summer/fall 2007 no. 9
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summer/fall 2007 no. 9
Understanding the Human Capacity for Warfare
A review of The Most Dangerous Animal: Human Nature and the Origins of War
by David Livingstone Smith; St. Martin’s Press, 2007.
by Alan T. Lloyd
In reading the pre-publication of David Livingstone Smith’s The Most Dangerous Animal: Human Nature and the Origins of War, my first association was to a short story I read in school – Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game.” Not knowing if Smith was familiar with this story, I found the parallels between the theses of these two works quite striking. Connell tells the story of a big game hunter who falls off his boat and is rescued by a bored Cossack aristocrat weary with the ease of the hunt. He devises a more challenging prey – one which can use reason and cunning – human beings. The big game hunter now becomes the hunted, confronting panic and confusion, and forcing himself to draw on inner resources never imagined. These archetypal and revelatory stories are elemental in Smith’s study of war.
The preface reminds us that the word “war” is derived from the Old English word “wyrre,” meaning “to bring into confusion,” but with clarity and comprehensiveness this book examines the phenomenon of war in an instructive and informative manner.
Smith, who holds a Ph.D. in philosophy, is founder and co-director of the Institute for Cognitive Science and Evolutionary Psychology at the University of New England and is a former psychodynamic psychotherapist. Understandably he takes that approach to the study of war – his main thesis being that war is rooted in our shared human nature, while it simultaneously violates one of the most powerful human visceral taboos – killing other human beings. He does an admirable job of delineating a cogent argument regarding the roles of aggression versus the roles of empathy and the taboos against violence and human nature; however, any viewpoint on war invites controversy. Yet The Most Dangerous Animal is so skillfully written that the reader will likely take his thesis seriously, in spite of reservations regarding the perspicacity of Mssrs. Darwin and Freud. It is a work based on logic and examples rather than on authority, which lends weight to the debate.
Smith “kindly” yet “firmly” helps us to comprehend the difference between the airbrushed and staged Hollywood or even the “Evening News” images of war and the brutality and barbarism of actual warfare. While dismissing the artificial demarcations between “primitive warfare” and the current high tech, structured, organized state-sanctioned warfare, he recites the viewpoints of philosophers, anthropologists, and psychologists to grapple with the question of “why war?” While a lengthier discussion of these issues might intimidate the average reader, perhaps greater detail and more references to other works regarding the history of war would be helpful. However, Smith does an excellent job of summarizing archaeological and anthropological literature detailing the extent and significance of war in early human history.
Smith offers a brief but excellent introduction to evolutionary theory in order to explain the concept of “human nature.” He provides examples of nonhuman aggression and intolerance in order to put human aggression and violence into perspective. Smith discusses large-scale intergroup conflict in baboons versus the stealthy and lethal intergroup violence of chimpanzees. Contrasting the differences between the lethal aggression of chimpanzees and the peaceful, hypersexual, “make-love-not-war” nature of our hippie-like cousins, the bonobos (pygmy chimpanzees), he argues that humans are much more chimp-like than bonobo-like in our propensity toward violence. He emphasizes the unsavory association of war with rape as well as the sexual attraction of women to winning warriors.
The unique contribution of Smith’s work is his unflagging effort to recognize where and how war is rooted not just in our “nature” but also in our psychology, by providing a lucid summary of the relationship between mind and brain. He reveals a philosopher’s touch in examining the complexities of mind/brain concepts. Drawing from his extensive clinical and theoretical work on deception and self-deception (see Why We Lie [Smith 2004]), Smith examines the emotional underpinnings of morality. He agrees with David Hume, in that “morality is always a matter of passion or feeling and that reason is always a slave to the passions.” Examining the taboo against killing, he also recognizes the moral edicts and justifications to kill others in war, as well as an historical support of capital punishment in the criminal justice system. In support of my own psychotherapeutic experience with patients who are war veterans, Smith argues that the guilt of killing causes many more problems than the fear and memory of actual combat experience. In demonstrating how the psychological mechanisms used to overcome our aversion to killing – how we identify with our predators and how we identify with our prey – he discusses the use of predator-avoidance mechanisms, and perhaps most importantly, our need to dehumanize and vilify our enemies in order to circumvent the internal prohibitions against killing other human beings. This is the important parallel to the short story, “The Most Dangerous Game.”
Smith submits that the depiction of war in books, movies, and other mainstream media causes us to identify with predator-avoidance mechanisms and can also foment patriotic fervor to such a degree that the identification with warriors reveals something important about our evolved psychology and “human nature.” He proposes that archetypal feelings of disgust related to parasite dangers may provide the emotional underpinnings for genocide. These are the areas where psychology and psychodynamics become so important. Soldiers literally do not know what they are doing when they kill the enemy, Smith argues, and self-deception is crucial and necessary for these “abnormal” situations. His description of these psychodynamics is helpful in supporting his thesis; however his argument could have been even more powerful had he cited additional literature on this subject by other psychodynamic theorists (such as Volkan , for instance).
