File Name: Humankind: A Hopeful History
Author : Rutger Bregman (Goodreads Author) , Elizabeth Manton (Translator) , Erica Moore (Translator)
ISBN : 9780316418539
Format : Hardcover 462 pages
Genre : Nonfiction, History, Psychology, Philosophy, Politics, Science, Sociology, Audiobook, Culture, Society, Economics,
Rating: really liked it
You know that person who's always so happy no matter what? Maybe it's the colleague who is bright and cheery at 8:00 every Monday morning when everyone else is struggling just to open their eyes and get their third cup of coffee down?
Or that really annoying person who always urges you to look on the bright side. Oh, your arm fell off? No worries, you have another! Oh, your second arm fell off too? Well, just think of all the fun you're going to have learning how to use your feet to open doors, feed yourself, and wipe your own ass!
I don't know about you, but those kinds of people are just far too optimistic for me. If you're one of those people, well, maybe you can learn to tone it down a bit when you find yourself living in the real world with other human beings.
Humankind: A Hopeful History is the book equivalent of that overly optimistic person.
Author Rutger Bregman is certain the human species is inherently good. Most people, deep down, are really good people who care about others and want to help everyone and treat each other fairly.
Growing up, I thought the exact opposite. Most people were bad and not to be trusted. Then, as an adult, I started seeing good in people. Maybe I didn't trust most people, but I let myself believe that there are a lot of genuinely good people in the world and maybe even there are more good than bad.
Then along came trump and showed me how mistaken I was. Even some people I thought were good went to his side, ignoring the harm he does to minorities and even relishing in his hatred and cruelty towards them.
After that, along came Covid-19. Now we really see how many people care absolutely nothing about their fellow human beings. They do not care if they pass the virus on to others, some of whom might die, because they just don't like wearing a mask. (That is at least many Americans. The fact that other countries impose steep fines for not wearing a mask makes me think that it's not just Americans who are that self-centered, and others would go without too if not for those fines.)
Yes, they are actually okay with being inadvertently responsible for someone else's death so that they don't have to be inconvenienced. My faith in the inherent goodness of most human beings has plummeted.
I'm eager to know what Mr. Bregman would have to say today. Would he write the same book? Probably.
So let's get to it.
Mr. Bregman starts with the premise that people are basically good and then pulls up all these studies to "prove" his point. Most of the studies he talks about are ones I've come across in other books, but he claims the exact opposite results. Who is correct in their conclusions? I would like to believe Mr. Bregman is, but I rarely did.
He seems to cherry pick the things that support his premise while throwing out everything that goes against it.
He also makes some wild assertions such as, "Basically, our ancestors were allergic to inequality". He's talking about our hunter gatherer ancestors and makes the claim that for most of human history, people lived in a veritable Paradise. That mythological Garden of Eden. Everyone got along, sharing, and doing their part, and kissing, and hugging, and singing Kumbaya, and being the very best of friends.
He even goes so far as to claim that babies in hunter gatherer societies were different! When talking about a study that shows human infants have a clear preference for those most like them, he tells us that it just wasn't so for most of human history. He offers not one iota of proof for this, just assures us that babies today who are born into big, anonymous cities are different than babies that were born in the forest with a small tribe of other human beings.
At times it was like reading a religious apologist.
That said, it was enjoyable to read this book. It's interesting. It's written well. Even if I disagree with most of Bregman's conclusions, the book encouraged me to think about things in a different way.
I think the author is correct in his assertion that the media shows us the negative and leaves out the positive. I accept his conclusion that most people would find it difficult to take the life of another human being --IF they had to do it face-to-face. We see with the pandemic that many, many people really do not care what happens to anyone besides themselves or at least outside their own circle of close family and friends. They are okay with being responsible for someone's death even if they wouldn't pull out a gun and shoot someone.
That doesn't make me feel very optimistic about humanity.
I believe Mr. Bregman is correct -- the stats support it -- we live in the safest era, with far fewer people dying from violence inflicted by another than at any other time during civilization.
I just can't share his optimistic conclusion that humans are basically good and caring people. Some are, some aren't.
It's almost amusing how he runs around in circles trying to explain away such atrocities as the Holocaust in a world where just about everyone is good. It's like arguing for a benevolent creator who purposely created such things as cancer in children and parasitic wasps that lay their eggs inside caterpillars, slowly and horrifically murdering them as the baby wasps eat their way out.
