Humankind; by Rutger Bregman; Little, Brown, and Co.; 480 pp., $30.00


Rutger Bregman’s latest book is about what he calls a “radical idea” that has “long been known to make rulers nervous” and whose apostles will weather “a storm of ridicule.” When we learn that Bregman’s thinking is in radical opposition to Thucydides, Augustine, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Burke, the Founding Fathers, Nietzsche, Freud, and many others, such opposition must surely be expected. 

It transpires his world-altering idea is very simple, to the point of bathos: “Most people, deep down, are pretty decent.” Those who are instinctively wary of world-altering ideas may laugh or recoil, but we should take this one seriously, because it cuts to the core of who we are.

To the author, almost all questions boil down to one basic dichotomy: Were the first hominids killer apes, or egalitarian pacifists? In other words, is humanity flawed, or are there just flawed societies?

For Bregman’s part, he insists we are not as bad as we believe we are, and by believing we are bad, we may be making ourselves so. 

A defining incident for him comes from 1966, when an Australian sailor rescued six Tongan boys from an island where they had been marooned for more than a year. The boys had coped with insularity admirably, growing and hunting food, organizing a roster for cooking, gardening, and guard duties, resolving quarrels, singing and praying together, and even setting a broken leg. They also kept a signal fire going, to attract passing boats. Their exemplary behavior was in marked contrast to that fictive, but infinitely more famous, tale of stranded boys in William Golding’s 1954 classic, Lord of the Flies

For Bregman, Golding is hugely symbolic as a popularizer of the “veneer theory” of civilization, so he is at pains to undercut the credibility of Golding’s vision of boys as barely-disguised beasts. He points out Golding’s personal failings: “What an unhappy individual he’d been. An alcoholic. Prone to depression. A man who beat his kids.” He notes Golding remarked, “I have always understood the Nazis, because I am of that sort by nature,” and that Golding misspelled acquaintances’ names, which Bregman interprets as a basic lack of interest in people as persons.

Bregman is right to notice private foibles, because these do shape personal philosophies. However, he carries this too far when he condemns Churchill’s scientific adviser (and civilian bombing advocate) Lord Cherwell for “wearing a bowler hat and having an icy expression.” If allegedly frigid facial features or authorial alcoholism are determinants of outlook, then it is surely permissible to call into evidence Bregman’s own apparent character, as revealed in Humankind.

We learn that he has lost his childhood Christianity, cries readily, needed six attempts to pass his driving test, and can write of Ice Age existence that “rather than a struggle for survival, it was a snuggle for survival.” His whole persona seems anxiously aquiver, and Humankind an existentially anxious book, notwithstanding its supposedly hopeful message. Bregman badly wants to believe in human goodness and Western civilization’s corruptness. He is one of many who yearn for a future of communalism, equality, and peace, and so he eagerly searches for early exemplars of his preferred worldview.

The author draws interesting parallels between human evolution and Dmitri Belyayev’s famous experiment in breeding silver foxes for domestication. After 20 years of breeding, members of that formerly ferocious species spent longer playing, wagging their tails, barking, and responding to their pet names. Their tails curled, spots appeared on their coats, their snouts got shorter, their bones slenderer, and males looked more like females. Selection for amiability resulted in gradual hormonal changes that made them even tamer, and more intelligent.

Similarly, Homo sapiens evolved from Homo neanderthalensis, losing the Neanderthals’ bulk, strength, and rugged facial features. We were weaker, more puppyish, and had smaller brains than our antecessors, but became sociable, and this impelled imagination and innovation. Belyayev’s work makes us ponder the malleability of nature, and the existence of the “selfish gene” concept proposed by Richard Dawkins, in which natural selection occurs between groups as well as individuals.

Bregman’s re-examinations of case studies that purport to prove the omnipresence of evil are equally interesting. He argues Stanley Milgram’s 1961 shock machine experiment, which tested the willingness of volunteers to administer electric shocks to strangers, is undercut by Milgram’s flawed methodology and his earnest wish to explain the Holocaust. He shows that Philip Zimbardo’s 1971 Stanford study, in which psychology students role-played prisoners and guards, with swiftly deteriorating group dynamics, were more stage performance than scientific experiment.

