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Book Review: Less than Human

Philosopher/researcher David Livingstone Smith takes us on an interesting journey into a dark side of our human nature: “dehumanization.” This humanistic attribute allows us to see others not in our group as less than human, which then leads to various forms of prejudice, discrimination, outcasting, and eventually genocide.

One reason to read this book is again to remind ourselves of the dark side of humanity. Smith does use mildly graphic reminders of various dark spots in recent history, from colonization to Auschwitz to Rwanda. He points out that under the right conditions, we can turn the other way when atrocities are forthcoming.

Smith summarizes various sociological studies of our nearest cousins, the chimpanzees. Chimpanzees do kill other chimpanzees for no other reason than the outgroup is not part of the ingroup. In some ways, we are the same.

He posits an evolutionary biological trait that our hunter gatherer ancestors had for outsiders. Outsiders were to be distrusted, avoided, and if given a chance, exterminated. Genetic tendencies were passed down by the victors. Today, some current primitive tribes usually have little remorse for killing members of other tribes. We seem to be carrying those genetics.

Smith also offers social conditioning as a means to justify our dehumanizing ways. The societal turning away from the Jews or Tutsis was not an overnight act. There was preparation of the masses that eventually allowed the perpetrators to effect their rampage. The question now is: “What is the bigger influence: our genetics or the propaganda?”

Smith is also critical of western culture. While claiming to be on the forefront of “human rights,” the west has been also on the forefront of dehumanization, even in recent history.

I like possible solutions, and for this reason, I found the end of this book unsatisfactory. But Smith says the science of dehumanization is still an open field for study. While the answers may not be there, we still need to work toward accepting everyone else as an equal partner in humanity. Maybe the real reasons for dehumanization really don’t matter. We just need to know that every one of us can be susceptible to these forces. In this way, the book succeeds.

Published on Medium 2020

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