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‘Humankind: A Hopeful History’ review: The goodness of being

Even the title of the book by the young historian, Rutger Bregman, is a play on the word ‘kind,’ proclaiming its intent to establish human beings as inherently good and generous.

According to Bregman, nurture rather than nature accounts for the ‘occasional’ bad behaviour of human beings. They are not, he tells us, the warring creatures of Hobbes’ Leviathan, still less the egoistical individuals of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations whose actions are driven entirely by self-interest.

Hatred to love

Humans are altruistic and trusting and care about others, he argues, and rarely wish to kill each other. What ought to have emerged from World War I was not its unprecedented savagery but the reluctance of soldiers on opposing sides to kill each other. He establishes from military records that soldiers were often reluctant to fire their guns and sometimes deliberately missed their targets.

But for Bregman, how many would know about the improbable and spontaneous ceasefire of 1914 that, at Christmas time, brought the Germans and allied troops together in celebration, singing Christmas songs, exchanging gifts and even meeting up with each other? As he tells us, “Hatred can be transformed into friendship and bitter foes can shake hands. That’s something we can believe — not because we’re naïve, but because it really happened.”

Myth and fact

It would have been easy to dismiss Humankind, as another ‘feel-good’ book in the market. The mass of verifiable references he furnishes to buttress the points he makes, however, is irrefutable and convincing. He also has a sharp eye for the influence of literature on conditioning our minds and he busts long-held beliefs that are more myth than fact.

One of them, which had more or less established that boys left alone, as those in William Golding’s celebrated novel, Lord of the Flies, would turn on each other murderously is not what happened in real life. To prove his point, Bregman gives the example of the survivors of a group of boys shipwrecked for long on a deserted Pacific island. Rather than turn on each other they had all kept themselves in harmony until rescued by a passing ship.

We humans have a miserable capacity to think the worst of ourselves, Bregman tells us, when all through history it is the less discussed decent side of humanity that has asserted itself — often in the grimmest of situations. Bregman’s book is an entertaining work, which even hard-nosed publications such as the Economist and the Financial Times agree is serious history.

Perhaps Bregman downplays the rotten aspect of human behaviour. However, in telling us about the good side, he brings to the fore an almost unrecorded aspect of human behaviour we need to know about but do not.

Humankind: A Hopeful History; Rutger Bregman, Bloomsbury, ₹699.

The reviewer teaches in IISc, Bengaluru.

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Printable version | Mar 5, 2021 10:54:01 PM |

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