Oren Harman

How kind is humankind?

Kinder than we imagine, says Rutger Bregman — with ‘proof’ of our cruelty often based on flawed experiments

How kind is humankind?
A fireman rescues a toddler after a bombing raid in London in 1940. Our true colours reveal themselves in times of crisis, according to Rutger Bregman. (Getty Images)
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Humankind: A Hopeful History

Rutger Bregman

Bloomsbury, pp. 496, £20

Augustine had it that ‘no one is free from sin, not even an infant’. Machiavelli deemed that humans are ‘ungrateful, fickle hypocrites’, and even the founding father John Adams, the paragon of American democracy, was sure that all men would be tyrants if they could. Thucydides, Luther, Calvin, Burke, Bentham, Nietzsche, Freud — all were wrong about our natures. So was William Golding, creator of Lord of the Flies, himself a child-beater* and a drunk. For a treatise on human kindness, Rutger Bregman’s new book Humankind has surprisingly many villains.

Here’s ‘a radical idea… a mind-bending drug... denied by religions and ideologies’, we’re told. Humans are not evil. Deep down, at least most of us are pretty decent. Left to their own devices, children will not tear each other apart on an island: quite the opposite. In the clash between Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, it was the Genevan, not the man of Malmesbury, who had it right. How do we know? Hobbes and Rousseau were armchair theorists, but today we have science. And science, according to Bregman, says that we’re good.

This wasn’t always true. Scientists have been lying to us for a long time. Take, for example, Stanley Milgram, of obedience to authority fame, who showed that ordinary people would administer electric shocks of up to 450 volts to innocents if only told to do so by a person dressed in a white lab coat. Turns out Milgram was after fame and fudged his results. Most participants didn’t actually believe they were inflicting pain, and a majority of those who did quickly called it quits.

Or Philip Zimbardo and his Stanford prison experiment, which randomly assigned college students to be either ‘guards’ or ‘inmates’ in a makeshift ‘prison’, and observed how quickly savagery evolves. According to Zimbardo, the guards were never given any directives, but in reality the world’s most famous psychologist simply lied.

Or Napoleon Chagnon, the intrepid anthropologist who studied an ‘unsullied’ Amazon tribe, and wrote the bestselling book Yanomamö: The Fierce People. He distributed hand-axes and machetes to his bloodthirsty subjects and completely mangled his own statistical results. Richard Dawkins convinced a generation and more that we were puppets manipulated by selfish genes; and economists such as Garrett Hardin pronounced that ‘freedom in a commons brings ruin to all’. Even the inveterate optimist Steven Pinker gets it wrong when he argues that civilisation and scientific reason are what have extricated humans from misery and violence. Providing a tonic to rattled liberals, he too is just a sign of his times.

The real story, we’re told, goes back to our evolutionary origins. A domesticated species, we are to Neanderthals what dogs are to wolves, having self-selected to become more social, and hence dependent on one another. Look at our sclera, the whites surrounding our eyes: we’re the only mammal who has such distinct ones. Or at our expressive eyebrows. Both helped us get into the mind of another. Our blushing — a sign of the internalisation of social norms — is unique too (except, perhaps strangely, in blue and yellow macaws).

As with domesticated pigs and rabbits and silver foxes, selection for sociability made our heads and brains smaller, our jawbones childlike, or paedomorphic. Compared with the brawnier, larger-brained Neanderthals who had ‘a super-fast computer’, Bregman writes, ‘we were an old-fashioned PC — but with wifi. We were slower, but better connected.’ Born to learn, to bond, to play, Homo sapiens is in fact Homo puppy.

Before we settled the land, we were happier and more egalitarian. Citing studies in archaeology, palaeontology and anthropology, Bregman claims that nomadic, hunter-gatherer cultures more easily eschewed strongmen, depending instead on group altruism and on humour and shame and gossip to bind the community together. Only with the advent of farming did personal property become important, producing chieftains and kings who would enslave whole peoples and raise armies to protect the riches they were now accumulating. So were the myths of the state and of currency invented, the scripts that would enforce the structures of hierarchy, and the laws that ensured loyalty and order.

