Humankind is a book that questions whether humans are as mean-spirited and governed by self-interest.
It’s a belief a lot of us have internalised, but is there any truth in it? Are we as negative toward one another as we think?
Rutger Bregman examines this narrative in this fascinating book, which questions what it means to be human and whether we have got it wrong when it comes to our fundamental characteristics as a species.
If you turn on the news, open a paper, or read books such as the Lord of The Flies, you’ll be bombarded with stories of people treating each other with disrespect.
Too much of this type of content leads us to believe humans are mean, only interested in themselves, and in some cases, evil.
While this is true to an extent, it’s a universal truth. No tall humans are mean, not everyone is evil. Bregman’s central premise in this book is that we are better than we think.
The clue is in the name of the book, Humankind. Far from being the self-interested monsters, some suggest we are, the truth is that the majority of us are decent, well-meaning people.
It’s an interesting theory and one that Bregman puts across with some force.
Takeaway 1 – Maybe we shouldn’t watch the news
Turn on the TV and you’ll find a plethora of news channels all pushing a different narrative on the events of the day.
These channels are on 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. If you wanted, you could spend the majority of your day keeping up to date with the events of the day.
Aside from being a huge time suck, watching a lot of news isn’t a good idea. Primarily, it’s because the news offers one narrative of events and depending on which channel that is, the accounts can be wildly different.
Since the election of Donald Trump, we’ve seen this play out in America. The difference in output between Fox News and CNN is huge.
This is one problem, the other is that if you watch too much news, you begin to get a warped sense of reality. Most news stories are negative because sensationalist stories sell.
As bad as it sounds, people prefer bad, or shocking news stories to uplifting ones. Too much news and you become cynical and begin to believe that humans are as they are portrayed in the news.
The problem is that the stories in the news make up a small portion of what happens every day. Most people are decent and don’t blow buildings up, kill people or rob banks.
The majority of us are friendly, law-abiding citizens. It’s a minority of citizens that create most of the news stories.
As Nassim Taleb’s book, Fooled By Randomness states, we focus too much on what’s available, rather than the lives of the people who don’t make the news.
Takeaway 2 – If you push people enough, they will commit evil acts
The biggest challenge Bregman faces in convincing readers that people are mostly good is the Holocaust.
If humans are fundamentally good, then how could a thoughtful and decent country like Germany be seduced by Hitler and end up slaughtering 6 million Jews in the Holocaust?
It’s a valid question. But, one thing that’s overlooked is that you don’t suddenly switch from being a law-abiding citizen one day to a fully-fledged Nazi the next.
It’s a process that takes time. As Bregman makes clear, once the Nazis gained absolute power in 1934, Germans were bombarded with propaganda.
They were told they were the greatest nation on the planet, that the Jews were the root of all problems and that they had to be crushed so that Germans could succeed.
By the time the war started five years later, most Germans had succumbed to the propaganda, especially as there was no other competing narrative. After five years, they believed they were on the right side of history.
Bregman describes this process as follows:
“In other words, if you push people hard enough, if you poke and prod, bait and manipulate, many of us are indeed capable of doing evil. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. But evil doesn’t live just beneath the surface, it takes immense effort to draw it out. And most importantly, evil has to be disguised as doing good.”
We’re capable of inhumane acts that are horrifying, but there isn’t a Nazi inside of us waiting to burst out at the first opportunity. Instead, it appears that in the twilight of democracy, and the barrage of propaganda, we can be compelled to commit truly heinous crimes.
Takeaway 3 – We aren’t as bad as we think we are
If you’ve read the Lord of The Flies, you’ll know the story. A group of British boys are stranded on an uninhabited island after an aeroplane crashes in the Pacific Ocean.
The boys try to govern themselves in the absence of any adults, but they fail and they quickly descend into anarchy.
The book has become famous the world over and is often read by schoolchildren in an ironic twist of fate.
The premise of the book, that left to our own devices we will turn to anarchy, has held firm since its publication. But what if something similar happened in real life? what if a group of schoolchildren found themselves on an uninhabited island?
