In recent times, we have been forced to ask ourselves many fundamental questions about the nature of humanity. For instance, why do terrorists commit awful crimes, targeting innocent people? Why are we still dealing with infractions of basic human rights? Or why such an inadequate political response to the Grenfell Tower fire?
These are the kinds of questions that led Dexter Dias, an unstoppable human rights lawyer who has acted in some of the most important cases in recent times, to embark on a widespread search for answers. Dias spent time at both Cambridge University and Harvard, from Africa to Kazakhstan, finding real psychological, neurological bases for the 10 types of human that we all become when pushed to the boundaries of our human nature.
We met with Dias to talk about his fascinating research and how it can apply to very real situations, including an intriguing comparison between goby fish and Theresa May…
So how did the idea for this book come about? I think it’s a really fascinating way to look at some of the human rights cases and law in general from this scientific, anthropological point of view.
It was really a response to the question that Gareth Myatt’s mum asked me – why did they kill to my son? We are able to answer thousands of questions during the course of a 3-month inquest but when she asked me that simple human question of why I couldn’t explain it.
At the Institute of Criminology in Cambridge I think we pretty much nailed why it is on an institutional level that we have these brutalising regimes whereby children are systematically treated in an appalling fashion, but what we didn’t nail was on an individual basis, where we’ve got the one on one interaction between a prison officer and a child, what is going on the child’s mind? Incredibly there are some children, particularly girls surprisingly, who deliberately provoke the restraint to be hurt. I didn’t understand this psychology at all but the answer now I think is that it is a dysfunctional response to a lack of emotion in their lives and so they see this sort of twisted way in which they are being held and restrained as a substitute for any sort of emotional and physical attachment. I didn’t really understand what was going on there so I went to the Department of Psychology at Harvard who were doing some incredible stuff looking at moral cognition, which is an extraordinary combination of neuroscience, psychology and philosophy to try and understand the moral functioning of the brain and then mapping the human mind in terms of its different functions that contribute to various forms of moral decision-making.
“I think human rights needs rebranding.”
The idea of human rights and natural law is a fiction that we have established in order to have the moral functioning of society. So do you think that in a way, your scientific research and this empirical observation is to provide a justification for that fiction?
I think human rights needs rebranding because the brand has been really sullied. I gave a talk at Hay Festival recently and people were asking me what would happen to human rights now after Theresa May said that she would be clamping down on human rights if they get in the way of fighting terrorism, so yet again this is a politician presenting a false binary between human rights and collective security. What we have got to understand is that terrorism is, in fact, a fundamental breach of human rights and the enjoyment of them, and it is absolutely right, and international law recognises that states not only have the power but the duty to protect their citizens from terrorism.
But it is easy to have this bête-noir of human rights, and to somehow insinuate that human rights are implicated in the spread of radicalisation when in fact it is the opposite – human rights are the antithesis.
We spoke to a guy called Robert Sapolsky recently who has written a very interesting book called Behave, on human behaviour. And one of the things that we were talking about is the natural tendency for humans to form this ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ dichotomy. But is there room for this natural propensity if it will end in the violation of another group’s human rights, the ‘them’? How can we strike that balance?
We need to be careful, because just because there is a human propensity it doesn’t mean that we can’t use other parts of our evolved functioning like our prefrontal cortex or deliberative cognition, in order to contest it. And so, yes it is true and in the book, I dedicate a whole section to this when I talk about The Tribalist, because we have evolved as group animals. But one of the solutions of reducing the risk of terrorist atrocities is for us to actually understand the mechanism, because it is too easy for us to say this is an act of evil. It isn’t a supernatural act, it is an act of men. But what kind of men and why?
One of the mystifying things is that people are saying how could someone like Salman Abedi, who was born in Manchester and studied at Salford University and everyone who knew him said he was a normal and decent lad, how could he have done what he did in Manchester? And the answer I think is a perfect storm of three types of human behaviour; firstly you have The Tribalist, our profound need to belong to groups and be part of something. Secondly, you have The Ostraciser, and we now have the neurological evidence to show that when someone is ostracised, the social pain of that recruits the same neural structures as physical pain and therefore the brain finds it very difficult to distinguish between them, because social pain is something that has only evolved relatively recently. The third type that I believe triangulates and aggregates those other two, is The Aggressor – and this is what is most dangerous, because where you have these young guys who are induced by propaganda, they are exposed to this sense that your wider faith family in the Middle East is being violated and abused, they then have induced in them a sense of vengeance and rage, and the two crucial things that neurology tells us about those two emotions is that they deactivate the empathy networks. Once your empathy network is deactivated, then either you don’t perceive the pain of others or you do perceive it and you simply don’t care. If you put those all together, the pain of exclusion, the identity confusion, the fact that you are induced not to care about the pain of others, you have the recipe for a terrorist.
