Humankind - Critical summary review - Rutger Bregman

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Humankind - critical summary review

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Society & Politics and History & Philosophy

This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: Humankind: A Hopeful History

Available for: Read online, read in our mobile apps for iPhone/Android and send in PDF/EPUB/MOBI to Amazon Kindle.

ISBN: 0316418536

Publisher: Little Brown and Company

Critical summary review

In the words of Rutger Bregman, his thought-provoking “Humankind” is “a book about a radical idea: […] that most people, deep down, are pretty decent.” Seems like an indefensible position? Well, get ready to be challenged!

The real “Lord of the Flies”

One day in 1951, an exciting concept for a book dawned on the mind of Nobel Prize-winning British novelist William Golding. “Wouldn’t it be a good idea,” he asked his wife, “to write a story about some boys on an island, showing how they would really behave?” Three years later, he produced “Lord of the Flies,” a book routinely described as one of the best English-language novels in history.

In the novel, an airplane crashes on an uninhabited island, stranding a small group of prep-school British boys in the middle of nowhere. On the very first day, the boys institute a sort of democracy, with one boy, Ralph, elected as the group’s provisional leader. But over the course of the following few weeks, the children split up into two groups, and their attempt at establishing a utopian social order progressively deteriorates into savagery. By the time a British naval officer comes to shore, three of the children are already dead, and the island has become a smoldering wasteland. 

A little more than a decade after the publication of “Lord of the Flies,” six Tongan boys between 13 and 16 ended up marooned on the depopulated remote island of ‘Ata for more than a year – from June 1965 to September 11, 1966. But the “Tongan castaways” (as they became popularly known after being discovered by Australian fisherman Peter Warner) didn’t start killing each other.

On the contrary – they formed a strong bond with each other and kept themselves fit and healthy despite deprivations and injuries. “By the time we arrived,” Captain Warner wrote in his memoirs, “the boys had set up a small commune with food garden, hollowed-out tree trunks to store rainwater, a gymnasium with curious weights, a badminton court, chicken pens, and a permanent fire, all from handiwork, an old knife blade and much determination.” 

Now, “Lord of the Flies” is merely a work of fiction – it came from the imagination of an English schoolmaster lauded for his masterful ability to portray “the darkness of man’s heart.” On the other hand, the story of the boys of ‘Ata is real – it actually happened. And yet, everybody knows the novel while very few people know about this real-life event. Moreover, schoolbooks and professors, without exception, keep insisting that Golding’s grim view of human nature is founded in reality. Why? How could they know? And could they be wrong?

Hobbes vs. Rousseau

To quote Bregman, the real-life “Lord of the Flies” is essentially everything Golding’s novel is not: “a heart-warming story, […] a story of friendship and loyalty.” Nevertheless, it is still just a story. “Is it an aberration, or does it signify something more profound? Is it an isolated anecdote or an exemplary illustration of human nature?” – he wonders. In other words, are we humans more inclined to be good or evil? 

This is a discussion as old as time. Arguably, the two opposing sides in the debate have been best embodied in the writings of Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, two thinkers pitted against each other in the philosophical boxing ring millions of times. It’s time for yet another showdown.

In one corner, we have an English pessimist convinced in the wickedness of human nature and insisting that, if left to their own devices, people will turn on each other in a “war of all against all.” According to Hobbes, back in the old days, human life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” and we’re bound to backslide to this condition if left without the proper guidance of our civil institutions. 

The French romantic in the other corner of the ring would beg to differ, challenging Hobbes with the suggestion “that man is naturally good and that it is from these institutions alone that men become wicked.” Far from being our salvation, Rousseau believed that civil society is what ruined us; we would have been better without it.

Dmitry Belyayev’s silver foxes

Most intellectuals today consider Rousseau a naive philosopher and Hobbes, a political realist. The evidence of the latter’s victory is omnipresent and easily observable in the way our societies are organized: hundreds of different types of institutions exist with the sole objective of keeping our base instincts in check. Most of us implicitly believe that humans are naturally “selfish, aggressive, and quick to panic.” Dutch biologist Frans de Waal calls this “the veneer theory” – the notion that civilization is nothing more than a thin layer that might crack at the merest provocation, a bruisable skin of decency that conceals the savage ape underneath. 

But there’s a strange and often overlooked problem with this theory. Namely, our physiological constitution and even some of our facial traits suggest that violent Darwinian processes couldn’t have shaped us. And we know this because of a Soviet geneticist named Dmitry Belyayev who “wanted to make a dog out of a fox.” With this objective in mind, back in 1959, he began “the most extraordinary breeding experiment ever conducted.” 

To uncover the genetic basis of the distinctive behavioral and physiological attributes of domesticated animals, Belyayev spent decades breeding the viciously aggressive silver fox while selecting for reproduction – in each generation – only the friendliest individuals. In 1964, the researchers noticed a fox wagging its tail. A few generations later, the foxes’ ears dropped, their snouts got shorter, and the males started resembling the females. Amazingly enough, some of the foxes even began to bark like dogs; others started responding to their given names.

