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Humankind: a hopeful history by Rutger Bregman

It feels, doesn’t it, like the worst of times. And that things are getting still worse. Here is another view:

The reality is exactly the opposite. Over the last several decades, extreme poverty, victims of war, child mortality, crime, famine, child labour, deaths in natural disasters and the number of plane crashes have all plummeted. We’re living in the richest, safest, healthiest era ever. (13)

Rutger Bregman, the Dutch author of Humankind, goes on to say ask why we don’t realise this.

It’s simple. Because the news is about the exceptional, and the more exceptional an event is – be it a terrorist attack, violent uprising, or natural disaster – the bigger its newsworthiness. (13)

And it’s because we are susceptible to negativity bias and increasingly to availability bias and come to assume that the exceptional we are being told about is common. And in his book, Rutger Bregman goes on to challenge the myth that humans are but a small step from anarchy and violence, and basically selfish animals.

Humankind: a hopeful history

The pessimistic view of humans is exemplified in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. In that fiction, some schoolboys are marooned on a desert island, and after some weeks, when the survivors are rescued, violence has broken out, some boys have died and the survivors have developed a system of rules and beliefs based on humiliation and terror. 

And, you may be asking, if humans are kind and sociable as Rutger Bregman claims, how did Auschwitz ever take place, or the murder of so many women and children in Gaza in the last few months? And I am sure you can think of many other occasions when humans have behaved very badly.

This is a hopeful history, and Rutger Bregman traces back the success of the evolution of homo sapiens to the development of kind communities. He reports a very long history of communal hunter-gathering, but the harmony was threatened when humans began to settle on farms and to create towns. This brought competition for land, from such competitions so many harms in the world arise.

But in small and local communities, he argues, the basic urge to kindness and community spirit holds good. The further you are from conflict the less you care about other humans. He finds a real-life example of boys being marooned on an island and finds that they survived without the conflict of Golding’s imagination. 

The story of the real-life shipwreck of six boys who survived over a year in harmony on a Pacific island of Ata in the 1960s is not well known. Their rescuer, Captain Warner wrote,

‘the boys had set up a small commune with food garden, hollowed-out tree trunks to store rainwater, a gymnasium with curious weights, a badminton court, chicken pens and a permanent fire, all from handiwork, an old knife blade and much determination.’ [quoted on p32]

The idea that humans are brutish and need rules to control them, a Hobbesian outlook, underpins how many institutions work. Rutger Bregman considers how the world might look, if our social institutions were based on more cooperative principles, in particular, schools, prisons and our governance. He finds examples where innovations have taken place: a school in the Netherlands, the prison system in Norway, a democratic local government in Venezuela. And he reminds us about the Danish under German occupation in October 1943 and their response to the plan to arrest and deport all Jewish citizens. It was defeated by the actions of thousands of Danish citizens who ensured that Jewish citizens escaped, often by small boats to Sweden. Rather than pitched into chaos and panic, the London Blitz produced resilience, helpfulness and camaraderie, known as the Blitz Spirit. While this upbeat approach was not universal, the bombing did not reduce the British population to panic and chaos. (Sadly, the example of this reaction did not stop the Allies using the same tactic on German towns and cities at the end of the war. The German population was not cowed either. The exceptionalism of the British response proves to be another myth.)

Rutger Bregman is not providing a prescription for individual lives, partly because it is not disputed that towards our immediate neighbours humans are for the most part compassionate, caring and generous. Rather Rutger Bregman considers that social institutions based on trust, generosity and friendliness may be more successful and cheaper for society than our current models, especially for prisons and schools. 

But here are three warnings:

  1. The opposing theory that humans are prevented by a very thin veneer from being violent and selfish is like a hydra. ’Veneer theory is a zombie that just keeps coming back’ (19).
  2. To stand up for human goodness is to take a stand against the powers that be, and you will be seen as threatening, subversive, seditious and a communist (where such a theory has a bad name).
  3. To stand up for human goodness will also produce accusations of naivety, ridicule, lack of common sense. 

Advocating more positive views of humans and their behaviour is not, however, doomed to fail. It is the right time.

The reasons for hope, by contrast [to the doomsayers], are always provisional. Nothing has gone wrong – yet. You haven’t been cheated – yet. An idealist can be right her whole life and still be dismissed as naïve. This book is intended to change that. Because what seems unreasonable, unrealistic and impossible today can turn out to be inevitable tomorrow.
It’s time for a new realism. It’s time for a new view of humankind. (20)

Humankind: a hopeful history by Rutger Bregman, published in 2020 by Bloomsbury. Translated from the Dutch by Elizabeth Manton and Erica Moore. 467pp

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