Book Review: “Humankind” — The Power of Positive Thinking

By Tim Jackson

Humankind, at the very least, compels us to rethink fashionably pessimistic assumptions about human nature.

Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman. Translated from the Dutch by Erica Moore. Little, Brown, 480 pages, $i9.99.

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Times are tough. Every day brings fresh horrific news: murder hornets, raging fires, apocalyptic hurricanes, and a global pandemic. Violence and civil unrest ravage the civilized world:  authoritarian leaders, widening social divides, the rich lording it over the poor, atrocities committed by all sides everywhere. Has the human race fallen victim to its own worst nature?

Dutch author Rutger Bregman’s Humankind, recently the number one book in the Netherlands, attempts to cancel the bad vibes, taking issue with fashionably pessimistic assumptions about human nature. He begins by examining the negativity rooted in Western philosophy and culture. Biologist and anthropologist Henry Huxley, known as “Darwin’s Bulldog,” proclaims that life is “one great battle of man against man and of nation against nation.” George Gervin describes this view of man’s inclinations as the “mean world syndrome” to justify our cynicism, misanthropy, and despair. His theory, that humans are innately selfish, is anchored in the arguments of thinkers such as “Thucydides, Augustine, Machiavelli, Hobbs, Luther, Calvin, Burke, Benton, Freud, our Founding Fathers.” Contemporary popular culture, film, and literature advance downer scenarios because they generate anxieties that sell goods and services. (“If it bleeds, it leads,” the motto for local TV news.) Bregman cites how William Golding’s classic novel Lord of the Flies — for decades required reading in classrooms — was used to reinforce, among adolescents, the agreed upon adult notion that children at their core are combative and competitive, cruel and atavistic. In the postwar world, this book and others set a cynical precedent.

Looking over our evolutionary history, Bregman posits that post-Neanderthal inventions, such as sharp stones, fishing lines, and bows and arrows, as well as canoes and painting, ended up making man physically weaker, dependent on their tools. How then, he asks, did primitive man survive in a more collaborative and increasingly complex world? He characterizes these ancestors as “homo puppies” and insists that they must have been “ultra-social learning machines.” He maintains that we are born to learn, to bond, and to play. He points out that we, unlike other animals, show the whites of our eyes, thus our “object of attention is plain for all to see.” Similarly, blushing is a quintessential social cue, proof that “people are showing they care what others think, which fosters trust and enables cooperation.” Citing Jean-Jacques Rousseau, he argues that civilization is what brought new ills to “homo puppies”: competition, new competitive roles for men and women, and concepts of ownership. He agrees with the French philosopher’s belief that “Villages were conquered by towns, towns were annexed by cities and cities were swallowed up by provinces as societies all frantically scaled up to meet the inexorable demands of war. This culminated in the final catastrophic event so lamented by Rousseau. The birth of the state.”

Humankind does its best to debunk presumed notions about the badness of human nature by revisiting historical mysteries. For example, he concludes that it was not warring tribes or fears about people being “primitive cannibals” that led to the disappearance of the Rapanui, Easter Island’s native population. On the contrary, the cause was disease, a plague of rats, and ills brought from outside: foreign visitors eventually “pushed it off a cliff.” Many of these cheery stories will be familiar, such as the famous Christmas truce between the French and Germans during World War I.  Bregman takes on fairly well-known and notorious experiments on human aggression, such the Stanford Prison tests, which investigated the psychological fallout when some hold power over others, and Yale University professor Stanley Milgram’s experiments on the demands of obedience. The author shows that they were designed to coerce negative responses, tilted toward making sensational conclusions. He discusses the horrors created in places like Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and Germany’s concentration camps. The cause for such cruelty in these extreme situations, he states, does not come from the presence of evil in human nature, but from an elemental need to belong, a desire for group approval.

Ironically, Duch, the most notorious killer during the Khmer Rouge’s ’70s reign of terror in Cambodia, recently died in prison. Even this monster, with his twisted world view, was propelled by a psychological motivation to fit in, to obey.

From Duch’s Times Obituary:

A panel of court-appointed psychiatrists said that Duch was “meticulous, conscientious, control-oriented, attentive to detail and seeks recognition from his superiors,” and that he exhibited “a strong presence of obsessive traits.” It continues: “How do human beings become part of a project of mass murder?” asked Alexander Laban Hinton, the author of Man or Monster? (2016), a book about Duch. “It’s too easy to dismiss people as sociopaths or psychos. Instead you really have to grapple with their humanity.

Another recent passing: Sophia Farrar, at the age 92. According to her Times Obituary, she was “the unsung heroine who cradled the body of Kitty Genovese and whispered ‘Help is on the way’ to Genovese as she lay dying.” For decades, Genovese’s 1964 murder was pointed to as an example of how people don’t want to get involved when violent crimes are being committed. The long-held common belief — that no one came to the aid of the screaming victim — is false and misleading. But this indifference has been used as convincing sociological evidence of social apathy. Bregman revisits the false construction of that event, using it to show how our dark perceptions of human nature blind us to the truth of what is around us.

Humankind, at the very least, compels us to rethink lazy assumptions about the perfidy of human nature. Though he may not be entirely persuasive, Bregman offers enough evidence to encourage readers to reassess their assumptions about man’s sinful nature. The book is clearly written, straightforward, and filled with stories and people that illustrate his theme. The doubters among us should take heed: it is never wrong to hear the counter-arguments.

The Epilogue offers suggestions and real world examples for how we might tap into our better natures. To paraphrase:

  • Assume the best in people
  • Optimism breeds optimism
  • Ask questions in order to understand people’s motivations and perspectives
  • Understand the difference between empathy, which can be enervating, and compassion, over which we have greater control, is less physically debilitating, and thereby more constructive
  • Self-awareness and confidence will lead to a greater ability to feel for others
  • Watch and read news in smaller doses
  • Kill with kindness. Don’t presume you need to go to battle over every squabble and disagreement.

Tim Jackson was an assistant professor of Digital Film and Video for 20 years. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate, and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed three feature documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater; Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups; When Things Go Wrong: The Robin Lane Story, and the short film The American Gurner. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.

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