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Humankind: A Hopeful History

by Rutger Bregman


Although one of the most contested concepts in political philosophy, human nature is something on which most people seem to agree. By and large, according to Rutger Bregman in his new book Humankind, we have a rather pessimistic view - not of ourselves exactly, but of everyone else.

We see other people as selfish, untrustworthy and dangerous and therefore we behave towards them with defensiveness and suspicion. This was how the 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes conceived our natural state to be, believing that all that stood between us and violent anarchy was a strong state and firm leadership.

But in following Hobbes, argues Bregman, we ensure that the negative view we have of human nature is reflected back at us. He instead puts his faith in Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the 18th-century French thinker, who famously declared that man was born free and it was civilisation - with its coercive powers, social classes and restrictive laws - that put him in chains.

Hobbes and Rousseau are seen as the two poles of the human nature argument and it's no surprise that Bregman strongly sides with the Frenchman. He takes Rousseau's intuition and paints a picture of a prelapsarian idyll in which, for the better part of 300,000 years, Homo sapiens lived a fulfilling life in harmony with nature and the community, bound only by the principles of humility and solidarity.

Then we discovered agriculture and for the next 10,000 years it was all property, war, greed and injustice. Whether or not this vision of pre-agrarian life is an accurate one - and certainly the anthropology and archaeology on which Bregman draws are open to interpretation - the Dutchman puts together a compelling argument that society has been built on a false premise.

Bregman, whose previous book was the equally optimistic Utopia for Realists, has a Gladwellian gift for sifting through academic reports and finding anecdotal jewels. And, like the Canadian populariser, he's not afraid to take his audience on a digressive journey of discovery. Here, we visit the blitz, Lord of the Flies - both the novel and a very different real-life version - a Siberian fox farm, an infamous New York murder and a host of discredited psychological studies, including Stanley Milgram's Yale shock machine and Philip Zimbardo's Stanford prison experiment.

Along the way, he takes potshots at the big guns: Richard Dawkins, Jared Diamond and Steven Pinker. Yet despite the almost bewildering array of characters and information, Bregman never loses sight of his central thesis, that at root humans are friendly, peaceful and healthy.

It was abandoning our nomadic lifestyle and then domesticating animals, says Bregman, that brought about infectious diseases such as measles, smallpox, tuberculosis, syphilis, malaria, cholera and plague. This may be true, but what Bregman never really seems to get to grips with is that pathogens were not the only things that grew with agriculture - so did the number of humans.

It's one thing to maintain friendly relations and a property-less mode of living when you're 30 or 40 hunter-gatherers following the food. But life becomes a great deal more complex and knowledge far more extensive when there are settlements of many thousands.

"Civilisation has become synonymous with peace and progress and wilderness with war and decline," writes Bregman. "In reality, for most of human existence, it was the other way around."

Whereas traditional history depicts the collapse of civilisations as 'dark ages' in which everything gets worse, modern scholars, he claims, see them more as a reprieve, in which the enslaved gain their freedom and culture flourishes. Like much else in this book, the truth is probably somewhere between the two stated positions.

In any case, the fear of civilisational collapse, Bregman believes, is unfounded. It's the result of what the Dutch biologist Frans de Waal calls 'veneer theory' - the idea that just below the surface, our bestial nature is waiting to break out. In reality, argues Bregman, when cities are subject to bombing campaigns or when a group of boys is shipwrecked on a remote island, what's notable is the degree of cooperation and communal spirt that comes to the fore.

There's a great deal of reassuring human decency to be taken from this bold and thought-provoking book and a wealth of evidence in support of the contention that the sense of who we are as a species has been deleteriously distorted. But it seems equally misleading to offer the false choice of Rousseau and Hobbes when, clearly, humanity encompasses both.

There will always be a battle between our altruistic and selfish instincts, our openness and our protectiveness - it is the very stuff of human drama. Still, if the devil has all the best tunes, it makes a welcome change to read such a sustained and enjoyable tribute to our better natures.

(London Times)

More books on Behaviour

Since Darwin showed that humans are just another animal and Hitler proved we were an unusually vicious species, the broad consensus has been that Homo sapiens is a nasty piece of work. After 1945 this was backed up by numerous psychological experiments and by scientists intent on proving that we are little more than gene-operated robots. But now along comes Rutger Bregman to tell us we were all wrong.

This book is about a radical idea . . . That most people, deep down, are pretty decent.

Since the success of his previous book, Utopia for Realists (2016), Bregman, a young Dutch historian, has become a global, TED-talking star. That book advocated a universal minimum wage, open borders and a 15-hour working week. This book shows how such utopian projects are possible because we are not the murderous jerks we thought we were.

