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The Most Dangerous AnimalReview - The Most Dangerous Animal
Human Nature and the Origins of War
by David Livingstone Smith
St. Martin's Press, 2007
Review by Mark Welch, Ph.D.
Sep 18th 2007 (Volume 11, Issue 38)

The statistics of the human and social cost of warfare in the Twentieth Century alone are staggering: 170 million dead, billions of dollars spent each day. And clearly it is a problem so complex that it drills down to the very fundamentals of our nature. Is there something in human nature itself that not only makes war possible, but inevitable? Can it be that there is nothing we can really do, despite good intentions, despite peace-loving rhetoric, despite the heroic efforts of the great and the good, to avoid war? Is war, whichever way you look at it, from an individual or group psychological perspective, from a sociological or anthropological angle, from an evolutionary point of view, unavoidable? Are we, in a sense, hard-wired for it? Does it, despite all the awfulness, attract us more than it repels?

This is the question that David Livingstone Smith asks, and discusses in an erudite, informed and persuasive manner. Although he has to marshal a huge amount of data and cuts across cultures and cultural understandings, moving from New York to New Guinea, from Homer to Hamlet to Hitler, he does so with a speed and balance that is at times breathless, but always challenging. He presents facts that need no other comment, he lets the unspeakable speak for itself.

He considers different explanations of his central question, and looks at neuro-biology as one example. Livingstone Smith does not attempt to describe the experience of war, and tries to avoid some of the thornier ethical questions such as the possibility of a 'just war', but he does try to understand how war is "rooted in human nature". In what he calls a promiscuous inter- or trans-disciplinary journey he recognizes that artificial categorization of ideas or phenomena into the provinces of history or anthropology or philosophy is not only futile but counter-productive. He also tries to make plain that he does not attempt to have the final word, but rather to bring to the fore the questions that really need to be asked.

It should be noted that war is communal act, although with individual participants and consequences. In that respect it does not directly equate to individual violence or aggression. There is something of the group that makes it different. The creation of difference and otherness, the divide between us and them seems to equally necessary -- otherwise how would it be possible to kill others in such numbers and so impersonally? Do we really say, "Sorry, nothing personal you understand, I just have to kill you because you are not like me, you are my (my country's, my group's, my community's, my ethnicity's, my kin's) enemy"?

Livingstone Smith also points out that for some, perhaps most, war is really quite exciting. It is for many literally the time of their lives. He notes the sexual excitement that is felt in the very act of war, how (and remember that war is most often waged by young men bristling with testosterone) it is the defining moment of their lives. Perhaps it also gives meaning and purpose to lives, perhaps it gives a sense of bonding that cannot be found in less extreme circumstances.

This is a highly readable book and is to be recommended to specialists and more general readers alike. It is engaging and informative and leaves the reader wanting to think about it all a little more. Livingstone Smith does not entirely throw up his hands and say that it is all inevitable and all awful and hopeless. He offers a thoughtful, provocative and clear-sighted argument that recognizes but does not celebrate the ambivalent relationship we, as humans, have with war. He sees it as a real dilemma (in its truest sense) and with a final deep breath suggests that the only hope for change is that we come to see the long-term consequences ahead of the short-term thrills and apparent benefits, that we come to revile war than we detest it. He calls this task a heroic one, which always slightly worrying, and the reader, on closing the book, is left remembering the quote with which it opens, when Albert Camus said that we realize where (war) lives ... it is inside ourselves". It is to be hoped that like Livingstone Smith, we can be as clear-eyed about war as Camus, but perhaps not as pessimistic.



© 2007 Mark Welch


Mark Welch, Ph.D., Edmonton, Alberta


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