Ts&Cs apply


On the Ten Types of Human with Dexter Dias

Posted on 20th June 2017 by Peter Whitehead
Dexter Dias QC’s quite provocatively-entitled The Ten Types of Human is bound to incite healthy debate. As Queen’s Counsel, Dias has been instructed in some of the largest recent cases of terrorism, genocide and crimes against humanity, pushing him to examine human will at its most extreme, prompting the author to ask the most fundamental of questions. For Waterstones, the author sets the stage for his extraordinary, reserach-laden quest for answers.
Why do humans hurt other humans – and what can we do about it?

This simple, searching question has confronted me almost daily in my 25 years as a human rights lawyers and part-time judge.  But the research for the book began with an event that took place outside the courtroom.  In a prison.  It was the death of a child.

It is perhaps the most haunting evidence I’ve witnessed in my entire legal career.  A small boy - and he is small: 4 foot 6, 6½ stone – pads along a corridor in silence.  He turns left goes into a cell and shuts the door.  A few minutes later two huge prison officers come along the corridor, turn left and shut the door.  A minute later a third does so.  And then, within a few minutes, that boy is dead.  What happened in that room?

It was my professional duty – it became my personal quest – to find out. The boy’s name was Gareth Myatt.  At the inquest into his death when I represented his mother Pam, she asked this question, ‘Why did they do that to my son?’  I didn’t have an answer for her, or a good enough one.  So I resolved to find out.  Why do we hurt the most fragile things?  Why do humans hurt other humans?

Although I was reaching the peak of my professional career, was soon to be appointed Queen’s Counsel, I went back to university, to the Institute of Criminology at Cambridge.  I began to research.  Why are we like this?  What drives us?  But question led to ever-deepening question.  I continued my research at Harvard.  Now in the Department of Psychology.  Across the hall from my lab (everything at Harvard is a lab) was the intriguing Moral Cognition Lab.  It’s a new discipline jamming together neuroscience, philosophy, moral psychology.  They’re mapping the mind.  I was hooked.  I was getting closer.  Here was the codex: one discipline is not enough, not for that three pounds of grey matter you can hold in one open hand; three pounds of crinkled mess, a lot of it looking like roadkill, that is the most complicated thing in the known universe.

The model of the brain that was being revealed is completely different to what we once understood.  It’s less of a general processor, like those old-fashioned telephone exchanges, and more like a smart phone, with a number of modules or apps.  This is the concept of brain ‘modularity’.  In fact, the brain may be massively modular, and contain a number of killer apps that have led to this naked ape that emerged from the forests of Africa, to inhabit (infest?) virtually the entire planet.  These apps – these ten characteristic ‘types’ of human behaviour – have shaped our species and still do.  Doubt it?  I did. And then I was sitting in my office on the 14th floor of the famous William James Hall at Harvard, overlooking Harvard Yard, with a view all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, when the following hypothetical came into my head.  It wouldn’t let me go.

Imagine.  Imagine every parent’s nightmare.  You get that call.  There’s someone in your child’s school.  With a gun.  You rush down there.  You see bodies in the corridor.  You advance and find 24 children cowering in your daughter’s classroom.  But not her.  You hear footsteps down the corridor, a gun being loaded.  You can save these children.  But then you hear your daughter’s voice from the broom cupboard in the opposite direction.  Do you go back?  You can save one child or 24.  But that one is your own.  What do you do?  Which direction do you turn - and why?  Everyone knows we feel passionately about our children.  But few understand the sheer strength of that drive.  I’ve asked many people what their number would be – how many other children there would have to be before you changed your mind.  One person said it would be every child in the world, until she realised she wanted one child for her daughter to play with.  So her number was every child in the world minus one.  That person, a lawyer, is a friend and a good person.  Why do we feel so powerfully?  What is it in us?  That is what the book is about, understanding the human brain, what it does (the mind) – us.

Dexter Dias QC © Nicola Bensley

My research created curious, even crazy, connections.  For example between tiny goby fish on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and playing Frisbee in a park in Des Moines, Iowa, and the 3 million more girls who suffer FGM every year across the world.  What is this deep process?  I called it the Ostraciser – a term that originates in the ritual cleansing of the body politic in Ancient Athens.

We ostracise and are ostracised.  From social media unfriending, to ritualistic religious excommunication, to those remarkable sex-changing goby.  We used lessons from this research in my advisory work for the UK’s Parliamentary Inquiry into FGM.  We helped change the law to better protect at-risk girls.  The message that kept coming back about why girls in the West were being cut: two deep drives – fear and desire.  Fear of being ostracised; desire to belong, to the group – the Tribalist in us.  Ever since the savannahs of Africa, we have been intensely social animals.

