[Back to Book Reviews]
Book Review: Humankind - A hopeful history
by Rutger Bregman, 481 pages; 2020
To be very clear, in my (not so) humble opinion, this is a very wonderful book indeed. It proclaims a radical idea - that people are basically good and kind when all is said and done (hence the pun in the title). Or at least, this is what people truly try to be at heart. Of course, it may not turn out as well as one might hope - but at root, people naturally wish that everything does turn out well - for themselves and others. Left to their own devices, people do try to be fair, and preferentially seek possible cooperation. It seems it is more likely than not that people naturally recognise others equitably, all other things being equal.
The book presents Bregman's thesis with a committed passion. Fortunately, Bregman writes exceptionally well for the popular audience he seeks - with a clear talent for producing one-line zingers that cut right to the core of whatever he is arguing for. He has chosen to present his ideas primarily targeted for a non-academic readership. The overall messages are conveyed in the form of well-crafted and easy-to-read stories. However, the downside is that Bregman has a tendency to cite material backing up his claims almost as an afterthought. Therefore, it is unfortunately unclear how systematic he has been in gathering evidence, pro or con - or how much Bregman has "cherry-picked" the evidence he cites.
This, of course, will annoy the academic reader intensely - so one should expect an academic critical backlash saying that Bregman's case is nowhere near settled (a likely outcome).. It is, therefore, unclear if he fairly represents the current consensus view of academic opinion or not. All I can say is that I fervently hope Bregman has tried to be intellectually honest overall - otherwise, his thesis inevitably collapses, becoming no more than a well-intentioned pipe dream.
Although there is story after story seemingly building Bregman's case, I'm not sure if any of this could ever be enough to convince the hardened cynics and sceptics, academic or otherwise. Bregman even warns about the high level of cynical scepticism to be expected about his thesis - after all, doesn’t everyone ‘know’ that people are deeply rotten to the core? That idea sure fills the church pews and sells those newspapers! Below are links to a couple of negative reviews of the book that entirely bear out Bregman's prediction:
My immediate response is that both of those reviewers seem to have made up their minds without finishing the book, or so they read to me.
Turning to the content, here is an annotated Table of Contents: (Prologue + 18 chapters + Epilogue). The annotations give cryptic hints about what each chapter is about etc.
- Disaster brings out the best in us. Why?
- Why did bombing campaigns during WW2 improve morale?
- The "Blitz spirit" isn't unique to the British.
- A New Realism
- The daily diet of constant news is not good for mental health.
- Do we live on planet A or planet B?
- "Veneer theory" of civilisation
- The idea of the "Nocebo"
- The Real Lord of the Flies
- Everyone knows the (fictional) story of the "Lord of the Flies"
- But have you heard the story of what happened when school boys were actually marooned?
PART 1 THE STATE OF NATURE
- This is all about Hobbes vs Rousseau. Who is right?
- The Rise of "Homo puppy"
- Humanity has effectively domesticated itself. Why?
- Colonel Marshall and the Soldiers Who Wouldn’t Shoot
- Why have most soldiers not fired their weapons in anger?
- Why did the Neanderthals die out?
- The Curse of Civilisation
- What started all the warring?
- Were Hunter-Gatherer societies inherently war like?
- The Mystery of Easter Island
- Why did the original inhabitants make giant statues - and why did they die out?
PART 2 AFTER AUSCHWITZ
- In the Basement of Stanford University
- Philip Zimbardo - and his Prison Experiment.
- Stanley Milgram and the Shock Machine
- Just how sadistic are we?
- The Death of Catherine Susan Genovese
- Does anyone really care about anyone else?
PART 3 WHY GOOD PEOPLE TURN BAD
- How Empathy Blinds
- Why did the German army fight so tirelessly right up to the end of WW2?
- How Power Corrupts
- God and His wrath?
- What the Enlightenment Got Wrong
- Reason and blind selfishness?
PART 4 A NEW REALISM
- Rosenthal's experiment - tell someone they are clever, and then they will appear cleverer to others!
- The Power of Intrinsic Motivation
- Does explicitly measuring performance always improve performance?
- Homo Ludens
- Do schools with few rules do better or worse than those with rules?
- This Is What Democracy Looks Like
- Building trust - The power of participatory democracy and budgeting
PART 5: THE OTHER CHEEK
- Surprising solutions?
- Drinking Tea with Terrorists
- How a civil war in South Africa was avoided.
- The tale of two brothers - and Nelson Mandela
- The Best Remedy for Hate, Injustice and Prejudice
- Contact theory
- When the Soldiers Came Out of the Trenches
- Christmas 1914
- Bregman's ten rules for us to live better with one another.
Summary + Recommendation
Bregman has given us a brave book that gives a novel perspective that one doesn't often see concerning the human condition. It's certainly worth reading, just from that point of view. Ok, it's probably not that convincing from an academic perspective - but that doesn't change the fact that Bregman makes a great case that, at least in the future, humankind should be more like what he described here, even if it isn't entirely borne out in the past.
If you can, read the whole thing - it is worth it. If not, then read the prologue, the first two chapters, followed by the whole of part 5 called "The Other Cheek". and finally the epilogue.