Review of ‘Humankind: A Hopeful History’ by Rutger Bregman

Rutger Bregman’s recent book, Humankind: A Hopeful History (translated by Elizabeth Manton & Erica Moore) is a book about human nature. It is also about our beliefs about human nature, what informs our beliefs and what those beliefs lead to. He makes a careful case that our beliefs about human nature have real consequences. Whereas negative views lead to caution, distance, distrust, thinking and acting based on stereotypes, positive views are associated with courage, contact, learning about each other, and trust. What both (the positive and the negative) views have in common is that they can both serve as self-fulfilling prophecies.

The First Task

Bregman’s work in this book consists of two complementary tasks. First, he challenges the belief that human nature is essentially evil, the “veneer theory,” which holds that any human goodness is accidental, temporary, unreliable, and an artifact of civilization. The artifacts, furthermore, are shallow and easily lifted, hence described as a “veneer.” Challenging the veneer theory isn’t easy, because it has received support from a variety of sources and has become part of our common sense: works of fiction defend it, e.g., Lord of the Flies, historical case studies seem to confirm it, e.g., history of Easter Island, not to mention the evils of World War 2, and the famous demonstrations of psychologists following WW2, e.g., the Robber Cave experiment, the Stanford prison experiment, Milgram’s obedience experiments, and so forth.

Bregman patiently re-visits each of these sources, each case study, each demonstration, with a fresh perspective, and he questions whether they can convincingly tell us that human nature is evil. He discovers new information about each case, finding its ambiguities and inconsistencies. None of the pieces of evidence look the same after his investigations. This is one of the most significant contributions of this book, showing how the “evidence” is often distorted by an existing veneer theory. The author does not hesitate to question established authorities (and pseudo-authorities). Nor does he hesitate to openly revise his previous positions.

The negative view, unfortunately, has a decisive advantage over its competition. It keeps itself distant from concrete facts, from people and their actions. And it is reinforced by that distance. If I don’t like my neighbors, then I keep my distance from them and that distance ensures that my dislike of them continues. Moreover, the observations that confirm the negative view tend to be more salient, more attention-grabbing, than observations that are inconsistent with it. Witnessing an act of injustice, a brutal conflict, a crime, can have a drastic and deep impact on what we think.

When we hole up in our own trenches, we lose sight of reality. We’re lured into thinking that a small, hate-mongering minority reflects all humankind. Like the handful of anonymous internet trolls that are responsible for almost all the vitriol on Twitter and Facebook.

Finally, there is the problem of asymmetric feedback, which Bregman describes as follows.

… if your faith in someone is misplaced the truth will surface sooner or later. […] If you’ve been too trusting, eventually you find out.

But if you decide not to trust someone, you’ll never know if you’re right. Because you’ll never get any feedback.

Defending the Good

In addition to the first task (challenging the veneer theory), Bregman’s second task is to make a case for his own position, that “most people, deep down, are pretty decent.” (p. 2)

Through his sociological and historical tour, Bregman shows how the opposite sides of the debate provide foundations for drastically different approaches to education, work, management of employees, treatments of crime, and types of prison. One view is threatened by freedom, trust, play, and open-endedness, while the other view aims to nurture all those things. Surprisingly, the risks of trusting people tends to be rewarded, and this is the most convincing case for the goodness of human beings. Children learn more when given freedom, workers are more engaged when they have more autonomy, reform is more effective when prisoners are respected.

There is also a thought-provoking analysis in the book about how strict hierarchies of power are vulnerable to (shameless) psychopaths. At the lower ranks of a rigid hierarchy, people are self-regulated by shame. A person does not deviate from their assigned position, because if they do, they would feel the shame associated with impropriety. In such a structure, people who don’t feel shame can navigate the hierarchy freely and gain power over others.

Human Nature

My first criticism of the book is that it assumes a nature-nurture dichotomy, which underlies both the positive and the negative views of human beings. This is in part guided by the Hobbes-Rousseau polarity. When Bregman turns to studies of children or hunter-gatherer tribes, or to the story of Easter Island, he assumes that they are showing the nature of humankind. But isn’t it human nature to be cultural? Isn’t it human to require nurture? Without nurture, we don’t have natural humans, we simply have dead humans. Similarly, when looking at hunter-gatherers, or relatively isolated societies, aren’t we looking different cultures? In short, it would be more appropriate to set the opposition between different types of culture, rather than between human nature and culture. The Hobbes-Rousseau polarity fails, because it assumes that human nature (bad/good) can exist outside of a culture (good/bad).

It is human nature to be cultural, to imitate, to cooperate, to adopt norms and conventions, to love, and to be part of a group. We shouldn’t be suspicious of culture, in general. Rather, we should more precisely ask: What are the types of culture–types of collective organization, practices, etc.–that bring out the best in us? And what are the types of culture that bring out the worst in us? I suspect Bregman would agree, but the way he has constructed his argument, and especially his reliance on the Hobbes-Rousseau polarity, can hide this point.

Less Theory

We can also part ways with the author in one other respect. I think a positive view of human beings must necessarily be, among other things, less theoretical than the negative view. A primary drive behind having theories of human nature gaining better control of others. The behaviorists saw prediction-and-control as the aim and ideal of psychological science. We could say, of course, we have positive theories and negative theories. But it would also be fair to say that the theoretical position, in general, already betrays a lack of trust, and a desire to be prepared against surprises.

Whether it is good or bad, a theory of human nature imposes itself on humans. Restricting and framing our contact with one another. This shows up not only in everyday life, but also in scholarly works reviewed in this book. What makes the “villains” in the book (e.g., Zimbardo) obnoxious isn’t only their belief in the inherent evil in us, but their confidence. It is their regard for the question, “Is human beings good or evil?”. They act as if the question can be answered like a logical or mathematical question. Perhaps a more radical way of opposing the villains of the book would be–not to make a case for the goodness of humanity, but–to embrace its mystery.

Final Words

I would recommend this book, for several reasons, above all for its fresh take on an old question, for refreshing our view and inviting to think again about who we are (reminding us that there is a question!). For urging us to be responsible for our responses to the question–to examine and adopt our positions responsibly–with an awareness that there are, in fact, consequences to what we hold to be true.