Maybe I'm cynical, which Bregman assures us is lazy. He asserts that, "If you believe most people are rotten, you don't need to get worked up about injustice. The world is going to hell anyway". I disagree. The more injustice I see in the world, the more I realise how much work there is to be done and the more I wish to be able to do something about it.
If we ignore all the very real suffering humans inflict upon each other and other living creatures, we don't see where change needs to be made and we don't take responsibility for trying to bring about change.
Mr. Bregman's ideas seem lazy to me. For instance.... his solution for racism? Just let racists hang out with people of color. While not coming out and directly saying that people of color are responsible for eliminating racism, that is what he is implying. Why should people of color have to hang out with people who hate them (or LGBQT+ with people who hate us) in order to change their minds? It is not minorities who should shoulder the responsibility for change. I had to deduct a star from the rating for that BS.
He blows off hatred of minorities by saying it wouldn't exist if we lived in small bands of people and yet at the same time among people who are very unlike us.
Yeh, I don't understand that either.
So, my conclusion is that humans are capable of both good and bad. We are capable of love and kindness and compassion but also capable of the opposite. There is no neat and tidy way to account for war and genocide while claiming people are mostly all good. We are complicated. Life is complicated. It's a big grey area; human nature doesn't come in black and white, all good or all bad.
Do I recommend the book? Absolutely. I'm glad I read it, even if it didn't succeed in changing my mind.
Rating: it was amazing
I wish I hadn’t recently read Calling Bullshit. According to that book, I really ought to be applying the sharpest possible criticism to this book. The reason being that this book confirms so many of my own prejudices. In fact, I’ve used many of the arguments used here (and even the same examples) in my own life. For example, over the last few years I’ve been asked to give the opening lecture on the importance of literacy to undergrad education students at work. Mostly, I look at how social class impacts student literacy and how more equal societies have better literacy outcomes. But part of that lecture also involves me telling students about Pygmalion in the Classroom. This book covers that story too, explaining how Rosenthal gave a new kind of IQ test to some groups of students that would show which of them were about to go through something of a learning spurt and then out-perform their peers. The psychologists involved in the experiment then told the students’ teachers this was about to happen. And then, a while later, when the psychologists came back to check their results, they found that the kids identified had, indeed, done extremely well. It was just that there had never been a new kind of IQ test, the whole thing had been a test of teacher expectations and the impact of those on their students. The kids the teachers treated as if there were smart, ended up proving to be smart. Rosenthal did not believe it would be ethical to test the opposite hypothesis, you know, tell the teachers which kids were stupid and see what happens – which, given the other stories from the time documented in this book (the Milgram shock test and the Stanford Prison Guard extravaganza) he was clearly a social psychologist ahead of his time. All the same, we have the results of those experiments already – Claude Steele discusses those at length in his work on stereotype threat. Now, there’s a book you should read too.
The central contention of this book fits well with Rosenthal’s hypothesis that people often respond in ways that will confirm our expectations of them. Actually, even that is too soft a version of what this book argues. It actually argues that people mostly behave better than we expect them to. He does this by discussing how few people in wars actually end up shooting their guns. Of course, most professional soldiers now shoot to kill all of the time – but that’s because they have been trained to be basically inhuman machines. Getting a normal person to kill another normal person is a remarkably difficult thing to do. Given the suicide rates of returned soldiers, we probably shouldn’t be too proud of what we do to make them killing machines. His point throughout this book is that humans just don’t prove to be anywhere near as blood thirsty or as nasty as we like to think of ourselves.
The only people who come out of this book badly are BMW drivers – I did start off by saying this book goes out of its way to confirm all of my prejudices, didn’t I? The only time I thought I was definitely going to die while driving my car was when a BMW driver (presumably one with a very small penis) decided he could race past a tram on the wrong side of the road – a side of the road I was driving down with my two daughters and two of their friends. The only thoughts in my head at the time were the faces of the parents of the children in my car once their parents were told of their deaths in my car and a series of unprintable swear words followed by ‘….BMW drivers’.
