Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman review – a tribute to our better nature

The Dutch historian’s overview of debate around humanity’s core instincts has blind spots, but its optimism is invigorating

Although one of the most contested concepts in political philosophy, human nature is something on which most people seem to agree. By and large, according to Rutger Bregman in his new book Humankind, we have a rather pessimistic view – not of ourselves exactly, but of everyone else.

We see other people as selfish, untrustworthy and dangerous and therefore we behave towards them with defensiveness and suspicion. This was how the 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes conceived our natural state to be, believing that all that stood between us and violent anarchy was a strong state and firm leadership.

But in following Hobbes, argues Bregman, we ensure that the negative view we have of human nature is reflected back at us. He instead puts his faith in Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the 18th-century French thinker, who famously declared that man was born free and it was civilisation – with its coercive powers, social classes and restrictive laws – that put him in chains.

Hobbes and Rousseau are seen as the two poles of the human nature argument and it’s no surprise that Bregman strongly sides with the Frenchman. He takes Rousseau’s intuition and paints a picture of a prelapsarian idyll in which, for the better part of 300,000 years, Homo sapiens lived a fulfilling life in harmony with nature and the community, bound only by the principles of humility and solidarity.

Then we discovered agriculture and for the next 10,000 years it was all property, war, greed and injustice. Whether or not this vision of pre-agrarian life is an accurate one – and certainly the anthropology and archaeology on which Bregman draws are open to interpretation – the Dutchman puts together a compelling argument that society has been built on a false premise.

Bregman, whose previous book was the equally optimistic Utopia for Realists, has a Gladwellian gift for sifting through academic reports and finding anecdotal jewels. And, like the Canadian populariser, he’s not afraid to take his audience on a digressive journey of discovery. Here, we visit the blitz, Lord of the Flies – both the novel and a very different real-life version – a Siberian fox farm, an infamous New York murder and a host of discredited psychological studies, including Stanley Milgram’s Yale shock machine and Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment.

Along the way, he takes potshots at the big guns: Richard Dawkins, Jared Diamond and Steven Pinker. Yet despite the almost bewildering array of characters and information, Bregman never loses sight of his central thesis, that at root humans are “friendly, peaceful and healthy”.

It was abandoning our nomadic lifestyle and then domesticating animals, says Bregman, that brought about infectious diseases such as measles, smallpox, tuberculosis, syphilis, malaria, cholera and plague. This may be true, but what Bregman never really seems to get to grips with is that pathogens were not the only things that grew with agriculture – so did the number of humans.

It’s one thing to maintain friendly relations and a property-less mode of living when you’re 30 or 40 hunter-gatherers following the food. But life becomes a great deal more complex and knowledge far more extensive when there are settlements of many thousands.

“Civilisation has become synonymous with peace and progress and wilderness with war and decline,” writes Bregman. “In reality, for most of human existence, it was the other way around.”

Whereas traditional history depicts the collapse of civilisations as “dark ages” in which everything gets worse, modern scholars, he claims, see them more as a reprieve, in which the enslaved gain their freedom and culture flourishes. Like much else in this book, the truth is probably somewhere between the two stated positions.

In any case, the fear of civilisational collapse, Bregman believes, is unfounded. It’s the result of what the Dutch biologist Frans de Waal calls “veneer theory” – the idea that just below the surface, our bestial nature is waiting to break out. In reality, argues Bregman, when cities are subject to bombing campaigns or when a group of boys is shipwrecked on a remote island, what’s notable is the degree of cooperation and communal spirt that comes to the fore.

There’s a great deal of reassuring human decency to be taken from this bold and thought-provoking book and a wealth of evidence in support of the contention that the sense of who we are as a species has been deleteriously distorted. But it seems equally misleading to offer the false choice of Rousseau and Hobbes when, clearly, humanity encompasses both.

There will always be a battle between our altruistic and selfish instincts, our openness and our protectiveness – it is the very stuff of human drama. Still, if the devil has all the best tunes, it makes a welcome change to read such a sustained and enjoyable tribute to our better natures.

• Join Rutger Bregman for a live streamed Q&A with Owen Jones at a Guardian Live event on 19 May. Tickets cost £5

Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman is published by Bloomsbury (£20). To order a copy go to Free UK p&p over £15


Andrew Anthony

The GuardianTramp

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