Book recommendation: “Humankind: A Hopeful History”

by Rutger Bregman

Elective pessimism

It is easy to be pessimistic about humanity in a world of fake news, social media trolling, climate change, the war in Ukraine and floods in Pakistan. We seem to gravitate to bad news; confirming our worst fears about societies. Historical events such as The Holocaust, through to the recent school shooting in Uvalde, Texas demonstate the cruel, unspeakeable acts groups and individuals are capable of. Many mental health professionals see hundreds of clients suffering from a myriad of mental health conditions, including eco-anxiety, burnout compounded by doom scrolling to survivors traumatised  by natural disasters. Life in the 21st century can feel like a paradox: surrounded by doom and gloom, we are reminded to just be kind. 

But what if being pessimistic is elective? Are we reading the spirit level of humanity wrong? What if optimism and hope are hiding in plain sight?

Rutger Bregman is a Dutch historian and author, his latest book offers a powerful polemic for human kindness and decency. He challenges the prevailing view that we are by our own nature: selfish, bloodthirsty and ruled by self-preservation. Challenging the heavyweights from Hobbes, Dawkins, Milgram and Zimbardo, he torpedoes the fallacy of selfishness into stasis with robust counter-evidence. We are asked instead to reconsider human history, discovering that kindness, cooperation and altruism were there all along. 

Malleable minds

Reading,“ Lord Of The Flies,” by William Golding (1954), you would be forgiven for thinking that humans are at their core, beastily with cannibalistic urges. The novel still appears on many school curricula and is revered as a literary masterpiece. The idea that English schoolboys stranded on a desert island going rogue, has inspired everything from The Hunger Games to reality television. It is almost as if it really happened, cemented proof that we are in fact one step away from depravity. It is fascinating then that Rutger Bregman offers a real-life 1965 example of The Lord of the Flies. Six schoolboys from the Pacific island of Tonga set out for a sailing adventure, only to be marooned on the remote island of ‘Ata. What follows is revelatory: chicken coops, saved rainwater- even a guitar lovingly carved out of driftwood. Quarrels are deftly managed- a four-hour “timeout” on separate ends of the islands, followed by a conciliatory meeting. Days start and end with a song and a prayer, facilitating social cohesion. This slam dunk from Bregman shows you that he means business: he is on a quest to prove that we are in fact, a lot nicer than William Golding led us to believe. The solidarity shown between the six schoolboys is also explored amongst American soldiers in World War Two.

Hardwired for solidarity

Samuel Marshall was a Colonel and Historian, stationed with an American battalion on a Japanese-held Pacific island in 1943.  The army offensive was to take the island back from Japanese control, culminating in The Battle of Makin. One night, the larger American reserve was ambushed by the smaller Japanese unit in a surprise attack. The Japanese very nearly succeeded, despite being vastly outnumbered in manpower and artillery. Marshall wanted to discover what went wrong- why did the smaller Japanese unit outmanoeuvre the American soldiers? He decided to interview the soldiers separately and what he discovered was unexpected: the majority of the soldiers didn’t fire their guns.

Cowardice aside, Marshall concluded that something more humanising was at play- these soldiers simply didn’t want to kill another human being. The Hobbesian and Golding views were wrong, humans are in fact, hardwired for solidarity not aggression. The desire to cooperate, show kindness and preserve human life can also be found in the now notoriously debunked Milgram electric shock and Stanford Prison experiments.

Stockholm Syndrome

The Milgram electric shock experiment (1961) was overseen by Stanley Milgram, a social psychologist from the University of Yale. The horrors of the Second World War, in particular the Holocaust had reverbiated around the world. Was there a Nazi inside all of us? Stanley Milgram, himself a Jewish professor, wanted to find out. On the surface, his experiment proved that the “teachers” would conform and press the (fake) maximum electrocution limit. This proved, unequivocally, that humans are obedient and would follow orders- whatever the (apparent) deadly consequences. Milgram received great accolades for his research, praised for due diligence, in furthering our understanding of blind obedience. However, shifting through the archive footage later showed huge unethical misgivings. Many of the paid stooges knew the experiment was fake- that the students weren’t receiving electric shocks and to add insult to injury, those that weren’t aware often refused to press the button. Many were coerced into pressing the button, to skew the results. This doesn’t explain though, why those that thought the experiment was genuine, still pressed the button. Bregman thinks this was down in part to a sort of misguided Stockholm syndrome- the volunteers simply wanted to please this esteemed University of Yale professor- that his research work must surely be for the bettering of humanity. 

Clearly ethical research guidelines were breached; the volunteers were either not convinced by the experiment, objected to the terms or in a few cases, blindly followed instructions for the greater good. The latter case seeps into the banality of evil– that Nazi SS officers were glorified bureaucrats following orders- a somewhat disengaged thoughlesness rather than acts of evil intent.

This could be somewhat oversimplified, conveniently forgetting the legacy of the German Propaganda campaign against Jewish citizens. The systemising, dehumanisation of the Jewish race legitimated Nazi genocide, with the backdrop of German austerity.  Certainly with the global threats of radicalisation, perhaps it is more mindful to also consider the contextual variables of poverty, alienation, historical racism, which mixed with the messages of radicalisation can lead to deadly consequences. The obedient following of orders is only one aspect amongst many.

Humankind: A Hopeful History, is indeed thought-provoking and asks us to reconsider the long held assumption that people are at best, misanthropes, at worst cruel and bloodthirsty. Trawling through the last 200,000 years of human history, Bregman is asking us to look again and see the fundamental goodness in humanity. The book is not without its flaws: the absence of women, over-reliance on Western historical interpretations and an over-simplification of the role of obedience within Social Psychology experiments. Nethertheless, examples like the real “Lord Of The Flies” and Colonial Marshall’s soldiers show encouraging signs of cooperation and enduring kindness, even under inhumane conditions. 




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