The most dangerous animal:  Human nature and the origins of war

David Livingston-Smith. St Martin’s Press. £24.95. ISBN 9780312341893


There have always been wars, and there are those who conclude from this that there always will be wars.  Wars are an inevitable result of human nature.  The problem with this too-complacent acceptance is, of course, that we can no longer afford wars, for reasons we don’t need to go into for readers of KPN.  Moreover, the nature of war having changed with the nature of the new weapons, in particular weapons of mass destruction, a solution to the problem of war is much more pressing today than it ever was.  Livingston-Smith’s book considers human nature, and finds (unsurprisingly) that it can be both nice and nasty - we are capable both of horrific acts and of generosity and love.  He concludes, after adducing interesting evidence, that we are reluctant killers and must be subjected to subtle coercion before we can be relied upon to kill an enemy so designated by our leaders.


Social psychologists have shown that people can be persuaded to do things in groups they would never do when acting alone, especially if a stranger group differs in some real or imagined way from our own gang.  The Balkans conflict and the Rwandan genocide are examples of how leaders can persuade groups to act in the most vicious way.  The essential point is that the various tried and tested ways of persuasion to kill, the demonising of the enemy, group bonding, and so on, allow ordinary people to kill against their true nature, which makes them reluctant murderers.  The high rate of post-traumatic stress disorder amongst soldiers indicates than we tend to suffer later from remorse at our killing frenzy.


This review has been taken from an excellent review of the book by Michael Bond in New Scientist, 1st September this year.  Bond notes that the author, having identified the problem, does not expand on how we might protect ourselves from ‘this delusional state’ into which we have been manipulated, by learning to become more critical and mistrustful of generals, or political or gang leaders.  Bond concludes:  ‘Perhaps what’s needed is for such techniques to be taught in schools.  If everyone was more aware of how vulnerable we are to social influence and how liable to self-deception, challenging the wisdom of conflict might be the norm instead of the exception.’


Sounds like the cue for a further book.