Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others

The late Richard Rorty, a distinguished humanist philosopher, opened his 1993 Amnesty International lecture with a shocking account of sexual sadism perpetrated against Bosnian Muslims by Serbs during the ethnic war that was still raging in the former Yugoslavia. Drawing on the work of war reporter David Rieff, Rorty contended that the Serbs were “not doing these things to fellow human beings, but to Muslims. They are not being inhuman, but rather are discriminating between the true humans and the pseudohumans.”

Dehumanization is the psychological capacity to deny the humanity of others, to relegate people to the status of non-human animals, and so to deprive them of the protections normally accorded to fellow humans by moral codes. As this far-reaching and inter-disciplinary study by David Livingstone Smith amply demonstrates, it is a recurrent historical phenomenon extending back millennia, and it seems to be a necessary precondition for the perpetration of sustained injustices, especially slavery, genocide, and racial subjugation.

In logical terms, of course, dehumanization is an absurdity: there are no sub-human humans, any more than there are short tall people. How, then, do we explain its persistence? For Smith, dehumanization is a product of our propensity to think in terms of essence and hierarchy. We assume that everything has an essence—a quality that makes it one thing rather than another, regardless of appearance. So, fictional creations, such as vampires and zombies, or the robots in the Terminator movie franchise, may look like humans, but we recognize that they are not human in their essence. To dehumanize, therefore, is nothing more or less than a refusal to acknowledge the human essence of others, despite their obvious human form.

To dehumanize people is always to demote them in a presupposed natural hierarchy. As Smith convincingly illustrates, the dynamic, even chaotic, vision of the natural world produced by the nineteenth-century Darwinian revolution has failed to loosen our intellectual attachment to the Great Chain of Being—a conception of nature as a stable and unchanging hierarchy, with the whole of “creation” ranked by its proximity to the divine.

The best feature of Less Than Human is Smith’s deft navigation through the history of the Great Chain’s foundations in theology and philosophy. He finds it first in the Book of Genesis, where man—made in the image of God—is given dominion over the rest of nature. But the first serious effort to theorize a natural hierarchy within our own species is found in Aristotle’s defense of slavery, wherein the human essence is characterized by the capacity for reason, but in non-Greeks this is present only in a rudimentary form, thus making them slaves by nature.

In the fifth century, the Christian theologian St. Augustine was adamant that appearance was no guarantee of human status, while the Roman Christian philosopher Boethius held that the defining characteristic of evil people was that they had renounced their previous humanity. During the Renaissance, Pico Della Mirandola maintained that a distinctive feature of humankind was our ability to determine our own position in the natural hierarchy by moving closer towards or further away from God. And Bartolome de las Casas and Juan Ginés de Sepulveda clashed over the human status of Amerindians. So enduring is this pre-Darwinian image of natural hierarchy that even today serious students of the life sciences may unconsciously be drawing upon it when they speak in terms of organisms occupying a position “higher” or “lower” on the “evolutionary scale.”

Smith is right to say that a feature of human history as entrenched as dehumanization requires massively more scholarship than it has so far received. But its study necessarily involves engagement with some important methodological controversies within the social sciences. Smith is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of New England, and also director of the New England Institute for Cognitive Science and Evolutionary Psychology. He is therefore primarily interested in the biological basis of human behavior, and in this book he explores the extent to which dehumanization can be explained in terms of our evolutionary endowment.

His conclusion falls short of biological determinism, stressing that dehumanization is not an evolutionary adaptation that has been hard-wired into our brains by natural selection. But neither, he insists, is it a merely social construct that can be explained solely in terms of the contingencies of time and place. Instead, it should be conceived of as “a joint creation of biology, culture, and the architecture of the human mind.”

So, at one level, Smith appears to resist having his study of dehumanization mired in the debate over whether human actions are to be explained by nature or by nurture, which, as the biologist Paul Ehrlich once pointed out, is like asking whether the length or the width contributes more to the area of a rectangle. But Smith’s predisposition towards biological explanations keeps resurfacing. In the familiar mode of evolutionary psychology, he writes that “[w]hat we can make of ourselves is constrained by what we are, for the same reason that what a sculptor can make out of a block of stone is constrained by the properties of the stone.”

Smith argues that there are two compelling reasons why we should investigate dehumanization’s possible roots in our cognitive architecture. To begin with, it has manifested itself over an immensely diverse range of historical and cultural contexts. And, furthermore, the ability to dehumanize others is not confined to a peculiar personality type, as was impressively demonstrated by historian Christopher Browning in Ordinary Men, his ground-breaking 1992 study of Holocaust perpetrators. Indeed, Smith’s assertion that any of us could potentially succumb to a dehumanization narrative was truly chilling, though the notion had long been suspected. It was the Roman playwright Terence, after all, who confessed that, “nothing human is alien to me.”

The difficulty, however, is that establishing the impulse to dehumanize in our cognitive architecture—if it indeed has a place there—requires an elusive knowledge of our prehistoric ancestors’ psychology. Smith draws extensively upon the insights of cognitive archaeology, a sub-discipline within archaeology that attempts to reconstruct the prehistoric mind from material evidence such as art, animal husbandry, tools, technology, and so forth. But even so, he concedes that his account of the evolutionary emergence of dehumanization relies, in his words, on “educated guesses” concerning our development of a so-called folk-biology, by which other ethnic groups came to be conceived of as distinct species, presumably lower in the Great Chain.

It is Smith’s interest in evolutionary psychology that leads him to conclude Less Than Human with a critique of Rorty’s proposed strategy for countering dehumanization and the hideous violations of human rights that it spawns. Like Smith, Rorty seriously doubted the capacity of rationalist philosophy to protect human rights. After all, the archetypal Enlightenment thinker Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, owned slaves. Instead, Rorty stressed the power of “sentimental education” to dismantle dehumanization narratives—his favored example being the immense contribution Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, made to the abolitionist cause.

No doubt there are limits to the Rorty strategy. And his aggressively postmodernist rejection of biological accounts of human behavior comes with problems of its own: undeniably, we are evolved animals, and not disembodied spirits. But Smith’s call for us to “bring science to bear on those aspects of human nature that sustain the dehumanizing impulse” may not get us as far as Rorty’s “sentimental education,” let alone further. Even if the scientific obstacles in the way of finding an evolutionary basis for dehumanization could be overcome, there would still be the question of what we would do with that knowledge. We need to transcend dehumanization narratives, at a minimum, for the pragmatic purpose of coexistence. And that would remain true, no matter what we learn about the biological or social origins of those narratives.