As an optimist, I want to believe Dutch historian Rutger Bregman’s new book, Humankind: A Hopeful History. I want to shout its message from the rooftops and stick it to the cynics who only see misery where the rest of us see beauty and progress. I want to tell everyone that a half-full glass really is a lot more than we used to have and a lot more than we could expect from chance alone.
But I can’t.
Over 397 pages of fast-paced and thoughtful prose, Bregman weaves together dozens of fascinating stories into a tale of innate human goodness. Jumping from psychology to archeology to management, Bregman calls upon a wide range of disciplines to make his case: humans are by nature good and friendly. We are evolutionarily primed to take care of each other, embrace strangers, be playful and merry.
Most people would sneer at this, but Bregman’s book offers enough arguments to warrant a serious discussion.
The first chapters are noticeably better than some of the latter. Here, Bregman is both carefully analytic and comprehensive. I buy completely the stories of people coming together during the worst of times: that the WWII Blitz brought Londoners together (as did, correspondingly, Allied bombing of German towns); that Hurricane Katrina unleashed valiance and bravery, not widespread looting and anarchy; that most soldiers in most wars don’t fire their weapons; that shipwrecked boys on a deserted island cooperated for survival rather than turned into a real-life version of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.
We don’t have to go further than the current pandemic to wholeheartedly agree with Bregman that “adversity strikes and there’s a wave of spontaneous cooperation in response, then the authorities panic and unleash a second disaster.”
In chapter 3, ‘The Rise of Homo Puppy,’ Bregman carefully discusses how human behavior and anatomy mimics the differences between wild wolves and domesticated dogs; between violent chimps and friendly, playful bonobos. Modern humans are to ancient humans what dogs are to wolves or bonobos are to chimps: smaller, friendlier, more social, less aggressive – domesticated. As far as my rudimentary understanding of evolutionary biology goes (as discussed in Nicholas Christakis’ Blueprint, Paul Bloom’s Against Empathy, or Charles Murray’s Human Diversity), this is largely correct: our ancestors selected for friendliness.
Whether that means we’re an innately peaceful species is a different story; it’s a long shot to derive deep-seated kindness from suggestions that we are less violent than our evolutionary ancestors.
From there, the book is a roller coaster. The simplified discussion of Enlightenment philosophers and the Easter Island account are incomplete – but the harsh swings he takes at science suggesting the worst of human nature are very compelling: the Stanford Prison Experiment (Chapter 7), the Milgram Experiment (Chapter 8), and the alleged callousness in bystanders in the murder of Kitty Genovese (Chapter 9). The Milgram experiments were vastly manipulated, the Stanford prison experiment mostly staged, and Kitty Genovese died in the arms of her neighbor – and her murderer was arrested as two neighbors intervened in a burglary.
The chapters on children’s play, on intrinsic motivations and bureaucratic hierarchies speak straight to my priors: I can’t help but to love his case studies and calls for cutting out HR departments and schoolteachers. I have yet to encounter an HR worker who adds value or a teacher that fuels youngsters’ thirst for knowledge rather than stifles it. Bregman’s stories from Buurtzorg, the Dutch healthcare company which has been named the Netherlands’ best employer five times “despite having no HR team” as well as FAVI, the French car parts company whose CEO gutted HR as his first order of business, decentralized teams and saw its workforce and worker productivity expand, are fascinating and inspirational examples.
Drawing superficially on many different fields with narrative case-studies to illustrate a major point keeps the story refreshing – but risks becoming detached, unconvincing and plainly wrong. This is more clearly revealed towards the end of Bregman’s book as he falls prey to hubris and reads too much into scant evidence.
He aims far too high as he denounces the Enlightenment in less than ten pages. In less than a paragraph, he reinterprets the meaning of the U.S. Constitution. In two paragraphs, enclosures of the commons and state-mandated markets created the Industrial Revolution (newsflash: they didn’t). Then Bregman butchers Elinor Ostrom’s work on the commons and mobilizes her research as a foundation for 21st century communism. Two pages later, Ostrom’s work (and a quick story about the Alaskan mining dividend) lay the ground for universal basic income.
I still can’t decide which is the most egregious intellectual infraction.
A few chapters after corporate clot and bureaucracy was denounced, corporate administration makes a return as “internal communism” and is now, bizarrely, “so efficient.” Bregman is forced to accept the virtue of communism because he believes its shortcoming was one of selfish human nature – which his book attempts to undermine. In reality, perhaps Ludwig von Mises’ greatest achievement was to replace human motivation as a drawback of communism with the calculational impossibilities (see “The Socialist Calculation Debate”) that emerge under central planning.
A major problem with books that try to uncover everything is that neither the writer nor the reader is an expert in the many fields discussed. The writer may completely butcher something – and the reader doesn’t have the expertise to know. The chapters that sway me (the takedown of psychology experiments, management and intrinsic motivation) are topics I know almost nothing about, and so I am easily swayed by Bregman’s seemingly impressive citation list and compelling stories.
