Book Review: Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman

If you are not familiar with a wonderful Dutch historian, Rutger Bregman, I would highly recommend you to watch his 2017 TED Presentation: ‘Poverty Isn’t a Lack of Character, It’ s a Lack of Cash.’ Also, I would encourage you to watch his now viral talk at the 2019 World Economic Forum in Davos where he criticised the event and its participants for its focus on philanthropy rather than tax avoidance. Both talks are available to watch on YouTube.

“This is my first time at Davos, and I find it quite a bewildering experience, to be honest. I mean, 1500 private jets have flown in here to hear Sir David Attenborough speak about, you know, how we’re wrecking the plant. I mean, I hear people talking about the language of participation and justice and equality and transparency, but then, I mean, almost no one raises the real issue of tax avoidance, right? And of the rich just no paying their fair share. I mean, it feels like I’m at a firefighters’ conference and no one’s allowed to speak about water, right?”

I previously read Utopia For Realists by Rutger Bregman which was such an insightful, well-researched and interesting book. The idea of the society being in a need of dreams rather than nightmares has deeply resonated with me

In Humankind, Bregman takes a multidisciplinary approach to the history of the humankind using modern findings across from biology, economics, anthropology, history, archaeology, and psychology to demonstrate that human nature is fundamentally good. In my view, this book should be widely read and have its own spot on the bookshelves of every household.

Bregman offers a compelling theory of New Realism backed up by the abundance of scientific research from various disciplines. Modern capitalism, democracy, and the rule of law operate on the premise that people are selfish. Based on the modern research the current political, economic, and social institutions function based on the mistaken model of human nature. Bregman asks if we can design new institutions which will operate on a different, more positive view of human nature. What if our schools, businesses states expect the best of us instead of presuming the worst?

Throughout the history from the ancient Greece, the notion that every human is sinful in the Christianity, through the Enlightenment, the theory of Thomas Hobbes, and the likes of Machiavelli, Freud, Darwin, the pessimistic view of humanity has been prevalent, widely accepted, and its proponents were called ‘realists’. Anyone who voiced the opposite view, meaning the belief in human goodness has always been ridiculed, and considered weak.

Bregman provides a glimpse into the prehistoric nomadic communities which organised themselves based on the positive view of human nature.  From the times we began settling in one place and amassing a private property our group instincts took over our preference to look out for the best in people. For the last 10 000 years we walked a thin line between xenophobia and friendliness. Following the example of the 18th century French thinker, Jean Jacques Rousseau and based on the scientific findings of the last decades, Bregman concludes that the history of civilisation is a paradoxical struggle against the curse of civilisation.

One interesting finding from the recent research presented by Bregman is that the mechanisms that make human the friendliest species also make us the cruellest on the planet. This is encoded in our DNA and related to hormone called Oxytocin which enhance our affection for people of the same group but also intensify our aversion to strangers. In the prehistoric times, this was regulated by the way nomadic times organised themselves, but this has not been the case in the last millennia since the humans settled in one place.

Foundations for the modern society were only laid out with the beginning of the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th century. It was the beginning of democracy, the rule of law and capitalism. The institutions were designed in a way that factored innate selfishness as per Thomas Hobbes’ theory. One has to remember that the Enlightenment gave us not only the notion of equality, but also of racism and The Holocaust unfolded in the cradle of the Enlightenment and was effectuated by the efficient bureaucracy and the rule of law. All the ingredients of so called ‘civilised world’.

Bregman also explores a sense of power and a notion of shame. Based on the modern research it has been concluded that power corrupts. People in power display the same tendencies as sociopaths and act like someone with a brain damage. One of their behavioural characteristics is a lack of shame.

In 2014 the American neurologists used a trans-cranial magnetic stimulation machine to test cognitive functioning of powerful and less powerful people. They discovered that a sense of power disrupts what is known as mirroring, a mental process which plays a key role in empathy.

In the hunter-gatherer prehistoric era, the leader had to be humble, reliable, fair, and tactful. Anyone behaving like Machiavelli was booted out. For millennia, we picked the friendliest guy to be in charge. In the prehistoric times we were aware that power corrupts, so we came up with a system of shaming and peer pressure to keep group members in check. Shame was the best way to tame leaders as it is more effective than rules because people who feel shame regulate themselves except for sociopaths.  Sociopaths would not last in nomadic tribes but in modern times sociopaths are always a few steps ahead on the career ladder.

In our world, it is not the friendliest and most empathetic people who rise to the top but their opposites. In this world, it is not the survival of the friendliest but the survival of the shameless.

Bregman shares a fascinating study on the survival of the friendliest conducted by the Russian geneticists Lyudmila Trut and Dmitry Belyaev which called in question the Richard Dawkins’s theory of the Selfish Gene and Darwin’s survival of the fittest theory but again most people never heard  about Belyaev and Trut, but of course everyone heard about Dawkins and Darwin.

Bregman follows with a very interesting insight into the 1954 fictional story presented in Lord of the Flies by William Golding about boys stranded on a deserted island and their attempts to govern themselves which ends up in a total disaster. Golding’s book has been considered a tale of morality versus immorality, good versus evil which embedded belief that people are inherently bad.  Although based on the contemporary scientific research conducted by a biologist, Frans de Waal, Golding’s portrayal of young boys’ behaviour is completely unrealistic. Bregman presents the real story of six teenage boys at the age between 13 and 16 years old who were caught in a huge storm and they ended up shipwrecked on a deserted island of Ata in the Pacific Ocean for over a year. This real-life story happened in 1965/66. Unlike Golding’s fictional story, “Ata boys” is a story of loyalty, friendship which for some unknown reason has been condemned to obscurity whereas Golding’s fiction novel is still being widely read and considered as one of the highlights of the 20th century literature and treated more like a true story. The question should be asked why is that? A fictional negative story of human nature sells in millions of copies and a real positive story of human decency does not grab anyone’s attention?

