As a new year begins I’ve been reflecting on the books I read in 2020 and, in particular, the tome that has most seeped into my thinking since I started reading it in May: ‘Humankind: A Hopeful History’, by the Dutch historian, Rutger Bregman. It is a book that, as it’s sub-title promised, has given me philosophical reason for optimism in a bleak year, alongside reinforcing my view that neo-liberalism is the biggest threat to human prosperity, while challenging some other deeply ingrained perspectives.
Rutger Bregman gained fame a couple of years ago by telling the leaders of global capitalism assembled at Davos that they needed to pay more taxes if they really wanted to make the world a better place. In ‘Humankind’ he goes much further, demonstrating that the underpinning dogma of neo-liberalism is false: human beings are not “naturally” selfish and competitive. In fact, he shows that if you look at the historical evidence, the basis of our species’ success has been collaboration.
None of this is revolutionary. Bregman is standing on the shoulders of Rousseau and countless others in opposing the doctrine of original sin and arguing that homo sapiens have in fact thrived because of our ability to empathise and to help each other, a thesis well articulated fairly recently by Jeremy Rifkin in ‘The Empathic Civilisation’. But what Bregman brings to the table is huge wealth of myth-debunking evidence, delivered in a highly readable style.
While the assertion that in our ‘natural’ state humans are brutish and avaricious has been central to western philosophical for millennia, Bregman’s aim is to pull back the curtain on the psuedo-scientific veneer that neo-liberal capitalists have so successfully applied to it in the last few decades. This is important, he argues, because as a result a largely baseless theory about human nature has become widely accepted as a statement of reality, building justification for a massively unequal distribution of resources in favour of elites, and embedding a form of society that threatens the entire of future of human civilisation.
Bregman’s target is how neo-liberals have mixed Thomas Hobbes’ philosophy with Darwinian language of survival of the fittest, and more recently Richard Dawkins’ selfish gene, to provide ‘evidence’ that humans are born to compete and everyone will ultimately be dragged forwards if the cleverest and strongest are given the freedom to enrich themselves.
Except, as Bregman shows, there is little scientific reality in this theory at all. For the vast majority of human beings’ existence the basis of our survival and development has been collaboration, not competition.
Dawkins’ assertion that people are born selfish and that in the brutal fight for supremacy it is the genes of the strongest and most egotistical that get passed down to future generations, has now been comprehensively undermined. Research by the Russian geneticist, Dmitri Belyaev, has convincingly proven that “for tens of thousands of years, the nicest humans had the most kids. [The] evolution of our species was predicated on ‘survival of the friendliest’.” More amiable animals, including humans, produce fewer stress hormones and more serotonin (the ‘happy’ hormone) and oxytocin (the ‘love hormone’), making them more likely to survive, thrive and attract mates.
If that sounds too abstract, Bregman tests theory against reality. The World War Two military strategies of both Churchill and Hitler were heavily influenced by the Hobbesian views of a French philosopher, Gustave Le Bon, whose ‘The Psychology of the Masses’ predicted that if ‘ordinary’ people were subjected to the stress of mass civilian bombing it would lead to chaos and societal breakdown, as people turned on each other in a scramble to save themselves. This assumption was the basis of both the Luftwaffe’s Blitz of London (which Churchill feared would lead to an exodus of millions of panicking Londoners) and the RAF’s carpet bombing of Dresden.
Except the theory turned out to be completely wrong: indiscriminate bombing had the opposite effect in both countries – it brought people together. Indeed, as every British school child is taught, the Blitz spirit – ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ – steered the country through its darkest hour. Bregman also argues it is a principle reason why the German people continued to fight even as their cause because hopeless and even though only a fraction supported Nazism.
Reality didn’t kill the theory, however. Jump forward sixty years and in 2005 our TV screens were filled with grotesque images of New Orleans in apparent social breakdown, with every person for themselves in an orgy of looting and violence after Hurricane Katrina inundated much of that beautiful city. British historian, Timothy Garton-Ash, observed at the time, “Remove the elementary staples of organised, civilised life – food, shelter, drinkable water, minimial personal security – and we go back within hours to a Hobbesian state of nature, a war of all against all”.
But fifteen years on, long after the floods have subsided, a true evaluation of how people had reacted has been possible and, as Bregman details, the reality was very different.
