Book Review | A hopeful history for humankind

Despite a heating planet and several countries hurtling towards fascism, Dutch historian Rutger Bregman’s new book notes a cause for optimism: the goodness inherent in humanity.

If a book were to be matched to music, Rutger Bregman’s Humankind: A Hopeful History (Bloomsbury, 2020) would be accompanied by the gentleness and wistful words of John Lennon’s Imagine. Dutch historian Rutger Bregman’s sanguine new book attempts to sell a story of how – despite the doubts sown by religions, the animosities fomented by rulers and the separation of countries – we are one, and our true nature reflects this. 

To properly understand our essence, he takes us back to prehistory, when our cognitive abilities were formed. Homo sapiens were low in numbers and we roamed freely in small groups, interacting infrequently but amiably. Bregman’s narrative requires suspension of any scepticism as to how we can be certain we were entirely friendly hunter-gatherers.

Leaping forward in time, there are less defensible disconnects. His explanations are unconvincing as to why rational people commit heinous acts in systematic programmes against “others”. These cannot be swept aside as a temporary suspension of morality because the perpetrators believed they were doing good. It’s overly simplistic to dismiss impulses towards genocide, torture or totalitarianism as an aberration from human nature’s core goodness.

Still, Humankind is superbly conceived and constructed, and ultimately proves the author’s refreshing hypothesis that most of our history can give us hope if we look at it deeply and correctly – or, at least, from a balanced perspective.

New ideas for a better world

Bregman is neither as categoric nor as pessimistic as historian-cum-futurist Yuval Noah Harari, whose books Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and Homo Deus predict that rampant, dystopian technologies and Anthropocene climate catastrophe will cause an acceleration towards godlike mutations, societal ruination and the destruction of our species.

Nor is Humankind as dogmatically Pollyannaish as Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, which uses graphs and data to rationalise why we should be grateful for reason, enlightenment and forces such as capitalism and liberalism. Where Pinker insists the Enlightenment and ensuing progress are humanity’s defining achievements, Bregman points out this is an infinitesimal part of human history, and there are deeper lessons to be learned from further back – way further back – which will tell us more about who we really are. Once we understand this, we’ll trust one another more and cooperate better.

His idealism is powerfully and provocatively accompanied by practical ideas. Some are already happening, such as innovative prison reforms in Norway, which have lowered the recidivism rate to 20%, one of the world’s lowest. Others are concepts that will take fundamental political and economic power shifts before they have any prospect of fruition. One is taxation. At the 2019 World Economic Forum summit, he proclaimed to some of the world’s richest businesspeople, politicians and private citizens that their avoidance and evasion of tax – “the rich not paying their fair share” – was unacceptable. The Dutch are famously blunt.

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They are also clear thinkers, and Bregman sees his historian’s role as one that counters misinterpretations, rebuts myths and exposes false flags, such as the notion of a binary, zero-sum paradigm between communism (or socialism) and capitalism. We have been sharing nature, resources and our labours for as long as Homo sapiens have existed. If communism is viewed through a prism of “communal usage” with an emphasis on greater societal good, the obstacles to intelligent decisions may be lessened. In the United States, as a particular example, Bregman says the debate is “ridiculous”: universal healthcare is sought by 70% of Americans. On issues like these, he says, “it’s not communism, it’s common sense”.

This sort of nimble humour percolates through the book, as Bregman sets up a proposition, conveys its established acceptance, even sometimes praises the sociologist, politician or economist behind the idea, and then adroitly shreds it.

Busting myths

There’s an enthralling chapter about the sad fate of Easter Island. The established narrative that the isolated islanders self-imploded in the mid-19th century when they descended to the depths and depravities of human nature is a myth, Bregman asserts. The initial culprits were European explorers who brought diseases to the islanders as well as rats, which destroyed the ecological balance. Later, slave traders removed a third of the population. In the process of analysing similar epochal events or seminal studies, Bregman uncovers disturbing slackness in the research and academic methods of acclaimed authorities such as Jared Diamond, whose book Collapse is supposedly the definitive explanation of Easter Island but – if we accept Bregman’s revisionist version – tells us more about the arrogance of elitist thinkers than about broader humanity.

In another section that astonishes in dispassionately propelling counterintuitive thinking, Bregman challenges the efficacy of empathy by referencing the work of psychologist and cognitive scientist Paul Bloom. It is cause for introspection that what we believe to be an intrinsic requirement for goodness is actually a hindrance to equitable, just decisions. We weigh our empathy towards those we find attractive or of the same nationality and, in the proliferation of news and news cycles, according to recency bias. Besides, doing good and being a good person are only loosely linked to empathy. “Some degree of emotional empathy is bred in the bone,” says Bloom, but it’s neither enough nor helpful for our complex and crowded world. 

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These forays into behavioural economics, psychology, sociology and cognitive science make Humankind dynamic, often riveting. But it’s not all rosy. 

A study of the behaviour of infants reveals that even shortly after birth we “have an aversion to the unfamiliar … away from unknown smells, foreign languages or strange accents. It’s as though we’re all born xenophobes.” We may be programmed to identify with our own, but this is not as depressing as it sounds. The same study concluded that we possess “an innate moral compass” and an intrinsic orientation towards trust. Experiencing contact with others is the key. As Abraham Lincoln put it: “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.”

Lincoln understood the power of words. Indeed, the powerplay of skilful storytellers has always defined cultures and shaped human behaviour. Believing in an optimistic slant to guide the narrative of humanity’s future, Bregman, the son of a church minister, has written his own new testament of hope.

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