If you’ve ever studied economics (or even if you haven’t), you’ve probably found yourself asking some basic questions about the premises of economic theory: Are people naturally self-interested creatures? Do resources really flow freely?
While these questions are hardly unfamiliar, most of us don’t dedicate our lives to answering them. Far more often, we wonder for a moment, then forget about them and move on, or at least pretend to accept what the experts tell us. And as long as we believe in them, economic practices seem to work the way they’re supposed to.
In the same way, there are several premises which shape our modern society: People are born lazy and cunning, so we need to be disciplined. People are panicky and aggressive, even cruel, so we need strong leaders to control us.
Our sweet faces are a thin veneer—hit it with a pebble, and our inner brutal, selfish nature is set free.
This idea, actually called veneer theory, is widely, almost unconsciously believed throughout the world. But Rutger Bregman challenges its bleak premise in his book, Humankind: A Hopeful History.
Bregman is a Dutch historian and journalist who gained world recognition for his previous book, Utopia for Realists, and more recently confronted a Davos panel about inequality, insisting we need to talk about “tax avoidance and the rich not paying their fair share.” The video went viral, but the suggestion was not well received by some.
In Humankind, Bregman raises another radical idea: “most people, deep down, are pretty decent.”
From Homo Sapiens to Homo Puppy
Bregman uses his new book to investigate how we came to believe ourselves selfish and evil. To do this, he uses his career strengths as a historian and journalist.
As a historian, he digs into human history from biological evolution to the major philosophical arguments.
As a journalist, he reassesses misinterpreted research and events that may have impacted this negative view we hold of humanity.
The flow of the book follows a series of questions that many of us have pondered: Are we born evil? If we are not innately evil, why do we keep believing we’re bad? Why do good people sometimes do bad things? The philosophy and history of these questions may seem overwhelming, but Bregman expertly uses anecdotes make the read both entertaining and accessible—not to mention convincing.
The book is divided into five parts, starting with arguments from philosophers Thomas Hobbs (“the pessimist who would have us believe in the wickedness of human nature”) and Jean-Jacque Rousseau (“the man who declared that in our heart of hearts we’re all good”). Unsurprisingly, Bregman sides with Rousseau.
To illustrate the anti-violence of human nature, he looks to the process of human evolution. Homo sapiens, he says, survived the severe competition on earth not because of their intelligence or physical strength, but because of their ability to learn and socialize.
As Bregman puts it, “If Neanderthals were a super-fast computer, we were an old-fashioned PC with Wi-Fi … We were slower, but better connected.”
We’re hard-wired to be social, and strongly care what others think. We show emotion with expressions, such as blushing. These allow us to trust each other and cooperate. With such a friendly nature, Bregman renames our species “homo puppy.”
Good and Evil and Their Merits
So if we’re so friendly, why do we believe we’re evil?
To address this, Bregman reassesses several iconic social science studies and well-known events that have been presented to support the veneer theory.
In Stanford’s study, two groups of students (“guards” and “prisoners”) were confined to a simulated prison environment for several days, during which intense psychological breakdowns and aggressive behavior were observed. But recent research has uncovered that the experiment was flawed and the analysis biased. Not until 2001 was a similar experiment conducted by the BBC, which had quite the opposite findings.
The 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese became the catalyst for a theory known as the bystander effect. In the aftermath of the incident, the media reported that nearly forty people witnessed the attack, and none called the police. But Bregman’s research shows that, once again, the facts are far from what the media would have us believe. No one witnessed the whole attack, at least two called to the police, and one person actually ran to help—even held her as she lay dying.
In short, the media tends to sensationalize human evil, but Bregman determines that “in emergencies, we can count on one another.”
This leads to another key question Humankind sets out to answer: “If people are born good, why do some people turn bad?”
Bregman argues that this the other side of the friendliness coin. We homo puppies can feel empathy, and that leads us to divide the world into “my side” and “the other side.” Empathy works as a spotlight, making us blind to the perspective of our adversaries.
Bregman admits that it also makes us the cruelest species on the planet.
But there’s good news: there is evidence that we avoid being cruel at all cost. The only members of our species who do not hesitate when it comes to cruelty? People in power. The more distance we create between us and our fellow humans, the easier it is to become shameless and less attentive to others. Bregman cites the medical term “acquired sociopathy” to describe the traits of people in power: they’re messy eaters, they don’t blush, and they mirror others less.
Bregman concludes that, “In our society, shamelessness can be positively advantageous.”
What Our History Means for Our Future
If we can reject the premises of natural human selfishness and cruelty, what alternatives are we left with? Is it possible to change our society with a new understanding of who we are?
Bregman introduces several unique examples for how it could—and does—work: an education system in the Netherlands that embraces the creativity of each child, a business organization without a hierarchy or managers, and a true democracy process of full participation in small towns in Venezuela and Portugal. It is easy to raise doubts and criticize, but the point is that finding a new way is possible. The choice to look for it is ours.
Some might find Bregman’s Humankind optimistic. And yes, as the title promises, it’s full of hopeful stories and facts about human nature. It makes us feel good despite today’s global climate in which the powerful take advantage of a pandemic and people become ever more divided on important issues, often leading to brutal attacks.
But optimism is not Bregman’s intention.
Rather, he aims to challenge the preconceptions that shape our modern civilized society. To do that, he shows us alternatives. We don’t need to suffer through a society in which so many of us feel something is going wrong. There is more to life than competing against each other until the entire planet is consumed.
The challenge—and the choice—comes with great responsibility. We can no longer use the excuse that humans are selfish, evil animals. Bregman disproves that myth in Humankind: A Hopeful History. There are other paths for our society to choose from. And we can find them if we’re brave enough as a species to turn away from a flawed interpretation of our history and look toward a better future.