13 August, 2020 • • 44.2HistoryPolitics

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A History of Our Better Nature

Gabriel Roberts

Rutger Bregman
Humankind: A Hopeful History
£20.00 (hardback)

If someone thought they had an idea which was original, easy to understand, remarkably non-context specific, highly likely to be correct, supported by findings in numerous areas of research, and capable of making significant improvements to the world, what would you think? If, moreover, they had expressed this idea in 400 pages of chatty prose, would this make you more or less hopeful?

This is not a thought experiment: the someone is Rutger Bregman, the book is Humankind, and the idea is that humans are not that bad.

Bregman believes that, at least since the time of Thucydides, people have bought into what he calls ‘veneer theory’: the view that humans are basically savage and sport only a veneer of civilisation. According to Bregman, this is a ‘nocebo’ (the opposite of a placebo): a prediction of negative events which come about if we believe the prediction. As an example, he gives the Blitz and the Allied bombing of German towns in World War Two. In each case, the attack was premised on the idea that aggression would break the morale of the victims. In reality, the opposite occurred: each side was galvanised in its sense of solidarity and defiance. If the Germans and the Allies had known that the worst can bring out the best in people, if they had had a more positive view of human nature in other words, Bregman believes, some of the darker episodes of the War could have been avoided.

While ‘veneer theory’ has been around for a while, Bregman thinks that matters have been made worse in recent decades by the emergence of round-the-clock news, which supplies a continuous stream of negative stories. These cause negative predictions and negative events, which in turn form the basis of more negative stories. Bregman’s aim is to break this cycle. If we can acquire a more optimistic view of humanity, he believes, we can build a world to be more optimistic about.

Bregman is not alone in worrying that too much negativity may cause cynicism and, in turn, inaction. The last few years have seen the rise of websites like Beautiful News Daily, which only report on positive news stories, as well as the publication of books like Stephen Pinker’s Enlightenment Now (2018), which attempts to draw readers’ attention away from garish and depressing news coverage towards long-term gains in human well-being (the extraordinary fall in extreme poverty since the mid-1990s being a well-publicised case in point). It is difficult to imagine, moreover, that Bregman is unaware of the dolour on the Left since 2016 following Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and the rise of the populist Right in Europe, South America, India, and beyond. The enervating effect of all of that may part of what he is fighting against.

So, with ‘veneer theory’ as his target, Bregman sets about overturning some of the most famous depictions, treatments, and examples of humans being selfish or malign—among them, the Stanford Prison Experiment, Stanley Milgram’s research on obedience, the murder of Catherine Susan Genovese in New York in the 1960s, William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, the collapse of the society of the people of Rapa Nui (aka Easter Island), and Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. As that rather eclectic list indicates, Bregman argues more by attacking famous examples than by building up a broad body of evidence. Despite the title aping Yuval Noah Harari’s spectacularly successful Sapiens, and despite several references to writers, such as Jared Diamond and Stephen Pinker, who have attempted to write ‘big history’ (think ‘big data’ but with the past), Humankind is not that kind of book. There are admittedly a few exceptions, such as a chapter on evolution, in which Bregman argues that we are what he calls ‘homo puppy’, a hominid that evolved to be friendly and cooperative, much as domestic dogs have been bred to be non-aggressive towards humans. These cases do seem to point to a more positive assessment of human nature emerging in several fields, but the book is not really focused on that. Instead, it proceeds by kicking away readers’ reasons for disagreeing with it and by constellating captivating examples.

And when it comes to these examples, Bregman often seems to have a point. In the case of the Stanford Prison Experiment, for instance, which millions of students have taken to provide evidence that ordinary people can be led to abuse their peers simply by being assigned a position dominance over them, Bregman argues pretty convincingly that the whole thing was a ‘staged farce’ set up by the psychologist in charge, Philip Zimbardo, to produce a set of sensational results. Similarly, with the so-called ‘Milgram experiment’, in which members of the public were instructed to electrocute fellow volunteers when they failed questions in a memory test, Bregman seems to be on strong ground. After researching the experiment in some detail, he concludes that volunteers were both more resistant to causing harm than has usually been supposed and motivated less by mere obedience than by a desire to serve the greater good. As he puts it, ‘Homo puppy did not brainlessly follow the authority’s orders. Turns out we have a downright aversion to bossy behaviour’. And as for the Genovese murder, which was allegedly witnessed by dozens of people, none of whom called the police, Bregman argues, again very persuasively, that some of the observers did call the police and that many of those who did not were concerned about confusing the police with multiple reports of the same crime.

