Rutger Bregman, Holland-based historian and writer, is among Europe’s most prominent young thinkers. In Humankind , his new book, he challenges one of our enduring beliefs: that human beings are by nature selfish and evil. He counter-intuitively argues that it is both realistic and useful to assume that people are basically good. Using historical findings, the book overturns a range of popular narratives, from Lord of the Flies to the Stanford prison experiment to the Bystander Effect that derived from the notorious Kitty Genovese murder. Excerpts from an interview:
Your book challenges the idea of civilisation being a thin veneer that will crack at the first signs of stress. Cite one example from history for your sanguinity.
I could cite hundreds of examples. Since the 1960s, sociologists have done more than 700 case studies of what happens after natural disasters. Whether it’s a hurricane, earthquake or tsunami, you see the same phenomenon every single time: an explosion of cooperation. People from the Left to the Right, rich and poor, young and old, work together. The reality of what happens after disasters is the opposite of what you see in Hollywood movies and the news. People pull together in times of crisis.
Rebecca Solnit talks of ‘elite panic’ in her book on Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath. Can you explain the term and how you think it worsens the situation during a crisis?
When elites think about human nature, they often look in the mirror and assume that most people are like themselves, which is selfish. That’s what makes elites think that most people will start looting and plundering; and they panic and send in the police. In the Katrina aftermath, this was the second disaster — the government shooting at innocent people. The worldview of many elites is completely upside down: they think they’re the solution when they are actually the problem. There is a huge amount of evidence from psychology that power corrupts, but most people are basically quite decent.
I agree we expect the worst from human behaviour, but you lay considerable blame for this on media and news negativity. Isn’t this exactly what Trump and his ilk worldwide are riding on to deny climate change, casteism, racism and more?
The news — the sensational reporting about mostly negative incidents — is not good for us. It can make us anxious, cynical and depressed. Psychologists even have a term for this: they call it ‘mean world syndrome’. It’s important to make a distinction between news and journalism. Good, constructive journalism talks truth to power, helps us to understand the world, and to get a more realistic view of our history and nature.
I find the Christian concept of ‘original sin’ problematic in its bleak view of humanity, so it was interesting to see you point to the grim cynicism of Western philosophy. Do you see interesting counterpoints in other schools of thought?
The idea that people are fundamentally selfish has been hugely influential in Western culture. It goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks, and you also find it within orthodox Christianity and with the Enlightenment philosophers. There are a few exceptions though. The 19th century anarchist Peter Kropotkin, for example, believed in the goodness of humanity. And, of course, such people were persecuted for that very dangerous idea, because those at the top have always understood what a more hopeful view of human nature means for them. It means we won’t need them any more. Believing in the good of humanity is a revolutionary act.
The Dmitri Belyaev experiment and your conclusion — you say, ‘What dogs are to wolves, we are to Neanderthals’ — made for fascinating reading. Tell us more about Homo Puppy.
This is one of the most exciting theories in biology nowadays. There is strong evidence that we humans are domesticated apes — just like cows and pigs are domesticated. Biologists have long known that domesticated species have certain traits in common, like thinner bones and smaller brains. Most importantly: domesticated species look a bit more childish, puppyish, than their wild ancestors. This is exactly what you see with humans. If you look at the archaeological record and compare our skeletons from 50,000, 40, 30, 20 and 10,000 years ago, what you see is the puppification of humanity. We are Homo Puppy. Biologists even talk about ‘survival of the friendliest’, which means that for millennia it was the friendliest among us who had the biggest chance of passing on their genes to the next generation. Russian biologist Dmitri Belyaev was the first scientist to realise this. He showed that it’s possible to domesticate an animal — in his case, the wild silver fox — by selecting for friendliness. Researchers later discovered that these domesticated animals even performed better on intelligence tests. Or, as one biologist later said, if you want a smart fox, you don’t select for intelligence, you select for friendliness. That’s what happened in the evolution of our species as well.
You debunk the theory of human selfishness derived from Richard Dawkins’ iconic book The Selfish Gene . But isn’t it a bit naïve to wish competition away from daily lives?
I’m not wishing anything away. I’m just saying that cooperation has been more important in our evolution than competition. Friendliness has been the secret of our success and has helped us to cooperate on a scale that no other species in the whole animal kingdom can do. You can even see this in our bodies nowadays. For instance, We still have the unique ability to blush — we involuntarily give away our feelings to each other. How could blushing have been an evolutionary advantage? Well, it helps us to trust each other and cooperate.
In fact, your book seems to advocate against Western-style individualism in favour of the communal structure of more traditional societies.
If by ‘traditional’, you mean ‘nomadic hunter/ gatherer’ societies, then that’s correct. There’s strong archaeological and anthropological evidence that for the biggest part of our history, we lived in quite egalitarian, proto-feminist societies. We’ve evolved for togetherness. We crave connection just as much as we crave food. Loneliness can quite literally make us sick — according to recent research, it’s comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
If we lived in proto-feminist societies for most of human history, when did hyper-masculinity and the accompanying aggression begin?
Rigid hierarchies and patriarchy are relatively recent phenomena, going back to the last 15,000 years, after we became sedentary — settled down in villages and cities — and invented agriculture. What we call ‘civilisation’ has actually been a huge disaster. Civilisation has brought us wars, slavery, infectious diseases, and long working hours. It’s only fairly recently that things have improved a bit. Luckily, poverty and child mortality have been going down globally since the 1980s. The question is how sustainable is our ‘civilisation’? Think about climate change and the rapid extinction of many species.
So, you’re saying ‘cities’ didn’t equal ‘civilisation’. Isn’t it ingenuous to think we can dial it all back?
Of course, we can’t go back anymore, and even if we could, I’m not saying we should. It is important, though, to know where we have come from. Gnothi seauton , ‘know thyself’, was what the ancient Greeks said. For a very long time, Westerners have built their institutions on an incorrect and dangerous view of human nature and exported that view around the globe. It’s time for a new, more realistic view of who we are as a species.
Mobilising society’s humanism, you say, need not be just a pipe dream. How do you suggest it can be done?
What you assume in other people is what you get. For a long time, we’ve built schools, workplaces and prisons around the notion that people are fundamentally bad. This has brought out the worst in many of us. With the new, more realistic view now emerging among anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists, we can rethink and redesign society. The people who are trying to do that may be dismissed as naïve today, but in history we’ve often seen that what’s naïve today can be common sense tomorrow. Think about the abolition of slavery or the rise of democracy — it was impossible, until it happened. Or as Oscar Wilde once said: progress is the realisation of utopias.