David Livingstone Smith

The history of humanity is, to a very great extent, a history of violence.

Author of Less Than Human, Why We Lie, and The Most Dangerous Animal

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David Livingstone Smith | Author of Less Than Human, Why We Lie, and The Most Dangerous Animal
Lavin Exclusive Speaker

One of the most acclaimed and far-reaching philosophers today, David Livingstone Smith draws universal truths from science and philosophy, applying them to the question of why humans—who are capable of incredible acts of innovation, mercy, and kindness—often lie, dehumanize, and become violent.

David Livingstone Smith’s latest book, Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others, delves into human darkness, drawing from psychology, philosophy, biology and other branches of learning for its conclusions. The book, which won the Anisfield-Wolf Award for non-fiction, advances the questions of Smith’s previous works, Why We Lie and The Most Dangerous Animal, tracking the different ways that humans have invented divisions that often yield to violation. Dynamic and full of fascinating insights, Smith’s books and keynotes don’t simply tell us why this othering takes place, but offer opportunities to interrogate the beliefs that inform us on a granular level.


Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others makes for an interesting and unusually lucid book about an under-studied subject.”

The New York Times

A unique and humane thinker, often quoted in media and documentaries, Smith’s talks address his audiences with timely and warm observations, providing a fascinating and hopeful perspective on contemporary human societies. Smith’s forthcoming book, Making Monsters: The Uncanny Power of Dehumanization, is set to be published by Harvard University Press in 2018.

Smith is co-founder and director of The Human Nature Project. He earned a Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of London (Kings College), and is currently a professor of philosophy at the University of New England.    

Speech Topics

Social Science
Dehumanization in Genocide, Racism, and War

The Nazis described Jews as filthy vermin, Rwandan Hutus described their Tutsi neighbors as cockroaches, and English settlers described Native Americans as ravenous wolves. In this talk, based on his powerful, award-winning book Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave and Dehumanize Others, David Livingstone Smith looks at how and why human beings think of others as subhuman creatures. Smith describes the crucial role of dehumanization in war, genocide, and racism, and uses examples drawn from the Holocaust, the transatlantic slave trade, and the extermination of Native Americans, as well as current events, to drive his point home. Smith explains what it is about the human mind that makes dehumanization possible, and argues that understanding dehumanization should be made a priority if we want to prevent repeats of atrocities like those that occurred in Auschwitz, Bosnia, and Hiroshima.

Diversity & Race
Race The Most Dangerous Illusion

Although it is sometimes said that we live in a post-racial era, the fact is that Americans seem to be as obsessed with race as ever. Racial stereotyping and discrimination, as well gross disparities in wealth, academic achievement, and rates of incarceration, remain harsh realities of  life. Racist attitudes simmer beneath the surface, and every once in a while explode into plain sight. For centuries, racism has been responsible for the worst atrocities that human beings have perpetrated against one another—genocide, slavery, and oppression. In this hard-hitting and inspiring talk, philosopher David Livingstone Smith argues that race is a powerful and dangerous illusion, and explains why getting rid of it should be near the top of our social agenda. Smith starts by explaining the psychological and historical origins of the idea of race, and goes on to spell out why it has no scientific basis and why it has such a potent foothold in the human mind. Next, drawing on history, anthropology, and the latest psychological research, he exposes the roots of racism in our conscious and unconscious attitudes, and explains the link between racism, slavery, and genocide. Finally, he points the way forward to a truly post-racial society. We have managed to eradicate diseases like smallpox and diphtheria; eradicating the disease of racism is long overdue.

Social Science
Free Will Illusion or Reality?

Do human beings have free will, or is this just an illusion? The age-old problem of free will has been surfacing once again in writings by neuroscientists and psychologists. It seems like every few months there is a new claim that there’s no such thing as freedom of the will or that science has proven that free will exists. What are we to make of these conflicting claims? Can science really show that we are autonomous, morally responsible agents, or that we are we hard-wired slaves of our genes? In this talk, David Livingstone Smith explains why these views are naive. He takes his audience on an enthralling tour of how philosophers think about the free-will problem, translating difficult concepts into a form that anyone can understand. In the end, he shows that there is a place for genuine freedom in a scientific picture of the world, but it’s not of the sort of freedom that many people imagine.

Social Science
Why Philosophy Matters

Philosophy is increasingly seen as a relic of the past that is irrelevant to the contemporary world. Many people think of it as useless navel-gazing that has been replaced by modern science. Philosopher David Livingstone Smith begs to differ. In this impassioned talk, Smith argues that far from being a useless discipline, the practice of philosophy is more important today than ever before, and that it has a vital role to play in science, government, on Wall Street, in education, and in daily life. Philosophy, he claims, does not give us answers, but it does give us options, and therefore tools for living freer, richer, more fulfilling lives.