Is this patronising? Annoying? Does it hold your attention nonetheless? Yes, yes, yes. Despite its flaws, I enjoyed Humankind immensely. It’s entertaining, uplifting, and very likely to reach the broad audience it courts. Its most attractive thread shows how the placebo effect can be applied to human behaviour: tell people they’re selfish, and they’ll be selfish; tell them they’re kind and they’ll be kind. If Bregman is right, this book might just make the world a kinder place.
Bregman’s attacks on the consensus around our nature are often delivered with aplomb and evidence. His examination of Lord of the Flies, for example, points out William Golding’s deep psychological struggles and the probable impact on his writing. Still, more powerful is the retelling of the real marooning of seven boys on an uninhabited island. The captain who found them, discovered not internecine warfare but a functioning commune with a food garden, chicken pens, gym and a permanent fire. Even when the stories covered are not novel, Bregman successfully ties them into an overarching narrative that, on balance, humanity is not so bad.
Bregman is not so naive as to suggest that we are not capable of doing the most horrendous things to each other. His point, rather, is that we do not so instinctively – the vast majority of us have to be bullied, indoctrinated into dehumanising the Other, and/or convinced that we are under attack. (The US army was disturbed to find in the second World War that most soldiers did not fire their weapons, even in combat. So it developed new training techniques that “improved” performance in subsequent wars.)
Bregman, whose previous book was the equally optimistic Utopia for Realists, has a Gladwellian gift for sifting through academic reports and finding anecdotal jewels. And, like the Canadian populariser, he’s not afraid to take his audience on a digressive journey of discovery... There’s a great deal of reassuring human decency to be taken from this bold and thought-provoking book and a wealth of evidence in support of the contention that the sense of who we are as a species has been deleteriously distorted. But it seems equally misleading to offer the false choice of Rousseau and Hobbes when, clearly, humanity encompasses both.
The book’s central problem for me is that neither statement — people are basically good or basically bad — is remotely credible. There is equally strong evidence for both ideas in the past 12,000 years, and the more important — because free of the influence of civilisation — evidence of pre-history is difficult and arguable. Nevertheless, this book is, as I say, a provocation. It is also a corrective to the sloppy thinking of over-eager psychologists and scientists. As such, it may make things better, but paradise will never be made — or, indeed, regained — by humans.
At the very least, the book has all the right ingredients to be a hit. With luminous endorsements from a raft of big names, from Yuval Noah Harari to Stephen Fry; an almost indecently readable style; and a vast sweep, taking in history, archaeology, psychology, biology, economics, anthropology and much more, it’d be no surprise if it proved to be the Sapiens of 2020.
There’s plenty of entertainment along the way in his snappy phrasing. Evolution is “a friendly game of run until you’re dead”; our male ancestors were supposedly “not machos, more like proto-feminists” and “allergic to inequality”. There are surprising targets too. Climate activists are accused of spreading a “cynicism” that risks paralysing people with despair. Empathy and xenophobia “go hand in hand” because the former blinds us to the perspectives of others.