While undoubtedly some selfish, opportunist looting took place, at least some of the “theft” was organised by ‘Robin Hood Looters’, who sought out food, clothing and medicine and provided it to those most in need. Meanwhile, hundreds of civilians also formed rescue squads to save their fellow citizens, and an armada of boats from as far away as Texas came to save people, who were indeed struggling in the absence of organised federal government support. Bregman concludes, “Katrina, in short, didn’t see New Orleans overrun with self-interest and anarchy. Rather, the city was inundated with courage and charity.”
Living through the COVID pandemic, this seems a similar story. While the corporate media continues to feed us a diet of stories of selfish, anti-social behaviour, most of us have actually seen how lockdowns brought out the best in our communities, breeding new levels of neighbourliness and collaboration.
The gap between the corporate media portrayal of how people behave and reality is a constant thread throughout ‘Humankind’, and one of Bregman’s ten recommendations for how to live better is to avoid the news, because it has the insidious effect of making us more likely to behave as the neo-liberals expect. “Think as carefully about what information you feed your mind as you do about the food you feed your body.”
To unpick this false-consciousness, Bregman goes back into what is often termed pre-history – the tens of thousands of years of homo sapiens’ existence before we started living in villages and towns. As ‘Humankind’ points it, it is highly relevant to an understanding of humans’ ‘natural state’, because far more of our evolution has been as itinerant hunter-gatherers, than the fraction of time we have spent as farmers or urban dwellers.
For most of hundreds of thousands of years that homo-sapiens roamed as hunter gatherers there is very little evidence of conflict in or between human societies. Thomas Hobbes could not have been further off the mark in characterising pre-civilised ancestors lives as “nasty, brutish and short”. In fact, we appeared to live longer, in better health and more peacefully. Collaboration appears to have been the secret of our success, differentiating us from our closest relatives in the ape world and quite possibly being the factor that enable homo sapiens to survive, while our stronger, bigger-brained Neanderthal cousins became extinct.
Natural selection has been important, but not because the genes of those with the most competitive mentality, or greatest ability to to secure their own self-interest have won out, but rather favouring characeristics that lead to sharing and co-operation, to compensate for the fact that homo sapiens were far from being the strongest, fastest or even cleverest animals for most of our existence.
What really defines human beings, according to Bregman, is that we have evolved to be “ultra-social learning machines. We’re born to learn, to bond and to play. Maybe it’s not so strange, then, that blushing is the only human expression that is uniquely human. Blushing, after all, is quintessentially social – it’s people showing they care what others think, which fosters trust and enables co-ooperation. Something similar happens when we look one another in the eye, because humans have another weird feature: we have white in our eyes. This unique trait lets us follow the direction of other people’s gazes. Every other primate, more than two hundred species in all, produces melanin that tints their eyes. Like poker players wearing shades this obscures the direction of their gaze. But not humans. We’re open books; the object of our attention plain for all to see. Imagine how different human friendships and romance would be if we couldn’t look each other in the eye?”
So why is most of our history for which there is written record (ie just the last couple of thousand years) littered with evidence of violent conflict, inequality, and the brutal exercise of power by a minority over the majority? Bregman puts the change down to advent of the first permanent settlements and the beginning of private property. But he also seeks to dispel a few myths about how selfish we actually are.
For example, while it is a fact that war has caused the deaths of untold millions in the last century alone, Bregman argues that this doesn’t remotely prove that humans are ‘naturally’ violent. “For centuries, even millennia, generals and governors, artists and poets had taken it for granted that soldiers fight. That if there’s one thing that brings out the hunter in us, it’s war. War is when we humans get to do what we’re so good at. War is when we shoot to kill.” Yet the evidence is that actually soldiers have to be heavily trained to be prepared to kill and even then most are unwilling to do so. In most documented wars the majority of soldiers never killed anyone. According to one study of the Pacific conflict in World War Two, “only 15 to 25 per cent of them ever even fired their guns.”
Bregman’s myth-busting is not confined only to undermining jingoism, and he has some lessons for cynical environmentalists too.
One of his targets is a book that turned me into a climate activist – Jared Diamond’s ‘Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive”. In particular, I was struck by the chapter in which Diamond explains how isolated sixteenth and seventeenth century Easter Islanders chopped down every last tree in a tribal competition to erect the biggest statues as symbols of their relative power, until there were no branches left to provide shelter, or trunks from which to fashion the canoes on which their fish-based diet depended. By the time European explorers arrived the population was mired in never-ending conflict and dwindling to near extinction. It seemed like a clear, bleak portent of what could happen to modern humans on a global scale through climate breakdown.
