Book Review: Humankind

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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. 
  1. 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"
  1. 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?



  • This is all about Hobbes vs Rousseau.  Who is right?
  1. The Rise of "Homo puppy"
  • Humanity has effectively domesticated itself.  Why?
  1. 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?
  1. The Curse of Civilisation
  • What started all the warring?
  • Were Hunter-Gatherer societies inherently war like? 
  1. The Mystery of Easter Island
  • Why did the original inhabitants make giant statues - and why did they die out?



  1. In the Basement of Stanford University
  • Philip Zimbardo - and his Prison Experiment.
  1. Stanley Milgram and the Shock Machine
  • Just how sadistic are we?
  1. The Death of Catherine Susan Genovese
  • Does anyone really care about anyone else?



  1. How Empathy Blinds
  • Why did the German army fight so tirelessly right up to the end of WW2?
  1. How Power Corrupts
  • Machiavelli
  • God and His wrath?
  1. What the Enlightenment Got Wrong
  • Reason and blind selfishness?



  • Rosenthal's experiment - tell someone they are clever, and then they will appear cleverer to others!
  1. The Power of Intrinsic Motivation
  • Does explicitly measuring performance always improve performance?
  1. Homo Ludens
  • Do schools with few rules do better or worse than those with rules?
  1. This Is What Democracy Looks Like
  • Building trust - The power of participatory democracy and budgeting



  • Surprising solutions?
  1. Drinking Tea with Terrorists
  • How a civil war in South Africa was avoided.
  • The tale of two brothers - and Nelson Mandela
  1. The Best Remedy for Hate, Injustice and Prejudice
  • Contact theory
  1. 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.

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  • I am particularly dubious about the idea that most people in battle try to avoid killing other human beings? Its there any evidence for this other than the occassional anecdote? We could probably play tennis with anecdotes that support or do not support the view, but if it was generally true, why is the world in such a mess? No King or General or Ayatollah would ever have won any battles if their soldiers didn't shoot to kill. 

    In the middle east at present, Hamas are fighting because they want to fight. To say that they have been indoctrinated by their leaders is a dangerously colonial attitude. The IDF service personnel may not particularly want to fight, but they mostly believe that it is necessary to wipe out Hamas (there may be a few dissenters); historians will have to assess to what extent they are trying to avoid civilian casualties, but they are certainly not holding back from killing Hamas fighters.
    I have a particular interest in the first world war. Certainly in the beginning, thousands of men from both sides willingly volunteered, there may have been peer pressure, but the giving out of white feathers to those who did not was not that common and does not explain the queues at recruiting offices. It doesn't explain Langemark in September 1914 when German student battalions marched into battle in parade formation, woefully unprepared, singing as they were mowed down, and the British regular professionals certainly didn't hold back. Probably many did not understand exactly why they were fighting, but in those days right and wrong was measured by how loyal you were to King and Country. As the war went on, undoubtedly most combatants wished it would stop, and many suffered from shell-shock/ PTSD, but that is a long way from saying they stopped killing the enemy. The (very unofficial) Christmas truce of 1914 only occured in some sections of the front, and was not repeated in later years (possibly because most of the 1914 participants were dead by then). Any infantryman will tell you that in the middle of a battle, you are not fighting for your counry or for an ideology; you are fighting for your mates. 
    Quite possibly some supportive anecdotes come from Vietnam. But that was always an unpopular war, heavily reliant on conscripts. Even then, most would have known that they needed to kill in order not to be killed, and for every pacifist there was a Lt Calley, perpretrator of the My Lai massacre. Of course, it is easier to kill the enemy if they are a different race or religion as then you can depersonalise them.
    I suspect that attitudes to killing depend on the person's personality and therefore cannot be generalised. In the case of the crews of the bombers that delivered the atomic weapons onto Hiroshima and Nagasaki: several had mental health issues after the war and at least one committed suicide: but the commander of the operation and pilot of Enola Gay, Colonel Paul Tibbett, spent the rest of his life saying that he regretted nothing and would do it again tomorrow. Sadly, men like him are more likely to pass on their genes than those who have breakdowns.