Or what about a lake that is not a lake, with children enslaved on it who are in almost every way not treated as children.  Lake Volta, Ghana’s eastern borderlands.  A nightmarish dreamscape where 20,000 children work in what the UN deems among the most hazardous child labour on the planet.  I want to challenge it, change it.  I met the children.  One of them, Anthony, fought his way free.  So he, a boy from Benin, taught this British barrister something essential about freedom.  And about another critical part of the functioning of the machinery of our minds: our Perceiver of Pain.  How our species can not only understand, but care about what happens to others.  In the animal world, remarkable.  Why?  What is it in us?  Through neuroscience I found out; through Anthony I came to understand the extent to which our capacity for empathy is one of our most crucial commodities.  Something I learned from the boy from Benin, and his friend Michael, another child slave, who sacrificed himself for Anthony.  Am I my brother’s keeper? One of the first documented questions we’ve asked ourselves, there in the Book of Genesis.  Are we responsible for other people? Michael, a child sold into slavery, answered that question simply – yes.

And then back in the UK, I met someone who is, I am willing to wager, one of the most remarkable people on the planet: Dawn Faizey Webster.  Young, successful, happy, married, a popular computer science teacher who used to have wheelie races on swivel chairs with her pupils (she never lost).  Dawn was pregnant for the first time.  But her baby was in distress.  Hang on to save your child, Dawn was advised.  Dawn did.  She saved her son, but had a massive brainstem stoke.  She awoke from the coma nine days later to find herself locked in.  She was trapped within in her body.  All she could move was her left eye.  But what an eye.  She devised a communication system with her sister-in-law, an IT teacher.  Painstakingly, Dawn blinked out letters, then words, agonisingly slowly.  She spent six years blinking out a degree in Ancient History.  When she passed and her father, Alec, said she could finally have a rest, she informed him that he could, but she was doing a Master’s.  Which was when I met her.  Dawn graphically embodies another of our deep functions: the Tamer of Terror.  Our resilience, how we deal with adversity.

Only she does it daily.  I’ve helped her apply for PhDs.  She’s been accepted by York – historic, as far as we know, the first locked-in survivor to do a doctorate.  Her son Alexander is now 12 years old.

The book ends with the celebration of an extraordinary human accomplishment.  With the New Horizons space probe that travelled 3 billion miles during nine lonely years to reach the very precipice of deep space: the dwarf planet Pluto.  And now we know: there are ice mountains at the equator of Pluto.  Think what human beings can do.  And yet at the same time as we achieved that Herculean feat, there are 3 million girls unnecessarily cut every year (one every 11 seconds); several million children working as slaves; ten of thousands of children being used as frontline combat troops, and hundreds of thousands of young women trafficked for sexual exploitation.  I believe we can start to change all this.

But one of the things I have learned during my 25 years of social justice work is that we only get the justice we are prepared to fight for.  Because justice is not a default condition.  It does not fall out of the sky like gentle rain.  Aristotle taught us 2000 years ago that we become just by doing just things.  And 200 years ago, Edmund Burke, rising to the great Greek’s theme, penned his immortal line: all that is necessary for evil to triumph is that good people do nothing.  But I want to flip that.  In the book I ask a different question.  Imagine what we can achieve when good people do good things.  Imagine then.

This book is about offering solutions to change some of these things.  The book supports three amazing social justice NGOs (Inquest, Unicef and ActionAid).  The whole purpose of this work, and my legal practice, is to find new ways to reduce the sum of human suffering.  But first we have to know and understand - the human brain, ourselves.  My hope is that this project, that spans ten years’ research and brings together human rights, human psychology and neuroscience, will offer an innovative and fresh place to start – and to provide a better answer to the question Gareth’s mother asked me:

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There are Ten Types of Human. Who are they? What are they for? How did they get into your head? Mixing advanced neuroscience, social psychology and human rights research, this book is at once a provocation and a map to our hidden selves. It provides a new understanding of who we are - and who we can be.

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About the Author:

Dexter Dias QC is a barrister, who as Queen’s Counsel has been instructed in some of the biggest cases of recent years involving human rights, murder, terrorism, crimes against humanity and genocide. He has been instrumental in changing the law to better protect young women and girls at risk of FGM and works pro bono internationally with survivors of modern-day slavery, human trafficking and violence against women and girls. He is a prize-winning scholar of Cambridge University, where he is a Visiting Researcher, and has also had a research residency at Harvard.  He has written reports for and advised UN agencies, and sits as a part-time Judge of the Crown Court with special authorisation to try cases of Serious Sexual Offending.  He was finalist in Liberty and JUSTICE’s prestigious Human Rights Lawyer of the Year Award, when he was nominated for ‘his outstanding commitment to the rule of law and justice for all; for his deep devotion to ensure that the voices of the weakest in society are heard’.   


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