Whenever something challenges my assumptions and leads me to understand something in a new way, I ask myself what the implications and applications are for my work and often, my life. Rutger Bregman’s new book, Humankind, forces readers to question their assumptions about one of the biggies: human nature. Like many people who will pick up this book, I was already pretty sold on Bregman’s central idea: “most people, deep down, are decent.”
But the definition of ‘most’ is important here. Before reading Humankind, by ‘most people’ I was thinking, roughly 75% of us. Three-quarters of us are, deep down, decent — a resounding majority; not a 51/49 split between good and evil. For me, it has always been a thumping win for good guys. However, after reading Humankind, my estimation has changed, I’m now more confident. I’d now say that 95% or more of people are in the ‘decent’ category; an even bigger win for team awesome. Bregman hasn’t so much validated my thinking on human nature, he has persuaded me that I didn’t have enough faith in my fellow humans.
This has significant implications for how I do my work as a project design specialist at environmental NGO Global Action Plan (GAP) and as Co-Director for The Glacier Trust (TGT), a charity that enables climate change adaptation in Nepal. It is also hugely uplifting; in a polarised world it is good to be reminded that most people are basically pretty good. The key implication is this: If the projects my colleagues and I design at GAP and TGT are based on an idea that people, deep down, are not decent — that they are inherently selfish and primarily motivated by fear of how others judge them and the careless pursuit of their own hedonistic highs — then our projects are being designed to appeal to 5% or less of the population (who probably won’t ever commit to long term change on environmental and social justice issues anyway). That’s a grave error.
Of course, we all enjoy hedonistic highs to some extent and none of us are completely anxiety free when it comes to how we’re viewed by others; but we’d be pretty upset if you told us that we’d prioritise these things thoughtlessly and at the expense of others and the planet. We wouldn’t, we’re just not like that and neither are most of the people we know and love. Deep down, we’re decent — we care about doing and being good to ourselves and each other. This is why environmental behaviour change campaigns that appeal to our self-interests (e.g. concerns about image, status or getting into trouble with the law) so often feel a bit childish and patronising — we look at them and think that the message might well appeal to others, but that we’re happy to do our recycling anyway.
Bregman talks about “veneer theory”, this is the notion that ‘civilisation is nothing more than a thin veneer that will crack at the merest provocation’ — it is a faulty idea that Dutch biologist Frans de Waal highlights, but many people still subscribe to it. Veneer theory is based on a powerful myth about the very nature of human beings. This myth has been constructed gradually over centuries, Thomas Hobbes starting expounding it as far back as 1651 and it has grown stronger and stronger ever since. It is reinforced repeatedly by thousands, possibly millions, of very believable stories of both ‘fact’ and fiction. These stories leave us thinking that most of our fellow humans are, in Bregman’s words, ‘selfish, aggressive and quick to panic.’ This myth, this misplaced belief about our fellow humans, explains why we so readily believe in the veneer theory. We worry that the ‘merest provocation’ will spark breakouts of violence and chaos by individuals or unruly mobs as the civilising forces that usually hold our primal instincts in check are overwhelmed.
This bleak view of humanity, a view that we are always on the precipice of a return to a ‘red in tooth and claw’ natural state, runs counter to lived experience and evidence. Bregman stresses this throughout the book: ‘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.’ This is very much evident today. Other than a tiny minority of the most callous, self-regarding opportunists and egotists, the vast majority of the world’s population is pulling together in common cause to tackle the Coronavirus pandemic. The acts of solidarity, volunteerism and charity far, far outweigh the acts of apparent selfishness.
Now, you may well roll your eyes at that last sentence and fair enough, but the fact that you might (and others definitely will) points to one reason the myth of human [un]kindness is so strong. We hear stories all the time — in films, books, magazines, news reports, blogs, podcasts and on social media — that present ‘true’ human nature as something to be ashamed and fearful of. And, if you hear a believable story enough times, you’ll end up believing it, whether or not it’s true. The story we hear about human nature, is more like a narrative, or a commentary — we are presented with examples of humans behaving in all manner of ways and this reinforces a general idea that they are selfish; that we are selfish.
Bregman critiques some of the most influential of these stories — the Guardian published his take down of the moral tale William Golding tried to tell in Lord of the Flies; but it is his deconstruction of several — allegedly fact based — sacred cows on human behaviour that really stand out. The assumptions that prop up popular ideas like the bystander effect, broken window theory and tragedy of the commons are all examined and shown to be shaky. In different ways they are all based on misconceptions of human nature. In some instances, they are based on fabrications of real events by journalists after a sensational story, or academics desperately trying to justify an expensive research experiment. Bregman does not just present alternative hypotheses, his detailed research and primary interviews uncover crucial missing details that categorically prove how wrong some of our most trusted storytellers have consistently been about human nature. Once you have read Humankind, you will see why Malcolm Gladwell is conspicuous in his absence among the 21 writers and academics whose approvals adorn the book’s cover and front matter.
Humankind goes onto to describe how better understandings of human nature can improve the way we do everything from business, education and criminal justice, to military strategy, counter-terrorism and race relations. Bregman also uses his fresh lens on human nature to explain why some of history’s most awful wars went on as long as they painfully did; and intriguingly, how, by selectively breeding for friendliness, wild foxes can be turned into affectionate pets in just twenty generations. Bregman is far from alone in coming to this far more life-affirming conclusion about human nature. Many others share these insights, not least Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who gets several mentions. But, Bregman is taking this framing of human nature to mainstream audiences — which for many will feel like the beginnings of a paradigm shift; a timely and exciting one.
The implications of this are yet to be seen, but if it becomes a bestseller, it could have a huge impact — it could reshape policy making at the highest levels. Which of course means that those with vested interests in preserving the status quo, won’t want Bregman’s ideas and analysis to gain traction; expect to see some pretty strong nay-saying in the pages of The Spectator and the like. Bregman didn’t go down too well at Davos last year.
… To be continued …
Humankind — a Hopeful History, by Rutger Bregman is published by Bloomsbury Publishing.