I really liked this book. It presents interesting counterarguments to Jared Diamond, Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins. How can that be a bad thing? You might decide to avoid this book because you are already certain it clearly presents an all-too-Pollyanna vision of human nature. You would be wrong to assume that. This is a lovely little book that is likely to make you question some of the things you think you know about what it means to be human. And that can’t be a bad thing either.
Rating: liked it
Some great stories, but anecdotes don't make a sustained argument and the whole isn't entirely convincing. Even so, it's the perfect time for a healthy dose of optimism and if there's anything this book does well it's showing how hope and positivity can breed more. So go forth and be the good you want to see in the world. You might just inspire others to do the same.
ARC via Netgalley
Rating: it was amazing
To be honest, I picked up this book to hate-read it. I thought it would be more Pinker and and that Lars guy saying how everything is better now and will everyone just shut up sort of stuff. But I actually really loved the book--that is, I loved the first 2/3rds of the book. The last 1/3rd was way too cute and optimistic for my cold cynical heart. The book is not making the claim that Pinker is making. The book is a point by point debunking of a Hobbsian worldview and the sham "studies" and stories that have upheld it. This is important because this bleak worldview has led us into bad policies and behaviors because we assume that if the police state was slackened, there would be absolute mayhem and murder in the streets. That is just not true.
Rating: liked it
Bregmans book is immensely populair at this moment in Holland. The central thesis is clear from the title, freely translated: Most people are OK. Bregmans, is a journalist and historic from Holland who gained fame by explicitering the need for tax reforms at Davos. In this book he argues that most people are OK in two different ways.
1. By summarizing study results that proof our good nature, that is, an preference for social cooperative behaviour and aversion to violence
2. Secondly by trashing exemplary research into the dark human nature and present examples that show the good nature of humans
For me his thesis is ridiculous. In our daily life we approach most people like they are OK. We don’t distrust our colleagues when they asked for help and there are always people standing up in public transport to free a seat for those who need it. These are the kind examples he gives of good behaviour.
Still, maybe this is not the kind of behaviour Bregmans wants to talk about. In the beginning of the book he states (from an personal email of a university teacher) that 97% of people belief that we are inclined to act fully in self-interest in panic situations.
However for this argument the research he presents is less convincing. This is because the ‘proof’ of our good nature falls mostly in the category ‘a la café’ and because he is not able to explicate these results in an synthesized framework.
Secondly because by trashing the research methods of i.e. Zimbardo’s prison experiment (where splitting up a group into prisoners and guards results into violence) he claims to prove that people are not inclined to show bad behavior. This however, is false reasoning, since the results of the Zimbardo experiment where always a presentation of how the context can make people bad. This is still standing, even if the researches (career driven lying pricks) where pushing for escalation. They where just a power structure within the context.
As Rutger Bregman states he hopes to follow Bentrand Russel’s maxim to never get distracted by what he believes. It is a pity that he doesn’t live up to this. As he states in the preface, his goal in this book is not to prove that people are angels, more that we have an preference for te good (p.31). He fails to do this because:
- He fails to make proper conclusions but merely summarizes a lot of research (which is interesting for sure!). But not explicitly derive the conclusion that this means ‘we’ are inclined to do the good in panic situations
- This leaves him with the meaningless proposition that most people are (most of the time) OK. What do you mean OK? When are we not OK? What does this mean for our OKness in general? (This defect of the book was, for me, compensated by the last couple of chapters where the question is no longer the prove of the central thesis, but how vitreous behavior can be stimulated)
- The question of evil is never a question of quantity but of quality. One person starting a fight in a bar can ruin the night for 30 OK-people. Magnifying the good intentions of the rest is not the point here. He does not address this but talks as if bad an good are leveled in equal measure. For example, the good behavior of (a lot) of people during WO II does not lessen the fact of the Holocaust.
It is noteworthy that this book is so popular. Why so? De meeste mensen deugen is written in a way that makes you feel like a marathon runner. You just kill the thing in a few hours, and this made me feel good indeed.
But this cannot be the only reason. What got my attention is the dualism created in the book between we (the 99%) and the leaders, scientist and politicians (the 1%). The most people are OK, but leaders… oef, the chances are high that they are psychopaths. In this way this book is a warm blanket that works as a sedative. We don’t have to feel guilty, because we are inclined to the good.
