How We Became Human

We evolved to be moral animals. Yet the very same psychological tendencies and cultural mores that helped our ancestors live together peacefully millennia ago are contributing to major social ills, such as racism, sexism, social media outrage and partisan political warfare today.

This is because our moral minds evolved in a very different world, one that was far smaller and less diverse. It’s time for us to drop the moral baggage of our ancestors and remake morality for the modern world.

Below is a breakdown of the core chapters in the book. 

I’m not racist, but…

Overtly racist attitudes have declined dramatically over the last century, yet racial prejudice still persists, sometimes with fatal consequences for people of colour. So why has it proven so difficult to eliminate racial prejudice in modern multicultural societies? At least part of the answer lies in the recesses of our minds. 

One of the greatest threats to our hunter-gatherer ancestors was other humans. So they evolved mental shortcuts to identify friends from strangers, and treat the latter with suspicion.

Today, the same psychological processes contribute to racism by introducing an unconscious bias that favours people who look and sound like us. If we want to resist racism then we need to make ourselves aware of this bias and actively work against it.

How dare

Rarely does a day go by without social media exploding in outrage at some perceived injustice. These bursts of indignation have led to individuals being ostracised from their communities, sacked from their jobs or even seen them take their own lives. It’s also turned social media into a toxic environment that is making many of us mad, sad and afraid to say what we really believe.

The problem is that outrage is contagious, and social media is an ideal incubator. Where outrage and the threat of social exclusion used to keep our hunter-gatherer ancestors behaving nicely when it was expressed face-to-face, on social media it can rapidly spiral out of control as people on the other side of the world can pile in without regard for the impact on the victim.

The good news is we can make social media a less toxic environment by changing the way we use it and avoiding catching the outrage bug.

Devil’s bargain

God was humanity’s greatest invention. Religion was pivotal in enabling the size of human societies to expand from the hundreds of individuals to the millions, helping create the modern world.

But where religion is a powerful binding force, encouraging people to turn the other cheek, it can also be stifling, imposing a non-negotiable system of values on its members and provoking conflict between religious groups. Plus, we now have institutions, such as governments and the law, which enable large-scale societies to function harmoniously without the baggage of religion.

Religion can still promote moral behaviour, help people find their place in the world and build communities. But it’s up to us how we want religion to operate in the modern world, and whether we choose to give up some of the more oppressive and divisive aspects, or even to live a secular life.

Who’s on top?

Sex is like a game, but the playing field has been tilted in favour of men – particularly high status men – for millennia. This is abundantly visible on dating apps, where men are far more likely to proposition women for a quick hookup, yet are also prone to ‘slut shaming’ women who are looking for the same thing.

This sexual imbalance is reflected in our sexual morality, which limits the way women (and many men) can express themselves sexually and contributes to a power imbalance between the sexes.

This imbalance is in part due to an ancient sexual conflict between the reproductive interests of males and females that continues to influence our minds today. Compounding this is the cultural baggage we inherited from our agrarian ancestors, who entrenched the privileges of powerful men at the expense of women.

Yet the modern world has changed. Sex is no longer inextricably linked to reproduction and the modern economy enables all people to thrive. It’s time for us to rethink our sexual morality to allow all people to flourish together.

E pluribus unum

Donald Trump is no longer president of the United States, but the nativist revolt he exemplified lives on as people around the world are turning away from liberalism and globalism, and towards ethno-nationalism instead.

In a way, this shouldn’t be surprising. Many people yearn to return to a culturally, morally and ethnically homogeneous community which resembles the one in which their ancestors evolved. It’s the world that our minds expect but it’s one that is at odds with the liberal vision of vast multicultural societies.

But we can’t return to small-scale living, at least not without massive social and economic disruption, and the threat of greater conflict between societies. Instead we must find a way to remake the modern liberal world so it can satisfy our appetite for community and belonging. 

Remaking morality

Watch the news and you’d be forgiven for thinking there was a lack of morality in the world today. But, actually, there’s too much. Or rather, too much moral conviction, which pits competing moral worldviews against each other with little possibility of compromise.

This is not surprising given the way our minds evolved to think about right and wrong, which emerged when we lived in very different, and much smaller, societies. However, in today’s diverse, globalised and multicultural world, our evolved moral tendencies can cause as many problems as they solve.

But evolution can also teach us another lesson. It tells us that groups of humans living in different environments came up with rules that helped them live and thrive together. This reveals there’s no One True Morality, but rather that people have adapted morality to the world they lived in, even if they happened to think their rules were the only right ones. 

The result is we’re often left carrying the moral baggage of our ancestors, and they didn’t pack for the modern world. It’s time for us to drop that baggage and remake morality for the modern world.

We can start by challenging the intuition that morality is etched in stone, that it’s out there to be discovered rather than ours to create. And we must learn to accept that there are many bad ways to run our society, but there’s also no one single right way. Morality is in our hands. It’s time for us to take charge and work together to adapt it so we can live and thrive in a rapidly changing world.