This fascinating experiment is still ongoing, but even in 1978, Belyayev could present to the International Congress of Genetics his staggering conclusion: that all of these physiological alterations in the silver foxes were the result of hormonal changes. The more amiable foxes, he stated, seem to produce fewer stress hormones and more oxytocin and serotonin – the hormones that infuse us with love and trustfulness. “This theory,” Belyayev added, almost as if in an afterthought, “can also, of course, apply to human beings.”

Meet Homo puppy

Put simply, what Belyayev suggested parenthetically that August night in 1978 was that people might be domesticated apes; that the evolution of our species was not predicated on “the survival of the strongest,” but – quite the opposite – “the survival of the friendliest.” Back then, it was impossible to test out this theory. But when in 2014, an American team began comparing human skulls from the past 200,000 years, they were able to trace a pattern that confirmed Belyayev’s suspicions. 

The researchers found that our faces and bodies have grown considerably softer, more youthful, and more feminine and that our teeth and jawbones have become more childlike. “If you compare our heads to those of Neanderthals,” Bregman illuminates the point further, “the differences are even more pronounced. We have shorter and rounder skulls, with a smaller brow ridge. What dogs are to wolves, we are to Neanderthals. And just as mature dogs look like wolf puppies, humans evolved to look like baby monkeys.”

This is why Bregman refers to our species, Homo sapiens, with a playful, but highly unscientific new name: Homo puppy. Just like dogs, it turns out that Homo puppy too is born to learn, to bond, and to play. It is not innate intelligence that allowed us to conquer the world – but our friendliness and social learning skills. After all, fossils show that Neanderthals were bigger, stronger, healthier, and even smarter than us. And yet nowadays they only are exhibits in our museums – mainly because they were never as friendly as us. “If Neanderthals were a superfast computer,” Bregman makes an interesting analogy, “we were an old-fashioned PC – but with a wi-fi. We were slower, but better connected.”

One more thing: because of our innate friendliness, we seem to have evolved to “leak emotions.” For example, humans are the only species in the whole animal kingdom to blush – “the most peculiar and the most human of all expressions,” according to Darwin. But why didn’t it die out? If we were Hobbesian brutes, blushing would obviously be detrimental since we can’t control it, and since it makes our true sentiments manifest. Why are we also the only primates with whites in our eyes? This is a trait that uniquely allows us to follow the direction of other people’s gazes. It makes friendship and romances a lot easier and lying – once again – much harder. It is written on our bodies: we evolved to cooperate, not fight with each other. 

The curse of civilization

Cave paintings offer further evidence of this – and of the fact that, rather than naive, Rousseau was spot on in his assessment of how our ancestors lived their lives. “If our state of nature was a ‘war of all against all’ à la Hobbes,” Bregman writes, “then you’d expect that someone, at some point in this period, would have painted a picture of it. But that’s never been found. While there are thousands of cave paintings from this time about hunting bison, horses, and gazelles, there’s not a single depiction of war.” War, to quote renowned anthropologist Brian Ferguson, “does not go forever backward in time. It had a beginning.” 

Rousseau guessed it: the advent of agriculture and the appearance of private property. The earliest cave paintings that depict wars coincide with these momentous events in human history that subsequently gave rise to greed, stockpiling, hoarding, aggression, and machoism. Once nomads settled, they had belongings to fight over, and the very mechanism that had once made them the kindest species quickly turned them into the cruelest species on the planet. Once upon a time, they were cosmopolitan and friendly to everyone; but now they started feeling more affinity for those around them. “The sad truth is that empathy and xenophobia go hand in hand,” remarks Bregman. “They’re two sides of the same coin.”

In time, villages became cities, and cities scaled up to become states. And all first states – without exception – were slave states. Even in Athens, the cradle of democracy, two-thirds of the population was enslaved. This went on for millennia: even in 1800, more than 75% of the global population lived in bondage to a wealthy lord, and more than 80% lived in dire poverty.

 Only in the last two centuries, things have gotten better – and, only today, civil society may seem like a good idea. However, Bregman argues, that doesn’t mean that Rousseau wasn’t right. It merely means that, after the French Revolution, we finally started organizing our cities and states in ways more similar to those of preagrarian societies and, thus, more in sync with our true nature. His suggestion? We should speed up the process.

Final Notes

A Gladwellian romp through historical anecdotes and social studies that argues in favor of human virtue, “Humankind” is a well-researched and insightful book with a refreshing perspective.

To quote, unreservedly, Stephen Fry: “hugely, highly, happily recommended.”

12min Tip

Some things are true regardless of your opinion. Others have the potential to be true – if you believe in them. Expect the worst of other people, and you’ll probably get it. Think of humans as kind, caring, and cooperative, and maybe – just maybe – they will not disappoint you. Because, in the words of Bregman, “we’re complex creatures, with a good side and a not-so-good side. The question is which side we turn to.”

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Who wrote the book?

Rutger Bregman is a popular historian and bestselling author, described by The Guardian as “the Dutch wunderkind of new ideas.” He has written four interdisciplinary books, including “Utopia for Real... (Read more)

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