So, should you read this book? I think so. Rutger Berman is a great collector of research and is able to summarize the information so you can read it with ease. On the other hand, be aware that this book is an ideological pamphlet and the results of most research can be interpreted in multiple ways. So, practice benevolence, but not everything is OK and not only the powerful are evil.
 This is ideology and false with our direct experience. Though we think most people are OK we all now some examples where somebody is (as we say in Holland) ‘licking up, and kicking down’. Or for me growing up with brothers. I showed virtuous behavior, as well as evil sadistic behaviour to my younger brothers (not something i am proud about).
Rating: really liked it
An idealist can be right her whole life, and still be dismissed as naive. This book is intended to change that. Because what seems unreasonable, unrealistic, and impossible today, can turn out to be inevitable tomorrow. It is time for a new realism. It is time for a new view of humankind.
With the subtitle “A Hopeful History”, Humankind is exactly the kind of optimistic read I think I needed right now. With so much negative going on, I keep hearing, “What do you expect? People are the worst, a plague on the Earth!” And not only does that not solve anything, but it's so fatalistic as to suggest that nothing short of total human extinction could solve anything. With this new review of human history, Rutger Bregman not only busts a bunch of myths (and especially those based on social science experiments) about how rotten we humans are at the core, but by adding in stories of human decency and exploring some better ways of setting up entrenched institutions, Bregman shines a light on a more hopeful way forward. If the “nocebo effect” (If we believe most people can't be trusted, that's how we'll treat each other, to everyone's detriment) is as powerful as Bregman suggests, then a book like this that proves that humans are not basically evil is the first step towards building the society that works better for everyone. Just what I needed. (Note: I read an ARC from NetGalley and passages quoted may not be in their final forms.)
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 civilization 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 or the floodwaters rise – that we humans become our best selves.
For most of this study, Bregman reviews what famous thinkers, philosophers, social psychology researchers, and recent pop historians have written; often finding source material that contradicts what we've been led to believe their evidence shows. Bregman starts with the opposite philosophical poles of Hobbes (“The man who asserted that civil society alone could save us from our baser instincts”) and Rousseau (“Who declared that in our heart of hearts we're all good” and that “'civilization' is what ruins us”). Bregman decidedly comes out on the side of Rousseau (and from more recent times, on the side of Yuval Noah Harari of Sapiens fame), who all believe that the dawn of agriculture was the downfall of happy human co-existence (and Bregman even takes issue with Steven Pinker and his hopeful books about how violence has decreased over time because, according to Bregman, there's zero evidence to support the widely accepted idea that nomadic/hunter-gatherer societies were anything but peaceful). To counter the dim, but popular, view of uncontrolled humanity in William Golding's Lord of the Flies, Bregman recounts the true story of a group of six Tongan boys who survived on a deserted island for over a year by creating a totally egalitarian society; to dispute the notion that men are jingoistic warmongers, he shares the incredible stats about how few soldiers in the major wars actually fired their weapons; to try and explain why it was the comparatively weak and smaller brained Homo sapiens who survived out of several competing hominids in prehistory, Bregman uses a recent study on the domestication of foxes to suggest that it came down to “survival of the friendliest”. If nothing else, Humankind is a fascinating and wide-ranging collection of stories.
I'm going to be honest. Originally, I wanted to bring Milgram's experiments crashing down. When you're writing a book that champions the good in people, there are several big challengers on your list. William Golding and his dark imagination. Richard Dawkins and his selfish gene. Jared Diamond and his demoralizing tale of Easter Island. And of course Philip Zimbardo, the world's most well-known psychologist. But topping my list was Stanley Milgram. I know of no other study as cynical, as depressing, and at the same time as famous as his experiments at the shock machine.