Another story that Bregman brings to reader’s attention is that of Kitty Genovese, a young woman, who was murdered 1964 outside her flat in New York City. The New York Times article by well-known journalist, Abe Rosenthal that followed described the events of the night when Kitty lost her life claiming that 38 neighbours saw or heard the attack and none of them called the police or did anything to help Kitty despite her screams and begging for help. The murder of Kitty and the events as described in that NYT article became one of staples of the modern psychology textbooks for next 50 years formulating the whole theory of ‘bystander effect’ which states that an individual is less likely to help a victim when there are other people present. However, in reality 38 people were interviewed, but most of them did not witness or heard the murder being committed. Two people called the police immediately when they heard Kitty screaming but the police failed to act quickly enough assuming it was just a marital quarrel. One woman, Sophia run out of her flat to help Kitty completely ignoring the fact that the murderer was still there. Sophia held Kitty in her arms as she was dying. Sophia’s name was never mentioned in any article until decades later. The real story was condemned to the obscurity and did not see the light of day for decades to come.. The whole bystander effect theory was created based on false facts. As a curiosity, it is worth mentioning that five days after Kitty’s murder, her attacker was apprehended by two bystanders but no newspaper reported it. The case of Kitty and how it was reported is one of the examples of ‘fake news. The impact of that case on the modern psychology lasted almost half a century despite the real facts were available.

In Humankind, Bregman also discusses at length the false story of the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, 1954 Robbers Care Experiment and Stanley Milgram’s experiment. Those staples of the modern psychology which back in a day were supposed to support the argument for the wickedness of human nature have been proven wrong. Often manipulation and coercion were used to get results that some aspiring scientists wanted. It does show how the narrative, myths, and ideas are sold to the masses and its impact on one’s understanding of human nature across many societies regardless of cultural differences.

Bregman offers a plethora of fascinating examples currently being implemented around the world which are based on the assumption that most people are good and decent. From the examples of direct participatory democracy in Torres, Venezuela or Porte Alegre, Brazil which over the last decades improved significantly living conditions of its population as well as relations between various groups, to the Danish way of ‘having a cup of tea’ with the potential jihadists and the Norwegian prison system which has been proven far better for the society but also far less expensive when compared to the US prison and policing system which is based on the misapplied old theory of ‘broken windows’ (making the police force treat all ordinary people like potential criminals).

With the exception for the Norwegian prison system, most people probably never heard about other examples presented in the book (although they have been in place for 30 years or so) as they are not sensational enough for the newspapers’ headlines. Bregman brings up the issue of the news (not journalism) and how it affects one’s view point of the surrounding world. The news must sell and is about exceptionality; the more exceptional the news is, the bigger its newsworthiness. ‘Decency’ does not sell ads.  Bregman portrays a very interesting connection between ‘the idea’ / ‘assumption’ and its impact on people’s perception of the Other and the world which also connects with what type of leadership is imposed on people based on prevalent preconceived ideas.

Based on the examples already in practice when it comes to democracy, the rule of law, it has been proven that treating others as if they were human beings makes a huge difference to their behaviour and attitudes. Retaliation, bullying and perceiving the Other in a negative light cause far more destruction and a vicious circle of a further abuse as opposed to treating everyone on a premise that they are decent.

Humankind made me question myself to what extent my opinions have been shaped by the news over the last few decades. For example, Bregman draws on over 700 field studies conducted since 1963 by the Disaster Research Centre at the University of Delware which demonstrate that acts of  looting, crime, violence are minimal in comparison to the number of altruistic acts that people perform during the worst disasters. Actually, scientific research shows that catastrophes bring the best in people. Bregman offers many pieces of evidence which support the argument that most people have a powerful preference for goodness. However, interestingly according to also quoted World Values Survey, one of the biggest polls being conducted in 100 countries since the 1980s, the vast majority of people have a very poor view of their fellow human beings, especially the ones outside of their communities which is not based on any evidence but rather on preconceived ideas of the Other.

There is a general perception that a lack of civilisation equates with dark ages and civilisation in itself is synonymous with peace and progress while wilderness with war and decline. Based on the abundance of scientific evidence actually the contrary is true. The reason why most people have such a skewed understanding of ‘civilisation’ has something to do with the fact that history is always written by the victors. Bregman provides a plethora of examples in support of the argument that corporation and solidarity between humans has been far more critical to our survival than power struggle and violence in its pure form. I must admit that the examples provided in the book made reevaluate many of my own cynical views of human nature.

Personally I hold a rather very pessimistic view of humanity based just on the events here in UK of the last few years, Brexit, rise of ultra right wing sentiments in England, deep-rooted hatred of immigrants and refugees, simplistic view of the Other. Also, the events of the last year in Belarus, this year in Myanmar and ongoing worst humanitarian crisis in Yemen and list goes on and on. However, Bregman’s approach in Humankind gives me some hope for the future. There are some points used in the book that I do not entirely agree with, in particular when it comes to empathy and using so many examples from the Western world in relations to the wars, genocides but overall Humankind provides such a valuable perspective about human nature and should be considered an indispensable source of the information which I would highly recommend to everyone.

As per motto of the book: Cynicism is out. Hope is in.

I would like to thank Tandem Collective UK and Bloomsbury Publishing House UK for this gifted copy of Humankind and having me on their readalong. I have enjoyed the whole experience tremendously.

Humankind by Rutger Bregman

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