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Religion & Liberty: Volume 30, Number 3

Humankind: a hopeless history

Humankind: A Hopeful History

Rutger Bregman | Little, Brown and Co. | 2020 | 480 pages

Reviewed by Josh Herring

The West has described the human race as living in various stages of depravity since the Book of Genesis. This is erroneous, writes Rutger Bregman, who contends in Humankind: A Hopeful History that “most people, deep down, are pretty decent.” He frames this as a “radical idea,” and over the course of 18 chapters, he attempts to show both how civilization has mistakenly condemned humanity as depraved and how a new era of kindness awaits if we would but overthrow this false idea to embrace the inherent decency of the human race. The first part focuses on a theoretical structure built on several key ideas. Bregman contrasts Thomas Hobbes’ pessimistic view of humanity in the state of nature with Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s positive portrayal of the “noble savage” before the evils of private property and cities.

Some books make a specific argument and dedicate the central chapters to the case, leading the reader to accept the necessary and unavoidable nature of the argument. Other books take a winding journey through the thought process the author took to arrive at his conclusion. While this second category of book is less persuasive in a demonstrative, logical sense, such a book allows the reader to understand the author and his perspective in a deeper way. This is such a book. Bregman offers a clear thesis and marshals an impressive amount of research to support his claim. The arrangement of his book and the exclusion of pivotal contradictory evidence, however, are not conducive to forming an unassailable argument.

His argument is based on an evolutionary timescale: “The first thing to understand about the human race is that, in evolutionary terms, we’re babies.” This timescale has two impacts on his argument: The past 10,000 years of human history is analogous to the final 15 minutes on a 24-hour clock. The vast majority of humanity’s existence lies in the murky darkness of prehistory.

Secondly, Bregman coins a term to describe domesticated, civilized humanity, in contrast to our evolutionary predecessors:

What dogs are to wolves, we are to Neanderthals. And just as mature dogs look like wolf puppies, humans evolved to look like baby monkeys. Meet Homo puppy.

Kindness, sociability, and cooperation are the primary evolutionary attributes of Homo puppy, and they are what allowed for human beings to surpass previous iterations of the human evolutionary process, resulting in civilization. Bregman argues that, contrary to received tradition, humans are not especially violent. He moves between anthropological studies of tribal peoples and historical studies of weapons used in World War II, concluding that, nine times out of 10, humans will avoid fatal conflict with other human beings.

He then moves into an argument about “the curse of civilization.” Following Rousseau, Bregman contends that with the development of private property, “the 1 percent began oppressing the 99 percent, and smooth talkers ascended from commanders to generals and from chieftains to kings. The days of liberty, equality, and fraternity were over.” These “days” are the pre-civilizational past, when nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes lived in relative peace, harmony, and prosperity, solving all issues through tribal collaboration. Now, the painful saga of accursed civilization has commenced. “The rise of private property and farming brought the era of proto-feminism to an end,” he wrote. “It’s no accident that female virginity turned into an obsession. Where in prehistory women had been free to come and go as they pleased, now they were being covered up and tethered down. The patriarchy had begun.”

Bregman finishes this section by narrating two different versions of the saga of Easter Island – a device that becomes the norm of his central chapters. He first narrates the story as it has been reported in the status quo, primarily referencing Jared Diamond’s account in Collapse. This version describes an ancient island imploding under the weight of greed and lust for power (thus disproving Bregman’s thesis). Bregman then brings forth more recent research, arguing that Easter Island has been misunderstood: There never was a great civilization in the numbers Diamond projected. Instead, there were smaller tribes which, through collaboration, achieved impressive results with fewer people. Throughout the central chapters of the book, Bregman then follows the same pattern with some of the key psychological experiments of the twentieth century: Phillip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison experiment, Stanley Milgram’s Shock Machine experiment, and the reporting of the death of Catherine Genovese. He first tells the public version of the story, which shows the inherent evil latent within people; then he highlights new research that reverses the story.

The final sections of Humankind are dedicated to exploring what would happen if we flipped the assumption. Creating human institutions based on trust rather than distrust, Bregman suggests, could unlock new horizons for civilization. He cites examples in the business world (Jos de Blok’s Buurtzorg health care company), education (Sjef Drummen’s Agora, a school built on concepts of student trust that sees play as self-directed learning), and politics (the participatory budget method used in Torres, Venezuela). These three examples support what Bregman calls “a new realism.”