So, not only does Bregman confront Golding, Diamond, and Dawkins (actually, although I had never heard this, apparently Dawkins has disavowed his early notion of the “selfish gene”), but Bregman also spends a lot of the book writing about Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment and Milgram's shock experiments. I remember learning about Zimbardo and Milgram in more than one Psych course – as they both demonstrated something fundamentally awful and important about us humans – but I don't remember ever being told that Zimbardo was basically a fraud who manipulated his process and his results (but sure loved the fame that followed) and it hasn't become commonly known that while, yes, test subjects under Milgram were convinced to administer ever-increasing levels of painful shocks to unseen confederates of the experimenter, the results are much more nuanced than that (for example, subjects uniformly refused to continue if they were ordered to administer the shock instead of being encouraged to do it for the good of the experiment; believing that they were being helpful caused most to continue, against their own better natures, in the name of doing something good for society at large). Apparently, these experiments are still being taught because they seem to confirm what we all know – that people are just this thin veneer of civilisation away from brutality – and that's why we don't trust each other, and that's why we allow our governments to use lethal force against other countries and our own fellow citizens.
Myths are so insidious. I remember reading somewhere recently something like, “What do you think that dude on Easter Island was thinking as he cut down his island's last tree? Could he not see that he was literally cutting down his own civilisation?” This was written in the context of climate change – and why are humans so self-interested as to continue to do those specific things that will lead to our own doom – so it was fascinating to me to read here that, although deforestation is the accepted explanation for the collapse of the Easter Island society, Bregman didn't need to dig too deeply into the evidence to discover that the islanders didn't cut down their vast forests (as Malcolm Gladwell reported and which everyone then accepted as fact) to the very last tree, but that an invasive tree rat was carried to Easter Island on Peruvian slave ships: slavers took the healthiest people and unknowingly left the rats (which had no natural predator on the island) and of course their civilisation collapsed.
Other myths that deserve to be broken: The “bystander effect”. We've probably all heard about the murder of Kitty Genovese – killed on the doorstep of her NYC apartment building while thirty-some people watched and figured someone else would call the cops – but it turns out that her murder didn't happen that way (and when someone tried to correct the official account, the leading article's writer at The New York Times refused, saying that positive details would ruin the story). Also, the “broken windows” theory of crime control: Sure, the stats for serious crime went down when this practise was adopted in NYC, but it turns out that undue pressure was put on beat cops to make massive arrests for small misdemeanors and to discourage the reporting of major crimes (and apparently it was Zimbardo, once again, who did the one flawed experiment that served as the basis for this theory?) And also the notion that mass incarceration is the only way to deal with criminals because softer rehab options don't work (the sociologist who inspired this practise, Robert Martinson, eventually killed himself when he saw how his conclusions were applied; apparently, this former civil rights activist wanted to prove that all punishment was ineffective and “everyone would realize prisons were pointless places and should all be shut down”.)
And why these myths matter today: As Bregman notes, the broken window strategy for policing is a racist system:
Data show that a mere 10 percent of people picked up for misdemeanors are white. Meanwhile, there are black teens that get stopped and frisked on a monthly basis – for years – despite never having committed an offense. Broken windows has poisoned relations between law enforcement and minorities, saddled untold poor with fines they can't pay, and also had fatal consequences, as in the case of Eric Garner, who died in 2014 while being arrested for allegedly selling loose cigarettes.
In an earlier story, Bregman recounts the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina – when, despite terrible newstories of opportunistic murders, rape, and looting – it turns out that most residents acted with “courage and charity”. Even so, first responders were also hearing the stories of a city in chaos – the thin veneer had been breached and 72,000 troops were called in – and “on Danziger Bridge on the city's east side, police opened fire on six innocent, unarmed African Americans, killing a seventeen-year-old boy and a mentally disabled man of forty”. The myths we tell ourselves about human nature matter, and more insidiously, we shouldn't allow the myths perpetuated by trauma-hungry media (or other entrenched institutions) form the entirety of our perceived reality.
Could this be the thing that the Enlightenment – and, by extension, our modern society – gets wrong? That we continually operate on a mistaken model of human nature? We saw that some things can become true merely because we believe in them – that pessimism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. When modern economists assumed that people are innately selfish, they advocated policies that fostered self-serving behavior. When politicians convinced themselves that politics is a cynical game, that's exactly what it became. So now we have to ask: Could things be different? Can we use our heads and harness rationality to design new institutions? Institutions that operate on a wholly different view of human nature? What if schools and businesses, cities and nations expect the best of people instead of presuming the worst?
In the last section of Humankind, Bregman tells the stories of various institutions (a factory, a school, a healthcare service, a prison, a municipal government) that found ways to do away with bureaucracy and middle managers, and instead, empowered individuals to follow in the direction of their own instincts and motivation. His examples sound Utopian – if you treat people like they're good and smart enough to do things right, they will – but they don't sound universally applicable; still, it was hopeful to end on such an optimistic note. Maybe we'll get there.