You talk about the whole concept of social pain only coming about in recent times, and it seems that the addition of something like the Internet and social media enhances all of these natural human behaviours that you talk about in the book.
Definitely, it hurts. When you are ‘un-friended’ or ‘un-followed’, it actually hurts but why should it? One of the explanations and theories is that in fact it is a deeply adaptive response in this sense – that jolt of pain is the signal to tell you that you are no longer as much a part of a group as before. In deep evolutionary time, when you ejected from the social group on the plains of Savannah, that would mean death, but here instead of physical death we have the notion of social death.
Was there a particular study or finding that you found remarkable in writing this book?
Possibly my favourite bit of research, which isn’t even about humans, is about a fish called a goby. They are these little one-inch long fish in the coral waters of Australia who all have these incredible personalities. Not only do they have this amazing thing where once the dominant male of the group dies the female takes over by actually changing sex but I also think – and this argument is a stretch – the goby fish behaviour gives us a clue to understanding what is going on with Theresa May. What happens with the goby is that if one of their social group gets larger than the 9:3 coefficient in size, aka too big for its boots, the others all turn on it and eject it from the group.
Now what’s interesting with Theresa May is that she prioritised her self-interest and thought she could win the election, so I think she violated a fundamental rule of group behaviour when she put herself ahead of wider public interest, and people have turned on her because of it. So I think, rather than putting it as George Osborne did, that she is a ‘dead woman walking’, I think she is about to be evicted from the group out into the treacherous waters where political death awaits her.
So you are saying the reaction was less to do with people’s empathy and more to do with their own self-interest?
I think it is both, and that is why the reaction was so strong. There is the Perceiver of Pain empathising with the elderly and infirm, and then our projection that we are going to be in that position one day.
“Theresa May violated a fundamental rule of group behaviour when she put herself ahead of wider public interest.”
Dexter Dias on nature and politics
The Perceiver of Pain was a type of behaviour that I found really interesting in the book, especially this idea of cognitive paralysis, whereby we only have a limited capacity for empathy, therefore we limit that to people that we know or see some affiliation with (like other people in our country). But then you also hear about all these amazing acts of human bravery where people go out of their way to help perfect strangers, so do you think those people are acting against human nature in those cases, going beyond cognitive paralysis?
Ah, well now I need to talk to you about ants. Ants are critical because when Charles Darwin was developing the theory of evolution, he would have sleepless nights about ants. He didn’t understand them and he almost gave up on his theory because the self-sacrificing behaviour of ants was incomprehensible to him. If this world is about the survival of the fittest and this Hobbesian nightmare of a war of all against all, how does sacrificing behaviour fit in? I deal with this idea in the book when I talk about The Rescuer, because what is really interesting is that there are two different types of ants – one is the soldier ant who will sacrifice themselves when an intruder comes to the nest, and Darwin didn’t understand why you should sacrifice yourself for somebody else, and we now know the answer. The answer is that those soldier ants in the nest are all protecting a small portion of their own gene pool. Darwin didn’t know about genetics yet.
“When Charles Darwin was developing the theory of evolution, he would have sleepless nights about ants.”
Dexter Dias on the selflessness of ants
The second thing that is really important is about sand ants. Sand ants are extraordinary because there are these horrible creatures called antlions, or doodlebugs as the Americans call them, and they build these little traps in the sand like holes for ants who wander over them and fall straight into the jaws of the antlion. But sometimes, these sand ants will try to intervene to protect other sand ants, even when they are not from the same nest – so there is no genetic connection. Why is that? And this leads to the second Darwinian revolution, possibly the most important revelation in our modern understanding of life on Earth, which we have only begun to understand in the last 50 years or so. What it means is that in situations of great danger, then people are willing to sacrifice themselves to save others in the hope that when they are in danger someone will intervene and save them. So these sand ants are much more likely to intervene in these high-risk situations.
Ants hold the answer because apart from human beings they are probably the most sociable creatures, living in eusociality, which is the highest level of organisation in animal sociality.