    Of course soldiers will have mixed feelings about the enemy. Particularly in naval warfare, sailors who had been trying to sink an enemy ship and kill its crew, once they had sunk it would often attempt to rescue survivors  whom they had just been trying to kill. Regarding different attitudes from the same sector: I am currently reading a book which features first-hand accounts of the fighting in Gallipoli in 1915. An Australian officer sent a message to the Commander of 3 Wing, Royal Naval Air Service (the author of the book) saying: "One of your aeroplanes bombed Turkish trench; bits of Turk seen in the air; remainder of occupants got onto the parapet where we killed a lot with machine guns. Please repeat bombing!" Not a lot of human empathy there! But in another passage the author writes:  "A good tale, probably quite a chestnut, was related to me of an old Turk who used to hang up his washing every day on the parapet of his bit of trench (personally I never knew a Turk had any washing), and in time everybody got to know of him and let him climb out and spread it out without firing at him!" 
  • I think this sentiment misses an underlying aspect of human nature that we often try to pretend isn't there.  We may mean well, but we are also very risk averse when it comes to our own well being and safety.  We are also easily led.

    “Nice people made the best Nazis. My mom grew up next to them. They got along, refused to make waves, looked the other way when things got ugly and focused on happier things than 'politics'. They were lovely people who turned their heads as their neighbors were dragged away. You know who weren’t nice people? Resisters.”

    ― Naomi Shulman

    • Mark - fair point.  I think the "Nice people made the best Nazis" problems is a major aspect of what I intended to cover by the third bullet point: "How far ordinary people are willing to go to help others is an interesting question Bregman doesn't go into."  And there is a major ethical question - we want to be helpful and well-disposed to others, but when others are in conflict, we still want to avoid conflict and avoid taking sides, which invariably means that we end up siding with the rich and powerful against the weak and poor.

      And "We are easily led" is also a by-product of wanting to be helpful and well-disposed to others.  If you belong to a group, you care about the group and want to be helpful, to help it be successful.  And when the state controls the media, the state tells you very clearly and very often what 'your country' is relying on you to do; people who want to be helpful will want to do what they are being asked.

  • Here are some observations from our discussion of the book in October 2023.

    • Overall, we found the book remarkably persuasive, with the key chapters well-researched, and the obvious objections answered.
    • Bregman is not saying people are perfect, only that most people are helpful and well-disposed to others - even complete strangers.
    • How far ordinary people are willing to go to help others is an interesting question Bregman doesn't go into.
    • The weakest part of the book is the section dealing with pre-history: we don't know what happened, so all we can do is speculate.
    • The most surprising parts of the book are where he reveals how much of the standard experiments and examples we are familiar with are deliberate lies and misrepresentation.
    • When ordinary people harm others badly, it is almost always for 'good' reasons - loyalty, love and duty, for example.
    • However, there is a significant minority in the population ('psychopaths') who only look out for their own interests and don't care about hurting others.
    • Many structures in our society effectively reward psychopaths, who consequently often end up in positions of power and able to influence those structures for their own benefit.

    Which raises the obvious question: if most people are helpful and well-disposed to others, why is the world in such a mess?  I suggest there are two basic reasons: companies and culture.  (See What Makes the World Worse? for more details.)

    Companies - and organisations of all kinds -  have one thing in common: they are not people.  A limited company may legally be a person, but it is not a person.  Most people are helpful and well-disposed to others, but a company exists to make money.  Most people work within a moral framework, even if they don't do it perfectly, but no company has a moral framework; instead, it has rules and procedures.  Within an organisation, 'doing the right thing' does not mean 'acting morally' - it means 'following the rules'.  Even when an organisation exists in order to do good, it is not a person, and it has policies instead of morality.

    Our culture tells us we must work to be successful, and that success means power; power is primarily measured by money, although fame and reputation may occasionally substitute.  Success, of course, is never measured by love, kindness, creativity or anything else which actually matters.  Why is success the primary goal?  One obvious reason is that our culture is largely influenced by people in positions of power - people who have succeeded.  And there is an obvious consequence: if you believe in the goal of success, you will struggle to make ecological sustainability a priority: success means you get more than anyone else, but ecological sustainability requires that we all get less than we might.


    What Makes the World Worse?
    We would like the world to become a better place but, all too often, we find that it has become a worse place instead. The big question is: why?
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