I wrote about a lot here, but the book contains even more stories, experiments, and busted myths. I suppose because it contains so much, Bregman couldn't follow every strand out to my full satisfaction, and I found some of his quirks annoying (and especially, after suggesting we thrived through survival of the friendliest, Bregman continually refers to humanity as “Homo puppy”; dumb), but the good far outweighs the quibblesome; four stars is a rounding up.
Rating: it was amazing
Rutger Bregman returns with one of the most anticipated nonfiction titles of the year. What makes this such a fantastic read is that it is equal parts fascinating and informative; many such books can be dry and tedious but Humankind avoids those pitfalls by employing a highly readable writing style to entice you to carry on turning the pages well into the night. At its heart, this is a book about human nature and on the whole is optimistic about life. I found it different from what I would usually read as I am quite the cynic and it has taught me interesting anecdotal tidbits I will remember. Highly recommended. Many thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing for an ARC.
Rating: it was amazing
Given the now obvious drawbacks of the Electoral College, I think this is accurate...
The Framers were not really interested in democracy, as we now define it, but an ‘elective aristocracy.’
"Take the American Constitution: historians agree it ‘was intrinsically an aristocratic document designed to check the democratic tendencies of the period’. It was never the American Founding Fathers’ intention for the general populace to play an active role in politics."
What Happened to my Late Brother-in-Law?
Right out of high school in the mid-60's, my brother in law joined the Marines and was destined to be in the midst of some of the worst fighting in Vietnam, including being trapped inside a supposed fortress on a hill in The Battle of Khe Sanh, one more bungled piece of strategy by General Westmoreland. The fortress was pinned down by opposing troops, with constant shelling, while the rest of their forces carried out the Tet Offensive, a total surprise to the Americans. The U.S. came very close to losing the war, which may have been a good thing. Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, had already decided by then that the war was a lost cause, although he felt it was important to continue so as to save face. War criminal, Henry Kissinger, would later agree and push to prolong even longer to help Nixon get re-elected.
Vietnam has been called "The War Without Heroes" including my brother in law. He came home with severe PTSD and a drinking problem. He also chain-smoked. He would engage in a kind of slow suicide through the heavy use of these substances until he died in a VA hospital in Reno, six years ago.
The author tells this story in his book to reveal something many may not know. Not matching the usual Hobbesian assumptions, troops on WW II were reluctant to shoot at the enemy. The military set out to correct that in future wars, first in Korea, then in Vietnam. The plan was to dehumanize the opposition by portraying them as vermin.
As the author reports, Vietnam recruits were immersed in boot camps that exalted not only a sense of brotherhood, but also the most brutal violence, forcing the men to scream ‘KILL! KILL! KILL!’ until they were hoarse. They were drilled to fire instinctively at realistic human figures. Shooting a firearm became an automated, Pavlovian reaction you could perform without thinking. Second World War veterans (most of whom had never learned to kill) were shocked when shown images of this brand of training.
The American military managed to boost its ‘firing ratio’, increasing it to 95 per cent in Vietnam. But this came at a price. Not only had Innumerable soldiers only killed other people–-something inside them had died, too.
This was my brother in law. Sullen, constantly drinking, always trying to fill the hole in his soul with material things, and the victim of horrific nightmares. Disposable.
"Imagine for a moment that a new drug comes on the market. It’s super-addictive, and in no time everyone’s hooked. Scientists investigate and soon conclude that the drug causes, I quote, ‘a misperception of risk, anxiety, lower mood levels, learned helplessness, contempt and hostility towards others, and desensitization'......That drug is the news."
Human beings, it turns out, are ultra-social learning machines. We’re born to learn, to bond and to play. This is our true superpower, because sociable people aren’t only more fun to be around, in the end they’re smarter, too.
"Don't be trapped by dogma - which is living with the results of other people's thinking." (Steve Jobs)
Many of us are resistant to religious dogma. Perhaps there are other sources of dogma we should question, as well, including some that came from my Boomer generation.