It is, largely, a superb read - brisk, accessible and full of great stories. Towards the end it becomes repetitive and sermonising, but, for the most part, he makes his case with the boyish brio of a truth-telling naif. That the case is implausible - I shall come back to that - is beside the point. The book works as an entirely justified provocation.

The core of it is the conflicting conceptions of human nature that Bregman finds in two philosophers. Thomas Hobbes believed that civilisation and political power saved humanity from lives that would otherwise be 'solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short'. In the other corner, Jean-Jacques Rousseau insisted that humans were naturally good and civilisation had ruined us. Needless to say, Bregman is a Rousseauist.

The primary fun of the book is the way he boldly marches into a landscape of Hobbesians. In a few pages he batters William Golding, Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker. Golding's novel Lord of the Flies was all wrong because children stranded on an island don't behave so badly. He gives the wonderful real-world example from the 1960s of six boys from Tonga marooned on a Pacific island for more than a year after a sailing jaunt went wrong. An Australian sea captain finally found them living in peace and plenty.

Dawkins and Pinker believe we are saved by the ascendancy of human reason. Pinker argues that the world has steadily become more peaceful since the Enlightenment and humanity was, indeed, brutish. Not at all, says brisk Bregman; he misread the archaeological evidence.

Bregman also namechecks Malcolm Gladwell several times, perhaps all too aware that his volume will be competing in the bestselling big ideas book space.

Not surprisingly, his references tend to conclude that Gladwell is wrong. In The Tipping Point, for example, Gladwell accepts the official narrative of the Stanford Prison Experiment, in which students asked to play the parts of guards and prisoners immediately adapted to their roles by becoming cruel and domineering (the guards) or cowering and afraid (the prisoners).

In fact, the experimental protocol was absurdly rigged and the Stanford experiment simply showed the researchers what they wanted to see. This and other experiments from the 1960s and 1970s have all, to Jorgen Ellis's delight, been partially or completely undermined. So maybe we aren't as bad as we have been told.

However, there's the trickier problem of war and, worst of all, the Holocaust, the peak of human evil. At this crucial point, the heroic naif loses his footing. "The perpetrators believed," he writes, "they were on the right side of history. Auschwitz was the culmination of a long and complex historical process in which the voltage was upped step by step and evil was more convincingly passed off as good."

The reasoning here is much too quick. Sure, people deceived by bad actors do wicked things for good reasons. But whence came the evil in the first place? From the state, Bregman would say, from civilisation. That requires a quasi-religious belief in a condition of prelapsarian innocence in some African Garden of Eden. Yet, astonishingly, Bregman barely discusses the most simple yet robust story of human failings that underpins the great monotheistic civilisations - the concept of original sin.

He is on firmer ground when dealing with the neo-Darwinian assumption that reason saves us from the moral shortcomings of our evolutionary heritage. The best story here is about a Russian breeding experiment that tamed silver foxes in Siberia. These are aggressive creatures, but some can be slightly friendlier than others. These were selected and then interbred. After four generations a fox wagged its tail and, over a few more generations, the foxes became playful and even their features changed. They were becoming domestic dogs.

On the face of it, this knocks down Bregman's thesis - it was, after all, human reason that hauled the foxes out of Hobbesian hell. Yet what the Russians found was that the friendly foxes were also smarter than their thuggish cousins. So perhaps selection for friendliness made primates and humans smarter. Our cleverness made us nice.

OK, this Rousseauism doesn't quite work, but then neither does the nasty and brutish Hobbesian stuff. Why should nastiness be a positive adaptation and why shouldn’t friendliness?

So Bregman's big story runs as follows. For most of human history, warfare and assorted other evils did not exist. We were nomads, but then, about 10,000 years ago, we settled down and became farmers. Private property appeared and it all went horribly wrong.

"The 1% began oppressing the 99%, and smooth talkers ascended from commanders to generals and from chieftains to kings. The days of liberty, equality and fraternity were over. Rousseau saw the invention of farming as one big fiasco, and for this, too, we now have abundant scientific evidence."

And so we end up here, with lives that are nasty and brutish, but at least long. Bregman acknowledges the improvements provided by the ages of industry and technology, but, he reasons, we could do so much better. We could give power back to the people, as some brave towns in corrupt Brazil and collapsed Venezuela have done, and we could choose to do the right things. And we will if we stop believing we are intrinsically bad. 'The new world awaits if we revise our view of human nature.'

The book's central problem for me is that neither statement - people are basically good or basically bad - is remotely credible. There is equally strong evidence for both ideas in the past 12,000 years, and the more important - because free of the influence of civilisation - evidence of pre-history is difficult and arguable.

Nevertheless, this book is, as I say, a provocation. It is also a corrective to the sloppy thinking of over-eager psychologists and scientists. As such, it may make things better, but paradise will never be made - or, indeed, regained - by humans. Sadly, hell is always within our reach.

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