It was ‘civilisation’ which brought out all the bad in us; for, as primatologists and child psychologists have shown, at our roots we are prone to connect and to sympathise. True, research on toddler morality indicates that the price for our kindness is xenophobia — we need ‘others’ to hate and be wary of in order to appreciate and love our kind — but it was in the cauldron of ‘the snuggle for existence’ that our mettle was forged.

This is evident in times of crisis — the Titanic, the Blitz, 9/11, hurricane Katrina — where our true colours reveal themselves. It is even true of Nazi soldiers, we’re told, who followed orders because they were conforming, tempted by evil masquerading as good. Ordinary people are magnanimous, trusting and altruistic; it’s those who reach positions of power who sour. Just look at the science: subjects given a Mercedes to drive rather than a Ford Pinto suddenly fail to stop for pedestrians, their brains having been rewired. There’s even a scientific name for it: ‘acquired sociopathy.’

Bregman places ‘bad’ science in context: Milgram, desperate to find an explanation for the Holocaust; The Selfish Gene written during the ‘Me decade’ of the 1970s. It’s true: science never happens in a vacuum, and scientists are all too human. But by the same measure, ‘good’ science should also be evaluated as a product of time and place and imperfect practitioners. When it comes to our natures, training a light exclusively either on our selfishness or generosity feels equally ahistorical, developmentally and evolutionarily simplistic, governed by the passions and unnecessarily dismissive of the other side. Should the entire evolution of civilisation really be viewed as ‘a history of rulers who continually devised new justifications for their privileges’? Are violence and hatred always skewed results of Homo puppy’s camaraderie and need of ‘a sense of belonging’?

Bregman’s pacifist and post-capitalist agenda are commendable. But they offer little explanation for why toddler — rather than, say, teenage — behaviour should be privileged as a measure of our ‘true’ natures, nor why times of crisis are more indicative than just another Tuesday. We may (or may not) have lost the sense of tribal solidarity of hunter-gatherers, but even if that existence was as ideal as portrayed, has not individualism reaped rewards for humankind in the sciences and the arts, and within our internal psychological worlds, alongside the price paid for it? Has not competition bred innovation, as well as the highest manifestations of love? Hunter-gatherers, in fact, harnessed their propensity for envy to build egalitarian societies, just as covetousness and self-regard were made the bedrock of The Wealth of Nations. For Paleolithic as well as modern man this much is an axiom: human natures and cultures can never be torn asunder.

We should therefore embrace our contradictions, not do away with them. And we should strive for a better world not because science tells us we’re good, but because evolution has produced in us a species with a moral compass that has at least a modicum of control over its destiny. Humans have been, and will always be, more or less selfish, more or less reasonable, or evil. It’s about structuring our institutions and lives in ways that will help us be more kind.

Where do we start? Nassim Taleb had it right when he said that ‘we are not rational enough to be exposed to the press’, which is skewed towards sensationalism and negativity. Bregman argues convincingly that what we teach and report about ourselves, we become: telling ourselves incessantly that we are selfish, aggressive and untrustworthy will make us more so.

The counter-examples he provides — of a gentle but more effective Norwegian penal system, of successful managerial-less Dutch companies, and Venezuelan towns run by direct people’s democracy — are inspiring, though arguably not transferable tout court to different arenas. For our pliable species, context really does matter.

Bold, entertaining and uplifting, Humankind: A Hopeful History should be read less as a scholarly treatise on human nature and more as a call to consciousness and action. When all is said and done, Bregman writes, ‘the bad may seem stronger, but it is outnumbered by the good’. Let it be.

* The claim that William Golding beat his children has been denied by his daughter Judy Golding Carver.