Bregman also contends that the 1964 killing of Kitty Genovese in New York, whose early-morning screams for help were apparently ignored by 38 neighbors, was a more enigmatic event, with most of the allegedly uncaring onlookers actually unaware of what was occurring.

Perhaps most interesting of Bregman’s examples is his critique of Napoleon Chagnon’s Yąnomamö: The Fierce People (1968), which portrayed the Amazonian Yanomamis as an intrinsically Hobbesian tribe existing “in a chronic state of war.” Controversy continues about whether the Yanomamis are especially violent and if so, why. Bregman argues Chagnon may have exaggerated Yanomami violence, but even if it has been overstated, these latter–day Stone Agers were clearly not specimens of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s noble savages.

Steven Pinker has speculated that all humans probably lived like the Yanomami, until the advent of agriculture, arts, and government. For Bregman, the opposite is true: civilization is the cause, rather than the cure, of social ailments, up to and including war. He paints an attractive, uninteresting picture (utopias are always dull) of the earliest humans as egalitarian and non-acquisitive nomads, interacting easily with other tribes, and building complexes like Turkey’s Göbekli Tepe not to “stroke some chieftain’s ego [but to] bring people together.” Then, our restless spirits devised such horrors as farming, private property, legal codes, territories, tribal gods, and—worse yet—inequality, money, racism, sexism, and war. “10,000 years ago,” Bregman shakes his neat beard sadly, “the trouble began.”

The chief “trouble” is war, and Bregman devotes much energy to disproving Man’s martial nature. He cites the military historian S.L.A. Marshall, whose 1947 book Men Against Fire famously suggested that only 15 to 25 percent of U.S. servicemen fired their guns in combat during World War II. Marshall embellished his own military record, and had slapdash research methods, yet there is similar evidence from other wars. At Gettysburg, 90 percent of the muskets recovered had not been fired, while George Orwell recollected that during the Spanish Civil War many combatants “always did miss everyone else, when it was humanly possible.”

Yet much depends on whether the soldiers are remembering accurately, or being truthful, as well as upon the circumstances of the conflict. In civil wars, there may be a general reluctance to fire on fellow-countrymen. Marshall himself found infantrymen in Vietnam were more willing to shoot than those of WWII. Bregman suggests Marshall’s “fear of aggression” goes back to Man’s beginnings, citing a shortage of evidence for warfare in prehistoric art and skeletons. However, there is some evidence, and even if there was not, an absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Animals defend their homes and hunting grounds; it would be passing strange if we semi-animals did not have equivalent instincts.

To the author, humans are not just pacific, but intrinsically altruistic. It is certainly true that, in our private lives, we probably all know more people who are kind than people who are not. The problem is that for good or ill, history is made by unrepresentative minorities.

Bregman lauds the general courage and orderliness aboard the Titanic and in the World Trade Center, and “the Blitz spirit,” but he overlooks statistics like the 57 percent increase in the UK’s crime rate from 1939 to 1945. He derides James Q. Wilson’s “broken windows” theory of crime, which alleges that ignored vandalism attracts worse criminality, without explaining what did cause the extraordinary plummet in crime in New York between the late 1980s and 2000.

His proposals are regrettably meaningless and inelegantly expressed. For example, “Think in win-win scenarios” and “Try to understand the other, even if you don’t get where they’re coming from.” He wants us to have high expectations, openness, and opportunity, but who does not? More helpfully, he makes good arguments for rehabilitative prisons, community involvement in local government budgeting, and environmental resources to be regarded as social commons.

One subject on which he is really counterintuitive is empathy, which he calls a “searchlight [which] singles out a specific person or group in your life” at the expense of others. Wehrmacht soldiers, he points out, fought not for any ideology, but out of an empathetic wish not to let down their family and friends, while terrorists are bands of brothers, united against outsiders.

An empathy encompassing everybody is an impossibility. Even babies prefer people who look like them. As the author regretfully admits, we are “born with a button for tribalism.” Bregman wishes earnestly for diversity to eventually make us friendlier, but even he acknowledges it could have the opposite effect.

When it comes to this and other ancient ailments, ultimately all this well-meaning author can suggest is that we hope for the best. It is poor fare for our ailing society.