But I am well-versed in some fields. If Bregman is manhandling the economics and butchering the history in some chapters, is he prone to similar mistakes elsewhere? Maybe his takedown of famous psychology experiments and hippie-esque take on childhood education are equally unsound?
Jared Diamond and Ancient Human Societies
As an illustration of my ambivalence toward Bregman’s book, let’s take his odd relation to the work of geographer Jared Diamond – another Big Picture scholar I’ve written about before. Re-hashing the heavy criticism that Diamond drew for his conclusion that Easter Island was a typical “ecocide” by greedy and power-hungry humans, Bregman echoes the now-accepted view that the island’s deforestation had to do with rats arriving with the Islanders during the Polynesian expansion. In contrast to a common belief that the Easter Island collapse is a preview of what awaits humanity at large, Bregman takes away the reassuring lesson that Islanders for centuries cooperated in harmony; carving out and raising moai. Those iconic stone sculptures were collaborative features worthy of humanity’s awe and an indication of a flourishing civilization. Diamond mistaken.
He then uses Diamond’s classic article to underscore his – and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s – assertion that farming was the “worst mistake in the history of the human race.” Diamond vindicated.
In yet another chapter, he takes aim at cognitive scientist Steven Pinker’s argument that violence has fallen dramatically since the ruthlessly violent times when humans were mainly part of nomadic tribes. In deflating Pinker, Bregman intentionally ignores the almost 500-page book Diamond wrote on the topic: The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies?
I say ‘intentionally,’ because Bregman cites the book twice for relatively trivial observations. First, to attack a throwaway line about organizations and leaders, and secondly, to back up his claim that cooperative play comes naturally to humans.
Except, of course, that the reference is taken from a section that describes violent games played by boys in New Guinea Highland villages. If your case is that humans of the past (and by extension, humans naturally) are peaceful, cooperative and non-warmongering, it makes very little sense to cite a narrow paragraph about children playing competition-free amidst a section exploring how children in traditional societies are imitating adult behavior – explicitly war and weapon-wielding behavior.
While technically not misquoting Diamond to say the narrow thing Bregman claims, the reference still undermines his fundamental case: tribes of ages past, as far as we can tell, were not peaceful, harmless and happy to embrace strangers.
What’s even stranger is the next layer of confused reasoning. Bregman correctly casts doubt on much ethnographic research, as Westerners often showered indigenous tribes with gifts like guns and axes that completely disrupted a stable equilibrium between tribes in effect before the observer arrived. In his excellent book 1491, Charles Mann calls this “Holmberg’s mistake” after an anthropologist who concluded that the South American nomadic tribes he studied in the 1940s had always lived like that. Mann convincingly shows that interactions with Europeans after 1492 uprooted tribes from their land and changed much of their lives – by violence and disease as well as by altering the relations various tribes had to one another.
Having correctly outlined Holmberg’s mistake, it is somewhat strange that Bregman feels the urge to rescue Easter Island from its reputation as decaying into warfare and cannibalism. After all, the Easter Island’s earliest settlers were Polynesian farmers some eight centuries past. If the Neolithic revolution of 10,000 years ago that introduced settlements, farming, and private property was the downfall of the human race, the Easter Islanders are just another permutation of human nature by civilization. It’s far from clear, then, why Bregman so forcefully wants to resuscitate their reputation.
The irony reached absurdity when Bregman discards all observations about modern-day hunter-gatherers as tainted and inapplicable for his argument yet still uses evidence from a Canadian researcher among the !Kung San of the Kalahari desert. Pinker explicitly demolished the shady statistics that made us think of the !Kung as The Harmless People. Maybe Pinker is wrong, but then Bregman has to address that rather than ignore it. Worse, he can’t cherry-pick a 40-year-old ethnographic story after having denounced all ethnographic studies as unsuited.
If you discard all counterevidence to your claim, then your preferred conclusion emerges trivially.
If, as Bregman asserts, no society after humans settled down and began farming the earth are allowed to bear witness on what is innately human, it’s strange that he spends so much time on lost boys, soldiers in trenches and students in university experiments. Surely, to put the argument in religious terms, these subgroups are equally fallen and so cannot bear witness to what’s essential about human beings? Then again, if he hadn’t, there wouldn’t be a book.
To add a final note: Some topics are strangely omitted in a book about human kindness. There’s nothing about serial killers or sociopaths, nothing about wife beaters or rapists. If your case is the peaceful nature of humans, these are some of the first obvious counterexamples that come to mind. Bregman deals impressively with other counterarguments, but ignores these. Having discovered serious mistakes in his other arguments, I have a hard time believing the ones I really want to be true.
The benefit-of-the-doubt that uninformed readers grant a Big Picture writer is already destroyed. When Bregman tells further tales of pristine Norwegian prison islands and Christmas trees in the Colombian jungle working wonders for inmates and FARC guerillas, I would like to believe him – but I simply can’t.
There is much to enjoy in Bregman’s optimistic tale and persuasive prose. That humans are pretty decent is a refreshing message. I just wonder what – if anything – I can take away from it.