The core of Bregman’s argument is that civilization suffers from a misunderstanding of anthropology. If we change that misunderstanding, the ills that flow from a false premise will be gone. The argument is clear; the question remains whether his methodology should gain the reader’s trust.

Bregman is an excellent storyteller. His career has focused on public writing rather than academic writing, and his ease of communication shows throughout this book. He has a knack for finding popular stories that resonate with an educated, non-academic audience, but then proving that there is more to the story than the reader expects. He opens with a real-life Lord of the Flies story, showing that in this case, anarchy failed to erupt. Instead, school boys worked together to survive. Stories of researchers, psychologists, and historical snapshots taken from both world wars abound, illustrating his overall argument.

Generally, Bregman focuses on stories that show discrepancies in academic literature. His analysis of the Stanford Prison experiment does this particularly well. His second rendition of the story explains that, after gaining archival access, contemporary scholars learned that Zimbardo had instructed his guards to act in certain ways, thus destroying the legitimacy of the experiment. Bregman also has a strong suspicious streak in regards to the dominant news media narratives. He records multiple occasions when reporters ignored details, suppressed complications, and refused to print counter-narratives in order to increase the sensationalism of their reports. These narrative aspects are the best parts of Humankind.

Ultimately, how one judges this book depends on answers to four questions. Is proving the thesis the criteria of a book’s success? Can the social sciences (psychology, sociology, anthropology) definitively explain human behavior? Why are certain qualities deemed good and others bad? Is civilization a curse?

Bregman does not ultimately prove his thesis. He proposes a universal claim – humans are basically decent – to replace the universal claim that humans are basically depraved. He does show the reader that examples of human decency abound. He does not, however, show that human decency is the universal template for the human soul. His many examples of bad psychological research being overturned prove merely that psychology is less stable than it often claims to be. One might even argue that the obfuscation or falsification of records itself contradicts Bregman’s thesis.

The theoretical framework of Humankind depends on the assumption that anthropological study of twentieth-century tribal peoples can tell us how prehistoric peoples lived. If this premise is flawed, then Bregman’s primary reasons for asserting that civilization is cursed fall apart. He asserts that, because certain groups live in certain ways that are antithetical to modern problem areas, those antagonistic regions are unique to modernity. Ultimately, Bregman asks the reader to assume that anthropologists are able to know with confidence what prehistoric human societies were like. This assumption is unwarranted, and without it, Bregman’s case fails to persuade.

Along the journey of Humankind, Bregman informs the reader that he grew up in a Christian home, eventually rejected his Christian faith, and became a disciple of Bertrand Russell. Bregman fits in the tradition of atheistic thinkers who no longer have a philosophical framework for value judgements. Yet throughout Humankind he continues to assert that certain values are good, and others are bad. He writes about “the best facets of human nature – loyalty, camaraderie, solidarity” and “deeper societal evils like racism, gang rape, honor killings, support for terrorists and dictatorial regimes, even genocide.” He connotes that supporting Donald Trump for president in 2016 and favoring Brexit were both bad. Why these ideas, actions, and connotations are either good or bad, Bregman does not explain; he simply asserts. Without clarifying his position on these moral matters, Bregman falls into the trap of inserting his personal preferences in the guise of scientifically supported contentions.

As Humankind concludes, Bregman becomes more and more radical. He indicts property rights and capitalism as the evils of civilization, and he calls for a soft communism to replace them. He does not close with a policy suggestion, instead urging his readers to live by trusting in the kindness of their neighbors. His failure to understand communism as it was practiced in the USSR and the People's Republic of China is disturbing. While Bregman defines communism from the Oxford English Dictionary, he purports to show examples where any kind of corporate or municipal property is an outgrowth of communism. If his analysis had grappled with how communism was applied in any of its negative, real-world applications, his argument would be stronger. It might also be impossible.

Bregman shows that humans are complex creatures. A simplistic dismissal of humans as evil and selfish is insufficient. His encouragement to trust every human being’s innate decency, however, is equally insufficient.

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Josh Herring is a humanities instructor at Thales Academy, a graduate of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Hillsdale College, and a doctoral student in Faulkner University's Great Books program. He has written for Moral ApologeticsThe Imaginative ConservativeThink Christian, and The Federalist. His passion is studying the intersection of history, literature, theology, and ideas expressed in the complexities of human life.