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Humankind: A hopeful history—a review

by Trevor Moore

Rutger Bregman, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020, ISBN 978-14088-9894-9, 463pp

I had been looking forward to reading Rutger Bregman’s latest offering. His last book, Utopia for Realists: How We Can Build the Ideal World, is great read by a thought-provoking author. Bregman has been described as "one of Europe's most prominent young thinkers" and there is no doubt that he is a bright young fellow. Lest you think that this is patronising or damning with faint prose. let me assure you that it is not. The cover of Utopia for Realists has a quote from the Observer that proclaims “listen out for Rutger Bregman. He has a big future shaping the future”. The book itself opens with an Oscar Wilde quote: “a map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias.”

Utopia for Realists picks out some characteristics of a Utopian world and provides a brief history and overview. One example is about universal basic income. This is the idea that a wealthy society, such as ours, should provide a basic income to everyone, irrespective of who they are or what their circumstances are. The fact that this works has been borne out by many studies. The fact that we don’t have a universal basic income is entirely due to prejudice and misunderstanding. The topics of Utopia coupled with the opening quote, almost points Bregman to this next book Humankind: A hopeful history for, unless you are hopeful, the concept of Utopia is one that just takes up too much brain space.

In Humankind: A hopeful history Bregman expands on his central thesis that human beings are basically good and decent and, all other things being equal, behave well towards one another. The view he expresses is that humanity’s biggest superpower is our ability to communicate and cooperate. This sounds positive enough and indeed it is, but it seems to run counter to the more prevailing view that we see other people as selfish, untrustworthy and dangerous and therefore we behave towards them with defensiveness and suspicion.

Two contrasting threads run through the book. The first thread is the view of Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1679), the English philosopher, who would have us believe in the wickedness of human nature. Hobbes asserted that civil society alone could save us from our baser instincts. The second thread that runs through the book is the view of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778) the Frenchman who declared that in our heart of hearts we are all good. Far from being our salvation, Rousseau believed civilisation is what ruins us.

Bregman is on the side of Rousseau. The book is a series of essays about aspects of how we do or do not behave well to one another. Bregman draws upon research or experience of one kind or another to support his hypotheses. Perhaps not surprisingly he drags out Stanley Milgram. He quotes the New York Times 1963 headline on Milgram’s work that said that “sixty-five per cent in test blindly obey order to inflict pain”. In Milgram’s experiment a volunteer would be a “teacher”. Actors were employed to be “learners”. The teachers were seated in front of a large device which they were told was an electric shock machine. They were then instructed to perform a memory test with their learner, who was strapped to a chair in the next room. For every wrong answer, the “teacher” had to press a switch to administer an electric shock. The “teachers”, who could not see the “learners” could increase the severity of the shock if the “learner” failed to perform. The “learner” was an actor: there was no electric shock, but there was a reaction. The result is expressed in the New York Times headline. Over the last fifty years or so Milgram’s experiments have been somewhat discredited.

On the other hand, Bregman tells the story of what happened during the Blitz in 1941 in Britain. The Nazi objective of the Blitz was to create panic in the British public, to sow the seeds of distrust in the political leadership and to render the British Isles ready for occupation. Between the first large-scale attack on central London on 7 September 1940, and 11 May 1941, when the Blitz came to an end nearly 29,000 of London’s citizens were killed and 28,556 seriously injured. Bregman remarks, with the possibly amused views a Dutchman assessing British behaviour that “the British endured the German raids much as they would have a delayed train; irritating, to be sure, but tolerable on the whole.” At the time, the government would have had people believe that their spirit was “extremely good” but this is not quite the case. Nevertheless, the blitz did not shatter the British public’s morale and people did pull together.

Bregman is good at ferreting out scientific papers and old stories and then investigating them to see if their conclusions hold. In many cases, he finds that they don’t. He starts the book with a reference to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies where a group of schoolboys marooned on an island eventually turn to cannibalism. Bregman finds that there is a real-life example of this happening, in 1977 in the South Pacific. After 15 months stranded on an island, six boys formed lasting bonds of friendship – a far cry from the fictional cannibalism of Golding’s novel.

Notwithstanding Bregman’s storytelling abilities, I thought that Humankind: A hopeful history was about 150 pages too long. He has a thesis which is appealing and which I believe to be largely correct. I think that when he did his deal with his publishers, he was clear about the way he would tell his story. His examples are interesting and the way he shows up the contrast between Hobbes and Rousseau would have got him a good mark in the political philosophy class I took in 1969. But then the editors got hold of the book and turned it into one of those breathless pieces of writing that encourages you to think that something must be true, only then to tell you that it isn’t. The Utopia book is shorter, snappier and far more engaging. So, I was disappointed.

I am reminded of Dr Johnson who, on visiting the Giants’ Causeway in Eire, was asked by Boswell whether it was worth seeing. “Worth seeing,” replied Johnson, “but not worth going to see.” I felt the same about Humankind; worth reading but not worth going out of your way to do so. But Janice at Moruya Books has copies and if you happened to be in there you could snap one up and tell me I am wrong.

Other reading:

Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There, Rutger Bregman, 2018, ISBN 9-781-4088-9321-0, 336pp

Behind The Shock Machine : The Untold Story of the Notorious Milgram Psychology, Gina Perry, 2013, ISBN 9-781-5955-8921-7, 352pp

The Splendid and the Vile : A Saga of Churchill, Family and Defiance During the Blitz, Erik Larson, 2020, ISBN 9-780-0082-749-7, 608pp (I will review this separately)

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