Humankind, by Rutger Bergman- a Review

This book should be read by all politicians and CEOs. In his new book Humankind, Dutch popular historian Rutger Bregman’s basic premise is that If you want the best from people, believe in their innate, genetically-determined goodness and ability to organise themselves for the common good. He details much research showing altruism may well be hard-wired into our psyche (at least for those we recognise as ‘kin’), reckoning that it needs to be recognised, accepted, and nurtured if we are to live harmoniously and survive economically in our future endangered world. His previous book, Utopia for Realists (advocating open borders, basic incomes and a 15-hour week) was translated into 32 languages. This book is equally powerful. He debunks the false news that civilization is a thin veneer with primitive violence simmering underneath in all of us.

There will doubtless be academics who feel his writing is too populist and his arguments too simplistic and wide-ranging for them to accept- yet he cites 45 pages of academic and archive sources in defence of his arguments, and from his acknowledgements, he has obviously discussed many of his theories with multiple academic minds. This book has to be acknowledged as a massive achievement of a modern polymath. There are few thinkers today able to apply philosophical thinking to evidence from so many disciplines: archaeology, anthropology, history, psychology, sociology, economics and politics. His painstaking research to confirm or confound many commonly held myths and ‘fake news’ cannot be faulted. I found this book fascinating, at times uplifting and often extraordinarily surprising, even though I had met many of his mentioned ’tribes’ and incidents in my anthropology studies. He is not so much a lateral thinker as a stellate one: able to assess different sets of data in different specialities and correlate them.

He obviously has pet subjects such as the WW1 Christmas Truce, the real Tonga Lord of The Flies, Danish prison reforms and recent Dutch innovative school formats, social care cooperatives and a company improving productivity by operating in separate autonomous divisions. None the less, he makes a good case for humankind being collectively wired to survive by cooperation and doing so relatively peacefully as hunter-gatherers until agrarian society gave us private property and the urge to defend it. Today, war seems a fact of life, yet studies show most people are incapable of firing into someone’s body without extreme, brain-washing training. Indeed, after several wars the percentage of ‘used rifles’ was found to be surprisingly low: bombing by plane or drone at a distance is easier for humans, perhaps as no enemy eyes are visible.

I would have liked to know more about how he thought we can overcome our apparent and unfortunate inbuilt antipathy to ’The Other’ that fuels current xenophobia and discrimination/demonisation of ethnic or religious groups which we deem alien. It was not enough just to cite our ‘love hormone’ oxytocin as an aid to mating and protection of our kind while impairing our desire to defend those outwith our tribe. Admittedly, Bregman does advocate getting to understand others’ ways of life and employing compassion (rather than exhausting counter-productive empathy) for those less fortunate than ourselves. Perhaps Rogers and Hammerstein’s ‘Getting to know you’ should be a new anthem in the march to make this a better world!

Humankind is a kind of brave, uplifting call to arms. Not firearms, but physical arms to reach out. It isn’t a self-help tome offering ‘Ten Commandments for Living a Successful Life,’ more a call to expect the best of our fellows (like our primate cousins the bonobos), to stop repressive ‘sticks‘ and greed-inducing capitalist ‘carrots’ and let folk co-operate together. But above all, he is surely correct to view the toxic effects of the media whose predominantly negative, sensationalist, exceptional stories of horror and danger offer us a false perspective of life on our planet. He suggest we avoid the ‘News’ and seek the truth. Overall, a heartening book full of fascinating facts. Like we share 60% of our genes with bananas. I think there’s a few folk on TV who may have even more.

Humankind, 496 pages, Bloomsbury Publishing (19 May 2020) ISBN-10: 140889893
TED talk worth listening to”Poverty Isn’t a Lack of Character; It’s a Lack of Cash”, https://www.ted.com/talks/rutger_bregman_poverty_isn_t_a_lack_of_character

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