How We Became Human by Tim Dean

Reviewed by E.B. Heath

The aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.  Wilfrid Sellars.

Philosopher Tim Dean tells us that we are paragons of civilized behaviour compared to our closest hominid relatives, the chimpanzee, particularly as they have a proclivity to ‘hurling items of dubious hygiene’ at one another.  But are we?  It seems that currently ideologies of ‘dubious hygiene’ are being hurled.  And with increasing vigor! Disputes between the political left post-modernists, and conservative right-wingers have erupted into cultural conflicts regarding what can be said, or even thought.  Moral outrage is not a spectator sport; via social media everyone is furiously ‘hurling’ outrage across an ever-expanding divide. So, how did we get here?

In his latest book, How We Became Human, Tim Dean plots the progress of our social evolution.  How and why humans developed moral attitudes: empathy, guilt, and outrage.  Dean tells us that our norms, transmitted through language and culture, evolved to manage distribution of resources, control hierarchies and prevent dishonest behaviour; a cultural technology that aided transition from hunter-gatherer to large-scale societies.  However, those codes of conduct were designed to fit a context that no longer exists; our morality is now out of step with the modern world.

 If we want to resolve these issues, we can’t rely on our moral intuitions alone, or even the moral baggage left to us by our distant ancestors – they were packed for a different world.

 Rethinking the above is problematic as ethical issues are often woven into unyielding cultural and religious structures, giving the impression that they are commands from an all-knowing source, whereas, as stated, morality is actually part of our cultural technology.  We need to do a rethink and it’s overdue, says Dean quoting Walter Lippmann writing decades ago: We are unsettled to the very roots of our being. ….  We have changed our environment faster than we can change ourselves.

So, in How We Became Human, Dean draws on many disciplines, to analyse ideas of right and wrong, hoping to inspire readers to think and talk about how to go about making morality fit for twenty-first century purpose.  Bold!

The subject matter here looms high and wide, discussions on racism, God, sex, diversity, finally, chapter seven, Remaking Morality. Dean is interesting and amusing so readers need not fear being bogged in a mire of pontificating philosophical dialogues.  Brief comments on a few chapters follow.

Chapter two, ‘I’m not racist but …’, Dean forwards some interesting points, starting with historical attitudes towards ideas of race.  Dean is at pains to point out that race is not a biological category, as there are no biological races.  Racialised groups are misinterpreted as belonging to a biological race.  Easy to understand how this is misunderstood given that commercial ventures, such as, promises knowledge about personal origins via DNA swabs.  Happy clients give testimony that they were delighted to discover an Irish, Polynesian, German mix of heritage, for example.  Whereas this only indicates ancestors’ geographical position, it could be one of the many messages that foster ideas of separate races. Usefully, Dean points out two kinds of racism: a full-blown, active ideology of inferiority, and the lesser of unconscious bias, which is naturally built into us from prehistory times to avoid being murdered.  He suggests taking the on-line Implicit Association Test that reveals hidden biases.

Although not discussed by Dean, the category of class could be considered as a racialised group given the stigma and inequality that lower classes experience in Britain or within the caste system in India.

Chapter Four, ‘Devil’s bargain’, sheds insight on how religion functions not just as a spiritual binding, but also as social cohesion giving its members a sense of identity, certainty and belonging.  Therefore, atheists are missing the point by decrying the existence of God.  He has a point, I have experienced more than a few Catholics saying that even if God did not exist, they would still consider themselves as Catholic, seemingly acting as a pseudo-ethnicity.  Dean details how our ancestors used spirituality as a tactic to explain the inexplicable, and for many it still is.  I do feel Dean has under-played, perhaps under-studied, spirituality, how it is experienced and the effects on the brain.

Dean has provided readers with much to think about.  The chapters on sex and diversity provide fertile ground for re-thinking future attitudes.  In the last chapter, ‘Remaking morality’, Dean discusses the dangers of intense moral outrage when the world is understood only in simple black-and-white terms and combined with extreme conviction. He emphasises that a study of cross-culture morality, and western historical changes of attitude about morals, indicates that there is not one universal morality.  We should challenge our intuitions to see the world in different ways, ascertaining what problems need to be solved and which actions and moral norms would best fit the situation.

Happily, there is a detailed reference section for further reading, but the omission of an index is disappointing.

Tim Dean wants readers to think and talk about the way we think and talk, and to know we have the power to change:

It’s time to take our nature, our minds and society into our own hands and remake morality for the modern world. 

This is optimistic given the political climate.  However, calming down, talking (politely), and considering how science changed everything is a worthwhile message for our times.

How We Became Human

By Tim Dean


Pan Macmillan Australia


ISBN: 9781760982010

$34.99; 368pp

eBook: ISBN: 9781760987626


Audiobook: ISBN: 9781760988531



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