Humankind: A Hopeful History

By Rutger Bregman

Published by Bloomsbury 2020

What it’s about?

From Goodreads:

From the author of New York Times bestseller UTOPIA FOR REALISTS, a revolutionary argument that the innate goodness and cooperation of human beings has been the greatest factor in our success.

If one basic principle has served as the bedrock of bestselling author Rutger Bregman’s thinking, it is that every progressive idea — whether it was the abolition of slavery, the advent of democracy, women’s suffrage, or the ratification of marriage equality — was once considered radical and dangerous by the mainstream opinion of its time. With Humankind, he brings that mentality to bear against one of our most entrenched ideas: namely, that human beings are by nature selfish and self-interested.

By providing a new historical perspective of the last 200,000 years of human history, Bregman sets out to prove that we are in fact evolutionarily wired for cooperation rather than competition, and that our instinct to trust each other has a firm evolutionary basis going back to the beginning of Homo sapiens. Bregman systematically debunks our understanding of the Milgram electrical-shock experiment, the Zimbardo prison experiment, and the Kitty Genovese “bystander effect.”

In place of these, he offers little-known true stories: the tale of twin brothers on opposing sides of apartheid in South Africa who came together with Nelson Mandela to create peace; a group of six shipwrecked children who survived for a year and a half on a deserted island by working together; a study done after World War II that found that as few as 15% of American soldiers were actually capable of firing at the enemy.

The ultimate goal of Humankind is to demonstrate that while neither capitalism nor communism has on its own been proven to be a workable social system, there is a third option: giving “citizens and professionals the means (left) to make their own choices (right).” Reorienting our thinking toward positive and high expectations of our fellow man, Bregman argues, will reap lasting success. Bregman presents this idea with his signature wit and frankness, once again making history, social science and economic theory accessible and enjoyable for lay readers. 

What I think:

Humankind has been featured on many of the summer reads lists for 2020 – but it’s definitely not one to travel with or take to the beach! This is a chunky door stop of a book – a hardback of nearly 500 page. And while you may wan to read slowly and digest the huge amounts of information it is extremely readable.

Bregman’s basic principle is that idea that humans are a selfish species is fundamentally wrong. He argues that humans are essentially kind and that it is our compassion that has made us so successful as a species.

He lists an array of evidence – social, cultural and scientific to support these ideas.

He also deconstructs and critiques famous experiments that have claimed to show the willingness of man to inflict pain on other humans such as Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment and shows how the experiments and participants were manipulated to achieve preconceived ideas. He recounts a real-life “Lord of the Flies” where boys worked together and looked after each other rather than descending into the tribal violence imagined by William Golding.

The prologue begins by looking at “The Psychology of the Masses” by Gustave Le Bon and the influence it had over world leaders in WW2. Stalin, Hitler, Churchill and Roosevelt had all studied the text. In the book Le Bon writes that in times of crisis “man descends several rungs in the ladder of civilisation.” Panic and violence will ensue and when the veneer of civilization is removed the true nature of humans is revealed. The response of people to The Blitz in London and bombing and occupation in Europe showed that time and time again this was not true and that communities actually came together and supported one another.

This is an interesting book to be reading during the current pandemic and lockdown. All of us have experienced instances of kindness and genuine compassion. We have been more thoughtful.

There is so much to this book that a simple blog post cannot do it justice. a Bregman ends by giving a list of 10 Rules to live by which I found really interesting. These include the idea that we should be less empathetic and more compassionate, we should not be afraid to do good and help, we should assume the good in people and we should avoid the news as modern TV and social media is designed to skew our view of the world and tends to focus on the negative.

I was gifted a copy of this book by Bloomsbury as part of the Tandem Collective readalong. It was absolutely fascinating and definitely a book that I will return to in the future as there was so much to absorb.

Humankind is out now and I definitely recommend it is such an interesting read.

Waterstones: click here click here

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