The roots of war lie in the evolutionary history of our species, according to arguments forcefully presented here by the director of the University of New England’s Institute for Cognitive Science and Evolutionary Psychology.
Smith (Philosophy/Univ. of New England; Why We Lie: The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind, 2004) draws on anthropology, psychology, archeology and philosophy to speculate about the link between violent conflict and human nature. He posits that, like chimpanzees today, early hominids probably formed small hunting bands. Skills first used against predators evolved into organized raiding parties against rival communities; this was the first step in the evolution of warfare. Those able to kill their neighbors and capture their resources flourished, passing on their warlike nature to future generations. However, once humans mastered conceptual thought and recognized that we are all members of a single species, the inhibition against killing same-group members was activated. The way we overcome this aversion to killing other human beings, Smith asserts, is by persuading ourselves that they are not truly human. This dehumanization of the enemy can be accomplished by demonizing them as monsters; by viewing them as prey to be hunted down and killed; or by portraying them as disease-carrying vermin that must be exterminated. Smith provides dozens of examples of these mindsets from ancient Greece to the present day. Some are blatant wartime propaganda (for example, posters depicting the enemy as a nonhuman predator), but others are simply quotes from soldiers recounting their attitudes and actions in the field. The best hope of stopping war, avers the author, is ending the self-deception that allows us to see others as not human.
Smith writes clearly for the lay reader, so a background in the sciences is not required—though a strong stomach is.