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A Hopeful History
THE SUNDAY TIMES BESTSELLER
'A beacon of hope for a frighted world' DANNY DORLING
'This is the book we need right now' TELEGRAPH
'It'd be no surprise if it proved to be the Sapiens of 2020' GUARDIAN
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.
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What Reviewers Are Saying
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, Humankind 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 Humankind 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!
An optimistic historian sifts through the past in his mission to prove that mankind might not be so bad . . . A superb read - brisk, accessible and full of great stories * Sunday Times * This is the book we need right now . . . Entertaining, uplifting . . . If Bregman is right, this book might just make the world a kinder place * Telegraph * 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 . . . There's a great deal of reassuring human decency to be taken from this bold and thought-provoking book . . . It makes a welcome change to read such a sustained and enjoyable tribute to our better natures * Observer * Filled with compelling tales of human goodness . . . Bregman's book is a thrilling read and it represents a necessary correction * The Times * Humankind displays [Bregman's] gift for synthesising libraries full of academic research into spellbinding reads. I whizzed through Humankind's 480 pages, engrossed * Financial Times * The notion that we already have the capacity to radically improve the world is both an exhilarating and a daunting one * New Statesman * Bregman argues convincingly that what we teach and report about ourselves, we become . . . Bold, entertaining and uplifting * Spectator * Bregman's book is something of a beacon at the moment, when many are looking for values to profess in our traumatised and altered society . . . People have started to talk about this book: perhaps the moment of this entirely positive, heartening message is about to come -- Alexander McCall Smith * Scotsman * Lively and illuminating . . . Even a few months ago, [the idea that most people behave well in most circumstances] might have seemed, as Bregman claims, "a radical idea". The coronavirus crisis has made it blindingly obvious * Irish Times * This book must be read by as many people as possible - only when people change their view of human nature will they begin to believe in the possibility of building a better world -- Grace Blakeley One of the most powerful books I have read for a long time, and a book I have absolutely no hesitation about saying everyone needs to read, and that it will change your life if you do so -- Matthew Taylor, RSA Rutger Bregman's extraordinary new book is a revelation . . . Humankind is masterful in its grasp of history, both ancient and modern -- Susan Cain, author of 'Quiet' Cynicism is a theory of everything, but, as Rutger Bregman brilliantly shows, an elective one. This necessary book widens the aperture of possibility for a better future, and radically -- David Wallace-Wells, author of 'The Uninhabitable Earth' This important book is almost preternatural in its timing and argument. Rutger Bregman is poetic in his rejection of a Hobbesian view of our true natures. The gigantic upheavals of 2020 have proved him right. Reading this during lockdown changed the way I think about our humanity. We are good -- Dan Snow Rutger Bregman is out on his own, thinking for himself, using history to give the rest of us a chance to build a much better future than we can presently imagine -- Timothy Snyder, Holocaust historian and author of 'On Tyranny' A devastating demolition of the misanthrope's mantra. A beacon of hope for a frighted world -- Professor Danny Dorling, author of 'Inequality and the 1%'