"The Selfish Gene? It fit right in with 1970s-era thinking– a time hailed as the ‘Me Decade’ by the New York magazine. In the late 1990s, an avid Richard Dawkins fan decided to put his take on Dawkins ideas into practice. Rather than making him feel pessimistic, the book inspired CEO Jeffrey Skilling to run an entire corporation– the energy giant Enron– on the mechanism of greed.
Skilling set up a ‘Rank & Yank’ system for performance reviews at Enron. A score of 1 placed you among the company’s top performers and gave you a fat bonus. A score of 5 put you at the bottom, a group ‘sent to Siberia’– besides being humiliated, if you couldn’t find another position within two weeks you were fired. The result was a Hobbesian business culture with cut-throat competition between employees. In late 2001 the news broke that Enron had been engaging in massive accounting fraud. When the dust finally settled, Skilling was in prison.
Science has advanced considerably since the 1970s. In subsequent editions of The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins scrapped his assertions about humans’ innate selfishness, and the theory has lost credence with biologists."
Humankind is a wonderfully iconoclastic book. The book is fluidly written and I have learned a ton. My favorite book of the year so far.
Podcast interview with the author. What I find persuasive here is that other countries are operating on different assumptions, better assumptions than we are in the U.S., and getting much better results. We always make excuses for why we can't change, say to implement true gun safety. We cling too readily to our cynicism, when maybe we are looking at the world all wrong.
This captures best the flavor of the book than I could in a written review.
“TO BE HOPEFUL in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.
What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.
And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.” ― Howard Zinn
Rating: it was amazing
Some books reach you at the right time and this book did exactly that. To be fair, the right time for a book offering a hopeful, optimistic view of humankind to reach me wasn’t that small of a window – I’ve been noticing how I, an usually optimistic person in my day-to-day-life, have become increasingly cynical when it comes to my fellow humans. And… can you blame me, in this economy, this pandemic, this global climate crisis, this political turmoil, etc. etc. etc.?
Just like I know you can’t blame me for losing hope in humanity, I also know there are many who feel the same, so I can’t be thankful enough for Bregman and his (almost suspicious) optimism to come around the corner with this book and the many receipts that show that, yes, humanity has a questionable record, no reason in denying that but, contrary to what has sadly become popular belief, most of us are actually pretty ok – even more than ok. There are good people – and they’re not the exception. And there’s definitely enough of a reason to keep hope alive.
"Remember that cynicism is just another word for laziness. It's an excuse not to take responsibility. Because if you believe most people are rotten, you don't need to get worked up about injustice. The world is going to hell either way."
“But the people behind Facebook, Twitter and Google know you well. They know what shocks and horrifies you, they know what makes you click. They know how to grab your attention and hold it so they can serve you the most lucrative helping of personalised ads.”
"It's also one of the insidious mechanisms behind racism, because when you're subjected to low expectations, you won't perform at your best, which further diminishes other's expectations and further diminishes your performance."
Rating: really liked it
Good book. It’s a contrarian take on human nature, that we’re better than evil. It basically attempts to counteract the popular takes of various events and human nature experiments. It works because it’s readable, more so than many books in the genre. I’s read about most of the things in this work, but there were a few insights I hadn’t considered before. So, I got something new to consider, always a plus. Of course, the danger of this book and any other book on humans is the confirmation bias of author and reader. Just don’t take all statements and evidence at face value as presented. That said, I enjoyed this one for the most part and recommend it as a balance to most of the books about human nature out there.
Rating: it was amazing
This book has taken me nearly two months to read, not because it was difficult to read (it’s not, it’s beautifully written and translated) but because the ideas required quite so long to process fully. I don’t know if anyone has spoken to me in the last two months and NOT had me recommend this book to them wholeheartedly, even when I was only about a hundred pages in. It is like reading a book that confirms and reinforces, through meticulous research, discussion and sourcing, a secret truth I have wanted to believe, deep down, all along. But it took these two months, and I imagine much longer still, to begin dismantling the ideas society has ingrained in me. I can’t write a good review of this book because it would essentially mean rewriting the book. I have nothing to add, nothing further to discuss. I just want to put it in people’s hands and let it change their lives.