In other cases, things seem harder to call. To demonstrate, for instance, that the events depicted in The Lord of the Flies are far-fetched, Bregman goes in search of real-life cases in which teenagers have been marooned on desert islands (or given free-rein in summer camps—you get the idea). But these are so few and far between that they seem like flimsy evidence for a thesis as general and ambitious as Bregman’s. Moreover, if one reads The Lord of the Flies less as an account of human nature and more as an analysis of how apparently civilised people can do horrible things to each other (as indeed they did in the wars that Golding was allegorising), Bregman’s arguments may seem less to the point. Something similar obtains in the case of Easter Island, which Diamond used as an example of civilisational failure in his 2005 book Collapse. According to the conventional view, supported by Diamond, the Easter Islanders brought disaster on themselves by felling too many trees, with the result their soil blew away and they were no longer able to make ocean-going boats. According to Bregman, on the other hand, the Easter Islanders were doing fine until they were exposed to Western diseases, non-native fauna, and South American slavers. Both views seem to have something to them, and some of the factors involved, such as the historical population of the island and the rate of deforestation, are difficult to measure. Many scholars agree with Bregman, but the whole thing seems like a shaky platform for a general theory of human nature. And as for Eichmann, Bregman seems in deeper water still, reaching the unsurprising conclusion that ‘he did evil because he believed he was doing good’. In this, there seems to be a real problem, because up until this point Bregman’s central thesis seems to be that humans mostly have good intentions, not that they mostly have intentions which they think are good. The latter is both rather less radical and less compatible with Bregman’s call for optimism.

Having done with ‘veneer theory’, Bregman attempts in the second part of the book to explain why people do bad things. Here he points to three main factors: the tendency of empathy to focus on the experiences of people like us to the detriment of everybody else; the corrupting nature of power and the ability of people with power to coerce ordinary people into acting against their instincts; and the presumption (widespread, he believes, since the Enlightenment) that other people are selfish and malign. To many readers, the section on empathy will seem like the least developed in the book. Bregman only devotes a few pages to humans’ tendency to care about what is local and familiar to them at the expense of what is distant and different. Yet according to many people, this is the key characteristic which undermines his optimistic account of human nature. Consequently, when he ends a section by asking ‘Could our innate aversion to the unfamiliar be a ticking time bomb?’, he may sound more than a bit naïve.

A Rousseau-esque streak runs through Bergman’s thoughts on power. On one side, he points to various examples of relatively undeveloped societies being peaceful and disinclined towards violence, and on the other he points to the correlation between the development of farming and private property and the development of war. Until about 200 years ago, he thinks, civilisation did not represent much of an improvement on hunter-gatherer life. The implications of this are explored in the final section of the book, which tries to explain why working on the assumption that people are good works better than the reverse. Here, Bregman examines case-studies from business, education, politics, criminal justice, counter-terrorism, and warfare. Unsurprisingly, given his views about the nature of power, he endorses participatory democracy, citing examples from Venezuela and Brazil in which citizens have been granted greater control over local budgets. Similarly, with education, he is suspicious of conventional forms of teaching and endorses more self-direction and free play, although the research here is particularly anecdotal. And when it comes to criminals and terrorists, he endorses humane forms of rehabilitation and battles for hearts and minds rather than battles with bullets and guns, although here, too, a lot is made to depend on a few, admittedly interesting examples.

Despite the assorted contents of the book, there are some rather telling omissions. One is Christianity. Although Bregman was raised as a Christian, he makes scant allusion to the way in which Christianity may have engendered a sense of human sinfulness in generations in the West and beyond. The Fall of Man, original sin, and the generally unimpressive status of humanity in comparison with God in the Christian worldview are dealt with in about half a page, although they surely play an important part in explaining the historical origins of the view that Bregman pits himself against. Another is evidence of pessimism about humanity from outside the West. Although the conception of humanity as red in tooth and claw may seem distinctively Western and Christian, Bregman consistently writes as though this has been the prevailing view everywhere. But it is surely worth asking whether such a conception of humanity has been prevalent in non-Western traditions, such Islam, Confucianism, and Buddhism, as well.

