"This is a book about a radical idea... That most people, deep down, are pretty decent." Bregman's influential Utopia for Realists, about the concept of a universal basic income has now been translated into 30 languages worldwide. His second book puts forward an equally radical idea: we should overturn the prevailing assumption that people are innately bad. Belief in human kindness and altruism is not only a new way to think, it can also act as the foundation for achieving true change in our society, he argues, drawing on a wide range of illuminating examples from the Blitz to Hurricane Katrina.
Denunciations of ‘fake news’ have hitherto been the province of political reactionaries, but Bregman wants to reclaim them in the cause of left-wing libertarianism. If we can wean ourselves off the drug of instant news, he says, and switch to a wholesome diet of thoughtful books and periodicals, we will soon be on our way to a happy future based on mutual trust: a world where schools function without rules and factories without managers, where poverty has been alleviated through a universal basic income and planetary heating has been put back in its box. It may seem paradoxical, then, that Bregman makes his case not in slow-burning literary prose but, as you might expect from a celebrated polemicist and TED-talker, in short sentences crammed with arresting anecdotes. He wants his message to reach far beyond the book-reading classes, and he richly deserves to succeed.
...Humankind is a polemic in the high Gladwellian style and so aims to be a simple lesson overturning our allegedly preconceived ideas, with the help of carefully selected study citations and pseudo-novelistic scenes from the blitz and other teachable stories. The “veneer” theory, Bregman insists, is totally wrong... But plainly the attempt to replace a story about humans’ essential wickedness with a contrasting story about humans’ essential loveliness has already run aground – as it was bound to, since any claim that complex human beings are essentially one single thing or another is a fairytale. “I’ve argued that humans have evolved to be fundamentally sociable creatures,” Bregman writes – as though this is a brave thing to argue, though absolutely no one in the world disagrees with it...
Bregman’s pacifist and post-capitalist agenda are commendable. But they offer little explanation for why toddler — rather than, say, teenage — behaviour should be privileged as a measure of our ‘true’ natures, nor why times of crisis are more indicative than just another Tuesday. We may (or may not) have lost the sense of tribal solidarity of hunter-gatherers, but even if that existence was as ideal as portrayed, has not individualism reaped rewards for humankind in the sciences and the arts, and within our internal psychological worlds, alongside the price paid for it? Has not competition bred innovation, as well as the highest manifestations of love? Hunter-gatherers, in fact, harnessed their propensity for envy to build egalitarian societies, just as covetousness and self-regard were made the bedrock of The Wealth of Nations. For Paleolithic as well as modern man this much is an axiom: human natures and cultures can never be torn asunder.
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.