And I believe Rutger Bregman is right - it is easy to be a cynic, to scoff and scorn kindness. It’s hard to be kind because it means taking responsibility - it means believing that your actions are worthwhile, when it is easier to believe that there is no point in trying, the world’s fucked anyway. I dare you to believe that it’s not true. I dare you to be an optimist - or as Rutger Bregman would have it, a realist.
This is a challenging book to read. It does not shy away from the darker sides of humanity. But it is ultimately hopeful, and the more people begin to change their minds and believe that humans are not inherently bad, the better.
Rating: really liked it
Rating: liked it
Once again, I'm in doubt about the number of stars to give this book.
I wanted to give it many many stars, I really did, because I like the premise that most people are inherently good. This has been my gut feeling for a long time, even if I get all kinds of opposite signals from the media and the f*ckers stealing my phone and breaking into my house.
Bergman does give us some great examples of people being awesome and lovely anecdotes for me to casually throw into random conversations. And if I look at the reviews it's getting, I see many people are loving it and saying it helped "restore their faith in humanity" or that it's a good antidote to their cynicism. Which is great and I think this was the explicit aim of the author. So in that sense, good book.
You can argue about style. Yes it's written like an irritating click-baity internet piece, but then again, the author writes mainly for a digital audience, so that's probably what he's used to. If your target is the general population, the worst thing you could do is write in a dusty academic style. It won't wint prizes for its literary prose, but does that matter if everyone is reading it?
However, the main flaw is the same as most of these feel good books: what the f*ck do I do now. Bregman gets a small amount of bonus points, because he has the 10 rules epilogue, which gives you some guidance on how to use the content, but it seems to be too small-scale to matter.
Assuming the premise is correct and most people are inherently good, we still fall victim to our circumstances and the systems we live in. He briefly touches on this sometimes, like referring to how the wonderful Agora school could be shut down if it doesn't perform up to the educational standards in the country. And then he goes on to the next topic. Same for the rebels in the Columbian jungle. Now that they have returned to celebrate Christmas with their mother, the jungle is now taken over by drug lords and extreme right groups. Just leaving that hanging there and on to the next topic. SO WHAT NOW, my brain keeps screaming at me.
In the end, I think stars should represent how valuable the book was to me, no the general population. How much I liked reading it and how much I got from it and I can't in earnest give it four stars with my brain still screaming at me. Thank you mr. Bregman for the lovely anecdotes and for 'proving' my gut feeling about people is right, but I can only give you 3 stars.
Rating: it was ok
Never been happier to finish a book!
"What we look for is what we'll find", says Bregman. Hmm, could that be the case with his book and his "research"? He seems to want to sell his idea so (too) badly that he foregoes any scrutiny or nuance. There are a lot more points of criticism and I did start to write them all down, but my list was getting too long so I stopped. Besides, there are some excellent reviews already (be it in Dutch):
I mean, I can understand that people like this book, the optimistic message and I hope that some will be positively influenced (so therefore I give it 1.5 stars, rounding it up to 2). I suspect though that this will be the case mainly for the people who already have a positive view of the world and people. It is just too positive and not enough nuanced to be convincing for those who aren't convinced already.
Rating: really liked it
Four stars. In the philosophical stand-off between Hobbes (human life is a war of all against all, papered over with the thinnest veneer of civilisation) and Rousseau (we were born noble savages and civilisation has corrupted us) Bregman comes down decisively in favour of Rousseau.
Such a flattering premise makes the book very enjoyable to read, at least in the first half.
The weakness of the book is that it is a string of nicely written and presented anecdotes/episodes/debunkings and then like a butterfly Bregman wafts on to the next flower in the field without really developing a coherent argument. In the end, despite disclaiming the ‘self-help’ genre he nevertheless ends with 10 rules for individual living.
He is clearly a highly intelligent academic and throughout the book appears completely aware of the political implications of what he is up to (notably, he mentions conflicts with his German publishers over the message of this book). The second half covers contemporary societal issues - schools, prisons, countries in conflict - where his avoidance of political engagement becomes alarmingly apparent (and his engagement in each issue therefore feels superficial). He resolutely draws back from drawing any fundamental political conclusions, which leaves a syrupy aftertaste. (He does mention he likes Richard Curtis films.)
But there is a tremendous amount of interesting and original research entertainingly presented. There is more than enough here to inspire your own thinking. Recommended.