There are occasions, moreover, where Bregman’s research looks thin. On page 291, for instance, he writes that ‘[b]ullying is by far the most pervasive at typical British boarding schools’, in support of which he cites page 166 of Randall Collins’ Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory. When one turns to the cited page of Randall’s book, however, one finds no claim equivalent to Bregman’s nor any reference leading to data on the point. Instead, one finds a lightly evidenced discussion of British boarding schools in the past, apparently in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. No figures are cited and no international comparisons are made.

It must be said, too, (although Bregman’s translators may be at fault here—the book was written in Dutch) that the book has some stylistic wrinkles. In chapter after chapter, we encounter Bregman, like a latter-day Indiana Jones, tracking down the one person who can solve his intellectual conundrum. in chapter after chapter, we encounter paragraphs that end on cliff-hangers and sentences without an independent clause. And in chapter after chapter we find Bregman writing about writing the book, as though, not content with a highly ambitious thesis about human nature, he thought he would have a go at life writing too. The following is typical:

In the first version of this chapter, I left it at that. My conclusion was that, like Philip Zambardo’s sadistic play-acting, Milgram’s research had been a farce.

But in the months after meeting Gina Perry I was plagued by a nagging doubt. Could it be that I was just a little too keen to kick the shock machine to the kerb?

The result of all this, besides being a little wearying, is that the book strikes a curious balance between profundity and informality, with Bregman torn between the roles of philosopher and life coach. This uncertainty is reflected in the way that the book veers between different audiences. Although the first half seems aimed at the general educated reader, the second takes a tour through the ‘smart thinking’ section of the bookshop, with chapters for businesspeople, teachers, and politicians. The end of the book is strangest of all, where Bregman offers ten rules to live by, including such stunners as ‘don’t be ashamed to do good’ and ‘be realistic’.

In any case, even if Bregman’s thesis is granted, it is questionable what follows from it. He writes with an engaging positivity, even sub-titling the work ‘a hopeful history’, as though the discovery that humans are unmalicious means that our current situation is better than we think. But it is highly questionable whether this follows. Many of the pressing crises facing humanity are not the result of malice, at least primarily, but of negligence, carelessness, lack of self-restraint, and particularly an inability to weight the immediate and most eye-catching effects of our actions against ones which are widely dispersed in space and time and aggregate with the effects of other actions by ourselves and other people. Indeed, one of the many awful things about global warming and worldwide environmental collapse—the defining crises of our time, in case anybody needed reminding—is that well-intentioned people who either mourn the destruction they see around them or at least have no positive desire to contribute to it in fact contribute to it every day. They save money in banks which invest in petrochemical companies, vote for political parties which have little intention of passing or enforcing sufficiently strong environmental legislation, eat foods which are harmful to the planet, contribute to un-accommodatable population growth, buy products from irresponsible companies, and consume fossil fuels by heating their homes, driving, and flying. To be reminded that such people are cooperative, sociable, and nice may perhaps make one a little more sanguine about the possibility that humanity will mitigate some of the effects of the unfolding disaster (and reassurance on this point is surely welcome), but it hardly gets to the heart of things.

So, what would you think of that original, easy, general, correct, evidenced, and consequential idea and that weighty but chattily-written book about it? Hopefully, you would be sceptical. Bregman is not the only writer at the minute who thinks that he can infer from the whole course of human history what humans are really like and draw practical conclusions from this. But it should be remembered just how ambitious this is. It is based, among other things, on high estimates of the objectivity of historical knowledge, the size of the available evidence relative to the scope of the subject, the possibility of aggregating the findings of localised studies, and the possibility of pooling evidence drawn from different areas of research. Its conclusions are also of dubious relevance, since whoever acts in response to them will inevitably be acting in a particular context, where some, or perhaps even all, of the long-term trends identified may not be in evidence and others only weakly so. Humankind has much to recommend it—among other things, many thought-provoking case studies and a laudable and well-intentioned aim—but it is not a view from a mountaintop of the whole terrain of the human past.


Gabriel Roberts teaches English at a secondary school in London. He is a former editor-in-chief of the Oxonian Review.