Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave and Exterminate Others by David Livingstone Smith; St. Martin's Press, 326 pages ($24.99). The paradox begins David Livingstone Smith's book: That Thomas Jefferson could proclaim the equality of human beings because "they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights" at the same time he owned slaves and was a leader in a society that depended on them. Why do human beings dehumanize others? It's Smith's basic question, along with this: Why is it that "although dehumanization plays a crucial role in war, genocide and other forms of brutality," that "writings on the subject are shockingly thin on the ground?"

And the very syntax of that question speaks volumes about the basic appeal of THIS one. Its perspective is right "on the ground" and not in some theoretical netherworld accessible only to academics communing with chalkboards or computers communing only with each other (in itself, a joke about dehumanization, as you no doubt noticed). It is, in other words, a decidedly human investigation of why human history is so sickeningly full of routine denials of others' humanity. He admits little to say on the oppression of women and "sexual minorities (notably gay people), immigrants, mentally and physically handicapped people and various specific ethnic groups."

Which is not to say that this investigation of why dehumanization is so appallingly "human" is simple or superficial because it isn't. But in, for instance, agreeing with Mark Twain that our species in his paraphrase, is the only one given to "calculated slaughter that's not devoted to a personal desire for retribution and is undertaken for personal gain at the behest of a third party." Ants don't have a concept of us vs. them. Nor do chimps make war on other chimps because they're considered "lesser."

And when looking at those who commit anti-human acts "our attitude toward them is alarmingly like the attitudes they have toward their victims." Rwandas and Holocausts are in "our nature." But then so, maybe, is the desire to understand why.

-- Jeff Simon