Except, Bregman argues, it isn’t true. One of the first Dutch seaman to land on Easter Island in 1722, Jacob Roggeveen, actually characterised the Easter Islanders as “friendly and healthy in appearance, with muscular physiques and gleaming white teeth”. They didn’t beg for food, they offered it to the Dutch crew. “Roggeveen notes the island’s exceptionally fertile’ soil, but nowhere does he mentioned toppled statues, let alone weapons or cannibalism. Instead, he describes the island as an ‘earthly paradise’.”
Certainly, however, a few decades later, the picture was much more as Diamond latterly described, with the island ravaged by famine and disease. What killed the Easter Islanders, then? It turns out it was not their own competitive and selfish behaviour, but much repeated story of the guns, germs, and steel of European explorers, to borrow the words of another Jared Diamond bestseller. And the decimated forests? Most likely they were taken out by the Polynesian rat which had arrived with the very first settlers. But the Easter Islanders had learned to live with the absence of tree-cover and developed agricultural practices suited to the local ecology and able to support a small, but stable population.
Bregman’s conclusion in this section provides food for thought: “Too many environmental activists under-estimate the resilience of humankind. My fear is that there cynicism can become a self-fulfilling prophecy – a nocebo that paralyses us with despair”.
Similarly, Bregman carefully takes apart a series of other pervasive myths about humans’ innate stupidity and selfishness:
- The infamous ‘Stanford Experiment’, where a group of students were apparently willing to torture fellow students as a “natural” consequence of being in the uniform of a prison guard, was effectively rigged by the professors who led the study.
- Stephen Milgram’s experiment in which he persuaded students to administer what they thought were increasingly deadly electric shocks upon each other has been replicated numerous times since. But, Bregman argues, the evidence now is that rather than demonstrating a mindless willingness to follow orders, the experiment actually indicates a different human trait – trust. Participants were willing to do as asked because they trusted that the impacts were not real. But at the point at which they began to doubt this, the vast majority refused to continue, despite the increasingly aggressive exhortations of the scientists leading the study.
- ‘Bystander theory‘, which purports to show that most people won’t intervene to save someone else if it means putting themselves at risk, has little statistical and the most celebrated case studies in the literature suffered from considerable journalistic fabrication.
So ‘nasty, brutish’ behaviour is not ‘natural’, why is there so much violence, inequality and suffering in the modern world?
Bregman’s conclusion is essentially that it is a product of the gradual develop of forms of human organisation based around private property, and which has achieved a dangerously pervasive expression since the 1980s in the form of neo-liberalism. Most people are decent and kind, and not at all like the theoretical human being that neo-liberal capitalism purports represents our natural state. But a large percentage of the most powerful people in society (Bregman condemns leader of right and left in equal measure) actually do fit the identikit Hobbesian human and, what’s more, they genuinely believe that everyone is as selfish as them.
Bregman goes a little further, in fact, writing that “Studies show that between 4 and 8 per cent of CEO’s have a diagnosable sociopathy, compared to 1 per cent among the general population”. In short, if humanity is to shift itself off a course of self-destruction then our first task is to stop those currently in the positions of greatest power from attempting to mould society in their own image, and instead organise societies on the basis of how the majority of people would choose to live, given the chance.
The latter sections of the book where Bregman seeks to chart a course forward are somewhat weaker than the highly compelling and evidence-based openers. Bregman first cogently identifies the manifest flaws in both the theory and practice of capitalism, but ultimately regards it as the most advanced stage of human development and wants to save it. Although the chapter contrasting Norway’s penal system with that of the USA is compelling – one based on minimal jail sentences and a focus on rehabilitation, resulting in the lowest re-offending rate in the world; the other currently holding 2.3 million people behind bars, 60% of whom will re-offend, propping up a growing incarceration economy at astronomical cost to the tax-payer.
But maybe it’s the softening slide from late youth to middle age (what British band, I Am Kloot, describe as “descending into beige”!), but the ‘Ten Rules To Live By’ of Bregman’s Epilogue did strike a chord. “When in doubt assume the best of someone” is how I was brought up and my life analysis is that it works. Sometimes you get taken advantage of, but more often you make friends and feel good and that, it turns out, is homo-sapiens’ superpower.