While Smith is to be praised for his writing, there are areas in which his argument falls short. Although he uses helpful and interesting quotations (in this book as well as previous ones) to support his views, he fails to cite the pages of such works, which increases the work of those seeking the context of such quotations. His organization of citations and footnotes suffers from the usual deficiencies found in works aimed for the popular reader. Literary citations contained only in the endnotes without a useful bibliography cause difficulty for the scholar or interested reader to investigate further.
As much as I felt that Smith “preached to the choir” (at least as far as I was concerned) regarding his views on human nature, evolution, the mind/brain dilemma, psychodynamics and psychic conflict, self-deception, and the general level of innate aggression and violence in mankind, his final conclusions are somewhat disappointing (perhaps it was simply the presentation of his final conclusions). He convincingly argues that the pleasure and rewards of war will likely always remain with us and if we accept this conclusion, then all that can be done to reduce the likelihood of war in the future is to accentuate its horrors. Yet it appears there are other approaches which remain unexplored and undeveloped. Global wealth may likely play a crucial role in the psychological value of life. Greater optimism and expectations of success may likely change the equations of the costs versus the benefits of war. Global economic development may well provide that hope. Generating a greater understanding and appreciation of the conflicts of interest between soldiers and civilians directly affected by warfare versus the rewards and interests of those who instigate and advocate war (and especially those who profit from the economics of war) may also help to tip the balance in favor of peace. Robert Wright, the author of Nonzero (1999), argues that cooperative trends towards democracy and transparency are vital factors which bias us towards more favorable social structures. The optimistic possibility remains that certain iconic figures, such as the late Kurt Vonnegut Jr., will take their war-time experiences and use their powers of description and creativity to promote healing – for themselves as well as for others. Perhaps it will be the artistic and creative community who will be most sensitive to the dialectic which threatens progress in this area more than any other: they must present the horror and inanity of war in a convincing and objective way without overwhelming us to the point that we shut down and ignore the horror. Just as imagination and idealism causes enthusiasm for religious and patriotic fervor that leads to war, perhaps the human potential for imagination and creativity will be the prescription for what cures us of warfare as well.
In Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. gives a compelling description of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in the first sentence of the novel (proper) using science fiction to portray this most human of conditions: “Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.” In the meantime, we can continue to hope that academic and artistic works will enable us to recalculate the mathematics of war and find it a losing game for everyone. Perhaps Smith is more cynical than I, perhaps just more realistic. But I would suggest that there are some things worth believing in life, even if they aren’t true. Smith would argue that this is the point – such self-deception is exactly what leads us into war. I am suggesting a psychotherapeutic prescription which invites a healthy optimism; one that hopefully allows us to strive towards and dream of an end to war without kidding ourselves about just how big and seemingly impossible such a task really is. I would gladly recommend The Most Dangerous Animal as an important step in this direction.
Smith, D. L. (2004). Why We Lie: The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Volkan, V. (1988). The Need to Have Enemies and Allies: From Clinical Practice to International Relations. Hillsdale, NJ: Jason Aronson Press.
Vonnegut, K. (1994). Slaughterhouse Five: Or the Children’s Crusade, A Duty Dance with Death (25th Anniversary Edition). New York: Delacorte Press.
Wright, R. (1999). Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny. New York: Pantheon Press.
Alan T. Lloyd, M.D. is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst in private practice in Humble, Texas, a northern suburb of Houston. Dr. Lloyd received his baccalaureate degree in Psychology (Magna Cum Laude) as well as his medical degree from the University of Utah. He completed his residency training in psychiatry at the Detroit Psychiatric Institute at Wayne State University. While there, he spent a year collaborating with Randolph M. Nesse at the University of Michigan’s Evolution and Human Behavior Program pursuing an interest in evolutionary theory and psychoanalysis. Dr. Lloyd completed psychoanalytic training at the Houston-Galveston Psychoanalytic Institute where he was a three-time winner of the David Freedman prize for psychoanalytic writing as well as the recipient of the Affiliate Council Prize of the American Psychoanalytic Association for his paper, “Metapsychology and the Selfish Gene.” His research interests reside in evolutionary metapsychology, including the evolution of psychodynamic mechanisms, dreaming, as well as evolutionary implications for psychoanalytic therapy.
Copyright © 2007 Entelechy: Mind & Culture. New Paltz, NY. All rights reserved.