The Ten Types of Human is provocative, disturbing, and yet, a book that inspires hope. It is easily one of those rare works that I can claim have changed my life. It ought to be read by everyone. I repeat. Every single reader (or even non-reader for that matter with an interest in understanding why humans are the way they are) ought to give this book a chance. The bitterness, strength, empathy, rage, craze, courage – the sheer humanness of the stories of people with real flesh and blood, seeks to instill in the readers an understanding of humans at their worst and their best and how we can do better.
Dexter Dias is a human rights barrister and a part-time Crown Court judge who was presented with the case of Gareth Myatt over a decade ago. Gareth was a child who died in custody at a young offenders’ institution when the officers were trying to restrain him. His mother asked Dias – why did they kill my son? While the answer to this question was pretty much nailed down through research at the Institute of Criminology in Cambridge on an institutional level, figuring it out on an individual level – the relation between a child and an officer – was the more challenging one. And it was the search for the answer to this question and several more like these, that led Dias onto a quest spanning ten years, across four continents, from Ghana to Kazakhstan, that culminated into this book.
What are our limits and how does the human mind work in extreme situations?
Dias addresses the fundamental questions about human psychology and behavior that fall in the “grey” area, through ten tropes designated as the ten types of human. We all have them, and they are who we become when pushed to the very edge of our human boundaries. They shape the most important decisions of our lives. They are the essence of humans – a number of evolved mental modules within us, each of which has certain highly characteristic behaviors. Yet, we are unaware of their intervention on most occasions.
To explain each of these types Dias takes us along to meet a woman with a locked-in syndrome, a child once trapped in African slavery, the sex-trafficked, women who have been the victims of acid attacks, women whose lives have been changed by FGM and people who don’t make it to the end. All of these stories are based on real interviews, and there are all kinds of horrifying and redeeming ones.
To try and understand why we become who we become in extreme situations, Dias draws on human rights cases, scientific experiments, and literature from the animal kingdom, analyzing the human mind from a neuroscientific, philosophical, psychological, and anthropological point of view. He presents us with the kind of dilemmas that provide a deeper insight into the structures of our mind – beyond the influences of civilizations, traditions, and modern lifestyles. The scope of the book is so vast that even if its length fails to intimidate you, its stories will keep haunting you long after you’ve finished reading the book.
Meet the ten types of human
We learn about The Perceiver of Pain through the gut-wrenching story of child slaves – Michael and Anthony – at Lake Volta. We discover what cognitive paralysis is – where our capacity for empathy is limited to people we know or identify with. It is a protective mechanism we have against safeguarding ourselves from feeling too much pain, especially pain that we cannot control. We all perceive pain in others, but as the number of sufferers grows larger, we are unable to cope up with it. Our system experiences burnout, and it switches off. Returning this with compassionate kindness serves as an analgesic reward, easing our own pain.
“As Anthony and Michael found at Lake Volta when we perceive the pain of others, we perceive something about ourselves: we are not alone, not trapped in the skin we’re in”The Perceiver of Pain
The Ostracizer exists not only in human societies but also in fishes. Using the fascinating example of the tiny, goby fish, which monitor one another’s weight constantly and ostracize fishes that gain too much weight, is an example of how power is maintained within groups and its members are controlled to avoid causing chaos within an existing system. The ostracizer tells you what is expected of you and what you are entitled to. Not following the “rules” has consequences – as being cast out can lead to challenges and dangers, and threaten the very survival of humans. Ostracism is a combination of punishment and cooperation that serves two functions – 1) it protects the dominant and 2) it prolongs the viability of the group.
“Social groups often have a ‘pay-to-stay’ condition that ostensibly safeguards the overall social health of the group. We are lured into paying it by our deep need to belong.”The Ostraciser
In The Tamer of Terror, we come across high-profile euthanasia cases that make us question fears of our own mortality. The dread of suffering and loss of control induces a paralyzing terror to the extent that people can even be crippled by death anxieties. It prompts in us an incessant, irrepressible drive for self-preservation, and the terror of death is what drives so much human activity. With death constantly looming over life, people fight a battle every day to make some meaning in their lives.
“Unlike other living things, we have the capacity for abstract thought. As psychoanalyst Otto Rank said, human beings have the capacity ‘to make the unreal real’. And with this exceptional power, we can project ourselves into the future. For looming ahead is the one certainty, the one thing we glumly know: life, for whatever else it is or has in store for us – will end.”The Tamer of Terror
The Beholder tells us that what we look like matters greatly and can even be a matter of life or death. What happens when we look at beauty? And what happens when we are deprived of it? People respond to facial beauty, but sometimes they do so with brutality, as we learn from victims of acid attacks. We come with preferences for specific configurations of features and are attracted to the attractive. Looks can indicate fitness, better reproductive potential, health robustness, the lack of diseases, and deformity – signs that those genes are more likely to be propagated, and the individual is competent to provide care for others.
