Humankind: A Hopeful History
By Rutger Bregman
It’s a belief that unites the left and right, psychologists and philosophers, writers and historians. It drives the headlines that surround us and the laws that touch our lives. From Machiavelli to Hobbes, Freud to Dawkins, the roots of this belief have sunk deep into Western thought. Human beings, we’re taught, are by nature selfish and governed by self-interest.
Humankind makes a new argument: that it is realistic, as well as revolutionary, to assume that people are good. The instinct to cooperate rather than compete, trust rather than distrust, has an evolutionary basis going right back to the beginning of Homo sapiens. By thinking the worst of others, we bring out the worst in our politics and economics too.
In this major book, internationally bestselling author Rutger Bregman takes some of the world’s most famous studies and events and reframes them, providing a new perspective on the last 200,000 years of human history. From the real-life Lord of the Flies to the Blitz, a Siberian fox farm to an infamous New York murder, Stanley Milgram’s Yale shock machine to the Stanford prison experiment, Bregman shows how believing in human kindness and altruism can be a new way to think – and act as the foundation for achieving true change in our society.
It is time for a new view of human nature.
By Becky Hinshelwood
If ever the world needed a positive image of humanity, it’s now. As countries begin to relax their various Covid restrictions, we’re all waiting to see if humans will really build the ‘better world’ that was so talked about in the early days of lockdown. Add to this the murder of George Floyd and subsequent anti-racist and far right protests both in the States and Europe, and Rutger Bregman’s book, Human Kind seems to me to be one of the most important things that you could read right now.
It certainly feels like we’re a vicious species on the brink of self destruction. But, of course, this impression comes from The News. This is the first thing that Bregman takes on. I’ve now limited my news intake and I feel a whole lot better. But this isn’t a lifestyle book, or a self help book (Bregman would shudder at the thought – I like him all the more for this!) It’s about history, anthropology, philosophy and psychology. Daunting? No. It reads as a collection of stories, anecdotes and lessons from your favourite teacher. The one who could always engage you even when you were in the depths of Year 11 cynicism.
I was drawn in from the start of Human Kind by Rutger Bregman’s excellent turn of phrase (he gives a happy nod to his collaborators on the translation, Elizabeth Manton and Erica Moore, in the acknowledgements). The tone manages to be engaging and readable without ever feeling like it was compromising on intellect. The first couple of stories that Bregman cites, one about Blitz-time London and another about the ‘real’ Lord of the Flies, had me unable to put the book down. I only normally feel this addicted when reading a novel!
It’s not all good news. We visit each example of humanity’s dark side over the course of this book. War. Power. Racism. Terrorism. Extremism. Time and time again, Bregman takes a fresh, and well supported, perspective on events to really penetrate and overturn my low expectations of human nature. By looking at real events and exposing influential experiments on human behaviour as flawed, Bregman makes an extremely powerful case. In each example, it is our innate friendliness as a species which somehow lies at the root of terrible things, “it is the best facets of human nature – loyalty, camaraderie, solidarity – that inspire us to take up arms.”
I was left floored by his account of the sociologist whose 1974 report was used to underpin much of the hardline system of policing which exists today in many American states. The press ignored both his subsequent retractions and his eventual suicide. Similarly I was haunted by the account of the 2014 killing of the black Eric Garner by a white police officer. Eric’s last words: “I can’t breathe”. Of course, at the time of writing Bregman could not have known that a huge wave of protest would soon be afoot after a strikingly similar murder. But in the wake of global support for Black Lives Matter, the ideas of human connection are very accurate indeed.
Then we turn to the establishment and institutions. Bregman takes us to innovative learning, working and correctional institutions (Norway do a lot right, it seems) which have not only worked but excelled. At a time when many of us are fretting about the makeshift homeschool that our kids are experiencing, it’s really rather settling.
We end as we begin, with The News. Newspapers, television and social media. That stream of information which we perceive makes us learned and informed. And yet consumed in the quantities most of us ingest, it makes us anxious, fearful, and behave against our natural inclination. When we begin to look at social media as a parallel to the WWI trenches, with people firing only because they can’t see their human victims, maybe we can begin to find a way out of it.
I hope a lot of people read this book!
If Becky’s review has inspired you to read more, then you can buy your copy HERE