the Enlightenment theory allows. We must look much deeper. 

Eighteenth-century Europeans embraced a certain type of dehumanization, but so did the Athenians during the fourth century before Christ, the Germans of the nineteen thirties and forties, and the Eipo tribesmen of highland New Guinea, who refer to their enemies as dung-flies, lizards and worms.

"In this book," Smith says, "I argue that dehumanization is a joint creation of biology, culture and the architecture of the human mind. Grasping its nature and dynamics requires that we attend to all three elements. Excluding any of them leaves us with a hopelessly distorted picture of what we are trying to comprehend."

Reviews

In pre-publications reviews, Paul Bloom, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Yale University, writes that "This is a beautiful book on an ugly topic. ... There are deep and important ideas here, and this engaging book should be read by anyone interested in the worst aspects of human nature - and how we can come to transcend them."

Charles W. Mills, Ph.D., John Evans Professor of Moral and Intellectual Philosophy at Northwestern University, describes the book as a "powerful and original work - ranging widely and with impressive interdisciplinary scope over different epochs and cultures while remaining compellingly readable. David Livingstone Smith demonstrates that our practice of representing our fellow-humans as subhuman is both inhuman and all too human. He forces us to recognize that monstrous atrocities are routinely carried out not by monsters but, alas, by ourselves."

And David P. Barash, Ph.D., professor of psychology, University of Washington, writes that Less than Human "is brilliantly written, carefully researched, and a wonderful and much-needed opportunity for us to explore what it might mean to be 'truly human.'"

David Livingstone Smith

In 2004, with the publication of his book Why We Lie: The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind, Smith captured the attention of national and world media, with a review in Psychology Today, an article in the Wall Street Journal, and interviews on Fox News Live and Forbes.com, among other media outlets. And the attention hasn't let up since then.

U.S. News & World Report, for instance, quoted Smith in a December 2005 story titled "Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire," which looked at media figures such as Baltimore Orioles player Rafael Palmeiro and Martha Stewart and at a New York Times/CBS poll on the Bush administration's credibility on the case for the Iraq War.

He has also been interviewed by National Geographic Television for a PBS documentary on the science of lying, and by CBC-TV for a 2009 documentary entitled "The Truth about Liars" which aired on CBC Newsworld.

Two days before his 2007 book, The Most Dangerous Animal: Human Nature and the Origins of War, went on sale, Smith was featured in an interview in the Boston Globe Magazine. And the media attention has continued with quotes from Smith in newspapers, magazines and TV shows in Mexico, Brazil, India, Australia and Portugal, as well as the U.S., with stories in the Chicago Tribune, Real Simple magazine, and Good Housekeeping.

Smith earned his M.A. from Antioch University and his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of London, Kings College, where he worked on topics in the philosophy of mind and psychology. Smith's earlier books include Freud's Philosophy of the Unconscious (Kluwer, 1999), Approaching Psychoanalysis: An Introductory Course (Karnac, 1999), and Psychoanalysis in Focus (Sage, 2002).

His current research interests include deception and self-deception, the evolutionary psychology of war, incest and incest-avoidance and various aspects of analytical philosophy.

He is co-founder of the University of New England's New England Institute for Cognitive Science and Evolutionary Studies and is an associate professor in UNE's Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies

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