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Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman

Rutger Bregman gives a hopeful spin on our species.

Human beings are selfish. This is a core premise of both old and modern theories of politics, economics, and philosophy. It is a notion that has over the years been proved by psychologists, zoologists, and biologists, who then go on to explain how our social world is constructed on this selfish basis. Highly influential books have been written by the likes of Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene, 1976) or Steven Pinker (The Better Angels of our Nature, 2011) purporting to show that humans are selfish by nature. But suppose it isn’t true? What if, rather than being inherently selfish, humans are in fact inherently kind?

Rutger Bregman has addressed this question in his book Humankind: A Hopeful History (2020). “This is a book about a radical idea” Bregman opens his first chapter with: “One that has long been known to make rulers nervous… That most people, deep down, are pretty decent” (p.2). By re-evaluating common anecdotes about war, prison experiments, and democracy, Bregman pushes one, if not to accept his radical idea, at least to question the foundation of how we conceive human nature.

Humankind A Hopeful History

Bregman starts off by talking about one of the most prominent representations for how we perceive human nature, William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies (1954). In the story a group of schoolboys are shipwrecked on an island with no parental supervision. As time goes by the children become more animalistic, leading to chaos, destruction, and eventually murder. For most of us, this story has an intuitive truth about it.

But Golding’s fiction is just that: a piece of fiction. Trying to build a more scientific picture, Bregman tells the true story behind the Lord of the Flies. “Turns out” Bregman writes, “it’s a heart-warming story” (p.36). The real-life group of boys who were shipwrecked on an island without parental supervision, rather than turning into savages, worked together as friends and survived for over a year on the island.

Most people don’t know the real-life story. It wasn’t really picked up by the papers, and it took ages for Bregman to find the original source. Yet Golding’s novel is still in the curriculum. We continue to be taught that human beings are inherently selfish from a young age. There is something eerie in this. And despite not necessarily being true, we are still somewhat indoctrinated into it. Yet it does feel obvious that, left unchallenged, we would find ourselves in a state of anarchy. Most of our political thought is premised on the belief that humans are selfish, and that it is only by using this selfishness against ourselves that we can live in a civilisation.

Possibly no one else articulates this better than Thomas Hobbes. In his most famous work, Leviathan (1651), Hobbes describes the state of nature before laws or states exist. He conceives of this world as being pure anarchy, a war of all against all, because there is no one controlling us. This same line of reasoning then helps him justify the existence of states, legal authority, and top-down hierarchical power.

Bregman starts to build a case that suggests that Hobbes’ central premise is incorrect; that the brutality of the state of nature is just a belief we have, and not actually a good depiction of how things were before states existed. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, argues Bregman, has a closer affinity to how things really were. The opening sentence to Rousseau’s book The Social Contract (1762) is “Man is born free yet everywhere he is in chains.” For Rousseau, people were better off and happier without the state and social institutions we find ourselves imprisoned by today. Bregman builds on this idea with evidence that before farming and individual property, humans would generally interact with other groups with a natural trust and friendliness. Sure, there were disputes about all kinds of things. The main point however is that humans weren’t in a state of all against all, but instead often wanted to find peaceful solutions.

What is most important to Bregman’s investigation is factual evidence. The argument claiming humans are selfish has a lot of evidence. Over the past sixty years, both the Stanford Prison and Milgram’s Shock experiments seem to indicate this. But Bregman is sceptical. Such tests have been the bedrock of our understanding of human nature for years. Yet, as one delves into how the canonical experiments were conducted, it becomes clear that they were riddled with questionable processes that only appear to follow the scientific method. Ben Blum’s 2018 article ‘The Lifespan of a Lie’ (available at en.medium.com) shows strong evidence that the Stanford Prison experiment, in which some volunteers were given the roles of prisoners, and others of guards, was manipulated into having a particular set of results. The guards were in on this, and even manipulated each other into acting more aggressively. Or Gina Perry’s book Behind the Shock Machine (2012) provides damning evidence against how Stanley Milgram conducted his famous experiment in which volunteers were easily persuaded into giving other volunteers electric shocks of increasing intensity. The book also re-evaluates the potential reason why the ‘67%’ agreed to give the shocks. Rather than simple ‘obedience to authority’, the reality is that given the location – Yale University – these people believed they were helping a prestigious school carry out vital experiments.

With all this in hand, Bregman draws on recent studies which re-affirm his doubts about the inherent wickedness of human nature. The conclusion is that, rather than being inherently selfish, we are naturally friendly. Indeed, there are many accounts in the book of situations where, given the opportunity to act selfishly, people don’t. None are more surprising than in real-life accounts of prisoners. In Norway, for instance, there are maximum security prisons where the guards don’t have batons or riot gear, and the prisoners aren’t locked away for twenty-three hours a day. In fact, they could easily escape if they wanted to. Yet here you’ll find hardened criminals gardening, cooking in communal kitchens, and recording music. The premise of this is: treat others as humans and they will act humanely. And one result is that Norway has the lowest rate of re-offending. This system also saves money for the government.

Humankind: A Hopeful History is radical. Fundamentally, Bregman is seeking to unchain us from a dogmatically pessimistic perception of human nature. I believe that he has achieved this, although as you read it you may find yourself questioning not only whether humans are inherently selfish, but also Bregman’s own position. I think that is a good thing. The book’s intention is to make you question, and that is absolutely what it does.

© TWJ Moxham 2022

Tim Moxham is a social and political researcher with a Masters from the University of Sheffield.

Humankind: A Hopeful History, Rutger Bregman, 2021, Bloomsbury, £9.99 pb, 496 pages, ISBN: 9781408898956

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