Human atrocities and unnatural beings

When social instincts come undone

Dehumanisation overturns our social instincts and conceives our fellow humans as unnatural beings. Combined with a perceived physical threat, this metaphysical transgression leads to atrocity writes David Livingstone-Smith

I have been studying dehumanization for the last fifteen years, and over that period my understanding of it has changed and deepened. Like most other researchers, I started out believing that when people dehumanize others, they think of them as subhuman animals—as rats, or cockroaches, or bloodthirsty predators. But I eventually came to recognize that this account isn’t quite right. Dehumanizers don’t think of their victims as nothing but animals. In the most dangerous kind of dehumanization—the kind that leads to the worst abuses and atrocities—dehumanizers conceive of their victims as monstrous, unnatural beings.

Here are a few examples. Medieval Christians represented Jews as demonic beings in league with the Devil. They were supposed to be skilled in the art of sorcery and were even equipped with horns and tails. It was said that kidnapped and ritually sacrificed Christian children to drain them of their blood which they mixed with matzah dough and gobbled up during the annual Passover meal. Muslims were also demonized. One medieval chronicler described them as “a fiendish race . . . deformed by nature and unlike other living beings, black in color, of enormous stature and inhuman savageness.” During the Jim Crow era American racists depicted Black men in similar terms as “the most horrible creature upon the earth, the most brutal and merciless . . . a monstrous beast, crazed with lust. His ferocity is almost demoniacal.” Nazi propaganda presented Jews as nightmarish, malevolent entities. For example, one tract entitled Der Untermensch (“the subhuman”) states of Jews that:

This subhuman hates all that is created by man. This sub- human has always hated man, and always secretly sought to bring about his downfall….The subhuman thrives in chaos and darkness, he is frightened by the light. These subhuman creatures dwell in the cesspools, and swamps, preferring a hell on earth, to the light of the sun….The subhuman hordes would stop at nothing in their bid to overthrow the world of light and knowledge, to bring an apocalypse to all human progress and achievement. Their only goal is to make a desert wasteland of any nation or race that shines with creativity, goodness and beauty.

To understand the dehumanizing process, we need a theory that explains what is going on when people are conceived of as monsters and demons. I offer such a theory in my recent book On Inhumanity: Dehumanization and How to Resist It, which I will now sketch out.

Homo sapiens are an ultrasocial species. Of all mammals we are by nature the most intensely social. One consequence of our hypersocial way of life is that we have an irrepressible propensity to “see human” when confronted with other members of our species. This automatic responsiveness to indications of humanness in others has important implications for the way that we handle aggression. All social species have instinctive mechanisms for damping down intra-community aggression, because a social way of life is impossible if community members are at one another’s throats.

Given our extreme sociality, these inhibitions have got to be especially powerful. For most other animals, inhibitions against same-species violence extend only as far as the boundary of the local breeding group. Outsiders can be ripped to shreds with gusto. But in our case, they extend much further, and even encompass strangers. However, there is another component that undermines our reluctance to do violence to others. We are very clever primates and our exceptional intelligence allows us to recognize that there are often material benefits to be gained from killing or enslaving others. For this awareness to become translated into action, we needed to find ways to disable or override our inhibitions against performing acts of violence. Over time, we discovered all sorts of cultural gimmicks for doing this, including consuming psychotropic drugs, performing mind-altering rituals, embracing powerful religious ideologies, and conceiving of those whom we wish to harm as less-than-human animals.

Subhuman animals are not monstrous beings that inhabit a world outside the natural order. But conceiving of others as mere animals paves the way for conceiving of them as unnatural, monstrous beings. To see how this transformation occurs, we need first to consider the notion of the natural order. Every human society has a conception of the natural—a framework of categories that philosophers call “natural kinds.” This framework is supposed to represent both how things are and how they should be, and provide a sense of order and security. But, as the anthropologist Mary Douglas pointed out over half a century ago, carving the world up into natural kinds always encounters anomalies—things that seem to straddle separate and incompatible categories. Such things are experienced as unnatural in a pejorative rather than a merely descriptive sense. They are uncanny and abhorrent, and all the more repugnant if they are also dangerous or malevolent. 