Well, this did happen. Six boys skipped school in Tonga and jumped on a boat to set off on an adventure. You might have assumed they’d end up similar to the boys in the Lord of The Flies.
Yes, they fought and quarrelled, but on the whole, they got on and looked out for each other. By the time they were rescued fifteen months later, all six were still alive and firm friends.
Here was a situation that according to our beliefs in human nature, these boys should have descended into chaos. Yet, they stuck together and cared for one another.
It shows that when faced with adversity, we look out for people and don’t stoop to looking out for ourselves. We co-operate, work together and act in good faith.
- “There is a persistent myth that by their very nature humans are selfish, aggressive and quick to panic. It’s what Dutch biologist Frans de Waal likes to call veneer theory: the notion that civilisation is nothing more than a thin veneer that will crack at the merest provocation. In actuality, the opposite is true. It’s when crisis hits – when the bombs fall of the floodwaters rise – that we humans become our best selves.”
- “Infectious diseases like measles, smallpox, tuberculosis, syphilis, malaria, cholera and plague were all unheard of until we traded our nomadic lifestyle for farming. So where did they come from? From our new domesticated pets – or, more specifically, their microbes. We get measles by way of cows, while flu comes from a microscopic menage a trois between humans, pigs and ducks, with new strains still emerging all the time.”
- “In pre-trial detention, Eichmann had undergone a psychological evaluation by six experts. None found symptoms of a behavioural disorder. The only weird thing about him, according to one of the doctors, was that he seemed ‘more normal than normal’. Eichmann, [Hannah] Arendt wrote was neither psychopath nor monster. He was just as ordinary as all those barbers and bartenders, builders and businessmen who came into Milgram’s lab. In the last sentence of her book, Arendt diagnosed the phenomenon; ‘the banality of evil.’”
- “Belief in humankind’s sinful nature also provides a tidy explanation for the existence of evil. When confronted with hatred of selfishness, you can tell yourself, ‘Oh, well, that’s just human nature.’ But if you believe that people are essentially good, you have to question why evil exists at all. It implies that engagement and resistance are worthwhile, and it imposes an obligation to act.”
- “Education has become something to be endured. A new generation is coming up that’s internalising the rules of our achievement-based society. It’s a generation that’s learning to run a rat race where the main metrics of success are your resume and your paycheque. A generation less inclined to colour outside the lines, less inclined to dream or to dare, to fantasise or explore. A generation, in short, that’s forgetting how to play.”
This Humankind summary has looked at an assumption that humans are selfish creatures and only a few steps away from committing the worst of atrocities.
Bregman challenges this theory head-on in his book and does so convincingly. Reading this during the Coronavirus pandemic, I was struck by how much the story of the blitz in Britain corresponded to how people reacted to the virus.
The belief was that people wouldn’t follow the rules and there would be riots. The opposite turned out to be true. People came together, abided by the rules and helped one another.
This view that we are cynical creatures who only look out for ourselves is widespread, but evidence and experience seem to suggest otherwise.
The book doesn’t offer a definitive answer. Mainly because it can’t, when the topic is so broad and diverse. Yet, you come away from the book believing that the majority of humanity are decent people.
I had a much more positive outlook on our species as a result and noticed how this start to subside when I turned on the news.
Maybe it’s not us that’s the problem, but the perception we create about one another that needs to be tackled.
Along with Bregman’s other book, Utopia For Realists, Humankind challenges assumptions that are pervasive in society. Humankind might just be kind after all!
Who should read Humankind?
I feel everyone should read this book. The narrative is one that’s not commonly relayed in the media, but when you think about it, the argument Rutger Bregman makes in this book is valid.
Understanding that we are fundamentally decent as human beings is important. Especially, in an age where we seem to be more divided than ever.
If everyone read this book and appreciated the kindness that we can offer to one another, I do feel the world would be a better place.
It’s important to remember, there is a lot more that binds us than separates us.