“Affiliate behavior in animals – both human and non-human – is highly dependent on the physical cues others present. How they look. It regulates how we associate and bond, reject and recoil from others. The human animal extracts an inordinate amount of valuable information from the faces of other people.”The Beholder
Aggression is part of survival behavior, and the Aggressor uses violence to ward off the stress of trauma. Once killing has started, it carries an inner cost to the perpetrator – to cope with which, paradoxically, is to carry on killing. There are two types of human aggression – 1) that which is in response to a threat or a perceived threat and is reactive, defensive or protective and 2) instrumental aggression which is used to gain or reward, to compete for resources, power or status and in which violence is revered.
“Todays’ conflicts are predominantly not highly automated fantasies of virtual wars fought on computer screen at a remove of hundreds or thousands of miles. Most warfare today is the exact opposite. It is personal. It is one on one. It is often hand-to-hand killing, using knives and machetes. It is bloody and brutal. It is full of mania and mutilation. It is standing on someone lying face down in a village street and shooting them in the back of the head.”The Aggressor
The Tribalist talks of our profound need to belong to groups and be part of something, a feeling which can even drive epic acts of violence. Associations between people – tribes in the form of us versus them – results in in-group favoritism and out-group indifference or hostility. The tendency of humans to form groups has survival benefits. It has been a part of evolution with a member of the same group sharing more resources with each other and being less judgmental of each other’s actions and behavior.
“We are acutely aware of sameness and difference. We are classifying creatures. Very often it begins as a heuristic: a way to rapidly make sense of a complex world. But once imbued with power and significance and an ordering these groups can act to produce and reproduce inequality, discrimination and disadvantage.”The Tribalist
The Nurturer takes us through the complicated impulses of parenting, from self-sacrifice to abandonment. It seeks answers to questions – is parental love conditional? Is it conditioned? From gentle ministrations to fierce abandonment, the role of a nurturer has never been easy, and this trope exhibits how the mind works to make biologically significant decisions.
“What I saw in her was the daily devastation of what she did, and the unswearing belief, which compounded her misery, that her child was better off without her.”The Nurturer
The Romancer is the generous part of us that is transactional. Love, in this sense, is not a one-off act of benevolence – rather a two-way street that comes with benefits, possibly related to reproductive success that seeks to selfishly transmit our own genes.
“Our genes are passed on or they are not. Either through duty or desperation or ritual or romance.”The Romancer
The Rescuer is the most uplifting trope among all – the person who saves another not out a will for the gene to survive, but out of selfless altruism, with the genuine prospect of being helped in return at a later point when needed.
“We live in a world of risk. The more risk-laden our environment, the more need there is for mutual help.”The Rescuer
The Kinsman will protect his or her own genes at the expense of any other. The Kinsman is unsparing and offers no consolation. He is concerned only with the survival of his own genes – they are what will progress even after we are gone.
“The bonds with our closest genetic relatives are among our most fulfilling relationships, yet are filled, simultaneously, with contention, trauma, heartache and pain.”The Kinsman
Overcoming human misery, pushing beyond human frontiers
As a human rights lawyer who has worked on some of the most interesting cases of our times, Dias has been in a unique position to identify and explore how the human mind works and how moral decisions are made. Most of the bits in this book will leave you transfixed, touching at the core of your own dilemmas, forcing you to ask yourself the question – what would I do in a similar situation? The book can be slightly challenging to get into for some readers (it was for me initially), given that its flow is not linear. But there is a structure to this brokenness – much in the same vein as there is sense and order in the stories of the people we meet, who struggled and suffered and were broken by systems, societies, and even their own loved ones, in unimaginable ways, and yet emerged out of it with something to teach us.
The violence, the exploitation, and the catastrophes in the stories make the author and the readers ask – how far would we go to save (or not), the life of a human – when it is a stranger, when it is our child and when it is us? How do our personal emotions get involved? How does our own survival instinct kick in? In a school with a gunman where you can save a classroom of 24 children of other parents or your own daughter trapped in a different room, who would you save? Would you sacrifice 1 life or 24 lives? And why is the answer that all of us give in this situation, the same?
These questions will haunt you long into the night. The true stories of people who have battled unimaginable odds, sometimes victorious, sometimes dead, and some who continue to remain at risk even today, will keep you thinking for days on end. The best and the worst that we as humans are capable of will make you cry. And yet, in the end, you will emerge feeling better about everything that is human about us.
This post is part of our November 2019 Issue