"Conceiving of others as mere animals paves the way for conceiving of them as unnatural, monstrous beings"

The philosopher Noël Carroll points out that horror fiction offers many examples of beings—horrific monsters—that are both dangerous and unnatural. Take movie zombies. Zombies are out to kill and eat you, but they are also corpses. They are alive and dead at the same time. I don’t mean that they are partially alive and partially dead—for example having living arms and dead legs. Zombies are completely alive and completely dead. Hence, they are metaphysically transgressive: their very existence is an assault upon our framework of reality. Consider another horror fiction trope: a disembodied hand crawling across the floor towards you like a fleshy spider. This would be horrifying. But why? A disembodied hand, however weird, is not obviously dangerous. It’s something that you could just kick away, or stomp under your boot. But a crawling hand is an affront to the natural order. If a human hand can scuttle across the floor then reality is up for grabs. If hands can crawl then anything can happen.

Now, let’s return to the topic of how dehumanization makes monsters and see where these reflections take us. I’ve already suggested that we can’t help recognizing other members of our species as fellow human beings. But we also defer to the opinions of experts—those people who are in positions of real or apparent cognitive authority. This division of epistemic labor is a crucial component of human culture. Most of what we believe to be true comes from what we have been told or what we have read, not what we have observed. And if what we have been told seems to conflict with what our senses tell us, we will often defer to the person who is recognized as someone who is supposed to know. For example, the surface of the desk at which I am sitting seems to be continuous and gapless. However, the experts—in this case, the physicists—tell me that the desk is really mostly empty space. I accept this picture, even though no matter how hard I try I can’t get myself to see it. I accept it because I believe that physicists have access to truths about the world that are inaccessible to my senses.

The problem comes when we defer to putative experts who aren’t really experts at all, or whose expertise is harnessed to toxic political ideologies. During the nineteenth century, some of the most distinguished scholars of the day espoused dehumanizing White supremacist beliefs, and the claim that Black people belong to a non-human species therefore seemed to be backed up by the immense epistemic authority of science. Likewise, during the Third Reich, leading scientists supported the picture of Jews as Untermenschen. Epistemic authority isn’t always lodged in prominent individuals. Sometimes, it’s distributed through a community as “common knowledge,” suffusing everyday consciousness, and is transmitted from one generation to the next by parents, teachers, clergy, and other ordinary community members. And today, the mantle of authority falls upon celebrities, politicians, talk-show hosts, and podcasters.

When we give credence to those who assure us that the members of some group of people are not really people at all, this sets us up for the most destructive kind of dehumanization. On the one hand, as I noted above, we tend naturally to see others as fellow human beings. But on the other hand, as I also noted, we tend naturally to defer to the views of those in positions of epistemic authority. So, when the experts tell us that some people are people in appearance only—when they tell us that beneath the surface these others are not really human, but are instead counterfeit humans, creatures akin to vermin—we end up with two mutually exclusive representations of these others. We conceive of them as wholly human and wholly subhuman simultaneously. Add to the mix that they are criminals, rapists, terrorists, or enemies of civilization, and the dehumanized others appear to their dehumanizers as both physically threatening and metaphysically transgressive. Like brain-eating zombies that are both alive and dead, the victims of dehumanization, who are typically among the most vulnerable and marginalized members of a population, are transformed into horrific monsters that must be mastered, incarcerated, or exterminated.

That’s how dehumanization makes monsters



1. Cited in Barbara Higgs Strickland, Saracens, Demons, Jews: Making Monsters in Medieval Art (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), p. 169.

2. Winston, G.T. (1901). “The relations of the whites to the Negroes,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol 17, pp. 108-109.


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Minnie_phil 15 October 2020

I think offering an evolutionary-psychological explanation for our susceptibility to dehumanisation is a bit of a stretch - it's also dangerous - once we abandon a concept of evil for a scientific explanation it becomes harder to condemn these actions.