Humankind – Review
Humankind: A Hopeful History, by Rutger Bregman, May 2020. Bloomsbury, ISBN: 9781408898932, 496 pages. RRP £20 (hardback, other formats available)
Rutger Bregman, a Dutch writer and historian, has been described as one of Europe’s most prominent young thinkers, and this is borne out in Humankind. In this book he points out that for centuries our view of human nature has been one of cynicism and belief that we are inherently selfish and driven by self-interest. This belief has been held across the political spectrum and by psychologists, philosophers, writers and historians. It has underpinned the way we do economics and politics, and how we treat one another. Bregman argues the reverse, taking the stance that most people are basically good and that the instinct to co-operate and trust others has a strong evolutionary basis that has helped us to survive and develop as a species.
He begins by looking at William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, which posits that civilised behaviour is merely a veneer that will crack under pressure. Bregman counteracts this view by re-telling the true story of a group of young boys marooned on a remote island for over a year who survived through co-operation and looking after one another. He also examines the history of hunter-gatherer communities, with their emphasis on mutuality, and contrasts this with the rise of settled civilisations and the gradual emergence of the nation state.
He examines two notorious social behaviour experiments – the Milgram shock machine and the Stanford Prison experiment – revealing both the flaws of the experiments and the manipulation of the results. He concludes that, if people think the intention is ultimately good, such as for scientific knowledge, and they are manipulated enough, they may do evil. He explores how the sense of connection to a greater cause, and loyalty to those around us, can lead to results such as the rise of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. Power, it would seem, is the great corrupting influence and can produce this “acquired sociopathy”.
The book looks at various successful social experiments throughout the world that seem to overturn conventional wisdom, from local democracy in Venezuela to a pioneering healthcare provider in the Netherlands and humane prison systems In Norway. It explores the idea that we feel less hostility and prejudice towards others when we have more contact and see them as fellow human beings, with Nelson Mandela an individual example of this. The story of the Christmas truce between German and British soldiers in 1914 illustrates what is possible on a larger scale, and the human aversion to killing others when we know them as people. Finally he sets out his rules to live by, which include assuming the best in others, adopting a win-win mentality, developing compassion as opposed to empathy, avoiding cynicism, reaching out to the enemy, doing good because it is good, and living by the new realism outlined in the book.
I found this book both challenging and inspiring, and highly recommend it as a very good read.
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