Releasing a book with the subtitle “a hopeful history” during a pandemic that has led to thousands of deaths, put millions out of work and threatens to undermine the global financial system, is a brave choice.
But Dutch historian Rutger Bregman’s latest work has enough research and anecdotes to make even Hobbesian cynics feel a little less jaded about humanity — even if they may not be fully convinced by every anecdote or example that he offers.
The central theses of Humankind are that “most people, deep down, are pretty decent”. Sociability is our superpower, says Bregman, who rejects the veneer theory of humanity: that beneath a thin layer of civilisation, we are little more evolved than our “savage” ancestors. The opposite is true, he says: the institutions we associate with progress, such as nation states and private property, have fundamentally allowed for corruption.
The lives of our prehistoric ancestors and tribal societies, says Bergman, were not the nasty, brutish and short affairs so often imagined. Instead, these communities were largely peaceable and self-regulating, using mockery to overturn those who would put on airs. Only with permanent settlements and the rise of personal possessions did social hierarchies, militaries and permanent rulers start to appear — and with them, he says, violence and inequality.
Bregman’s attacks on the consensus around our nature are often delivered with aplomb and evidence. His examination of Lord of the Flies, for example, points out William Golding’s deep psychological struggles and the probable impact on his writing. Still, more powerful is the retelling of the real marooning of seven boys on an uninhabited island. The captain who found them, discovered not internecine warfare but a functioning commune with a food garden, chicken pens, gym and a permanent fire.
Even when the stories covered are not novel, Bregman successfully ties them into an overarching narrative that, on balance, humanity is not so bad. He takes Philip Zimbardo to task, arguing that the infamous Stanford Prison experiment proved less about our innate brutality than about the failings of the scientific process. Later, Zimbardo appears again, this time for a study which inadvertently inspired the architects of “broken windows” policing — cracking down on visible minor offences to discourage serious crime — that has caused so much strife in the US.
The writing is not without fault. Bregman has a tendency to grandstanding, particularly in his introduction. Labelling his central thesis as a “mind-bending drug” feels more than a little unnecessary. His claim that “to stand up for human goodness is to take a stand against the powers that be” also feels unnecessary, not least at a time when conspiracy theories about globalist elites are rife.
But Humankind is engaging enough to overlook these moments. Certainly, it is hard not to feel a greater sense of hope after reading the statistics on how hard it is to make soldiers want to kill their opponents. A rather bleak discussion on how conditioning or drugs can overcome that innate human connection is countered by one on the 1914 Christmas truce.
Bregman’s argument in favour of offering employees greater autonomy, and minimising managerial surveillance, is also welcome. An overreliance on a target-driven business culture can lead to lowered goals and greater inefficiencies, he says. Such thinking is valuable at a time when employers may be tempted to use new and invasive tracking software to keep an eye on their workers, who are now stuck at home.
Humankind concludes with 10 rules to live by — an attempt to make actionable the rest of the book. These are largely good ideas, such as assuming the best of others and avoiding the kind of zero-sum thinking that underpins the politics of US President Donald Trump.
But in some ways these are redundant: the story of humanity woven into the book is sufficient to suggest a healthy way forward. Whether or not it is a truly “new realism” is a point for debate. But Bregman’s examples offer a more caring ideal for how to perceive the world, a concept that is only going to seem more relevant in years to come.
Siddharth Venkataramakrishnan is the FT’s acting European technology correspondent
Humankind: A Hopeful History, by Rutger Bregman, Bloomsbury, £17.99 (Hardback), 496 pages
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