On Kindness: rediscovering human nature
In the midst of the pandemic a book was published that challenges the assumption that underpins most of Western thought – the belief that humans are nasty and selfish and that without laws and courts and judges and police we would descend into a state of Bellum omnium in omnes “war of all against all.”
The Dutch historian Rutger Bregman’s Humankind A Hopeful History asserts the opposite – that people are basically good – that our instincts are to co-operate rather than compete and to trust rather than distrust. And he argues that these characteristics are fundamental to what it is to be to be human.
He does this by debunking many of the myths, falsehoods and flawed research that have led to the belief in mankind’s innate badness and draws on a wealth of evidence from the fields of anthropology, archaeology, sociology and psychology to argue for our innate goodness. And he throws in some original, fascinating research which throws long-held beliefs into doubt.
In its way it is a revolutionary book because the implications for how we view each other, the rules that govern us, the society we live in and the governments that control us are profound.
Most seem to believe that when disasters strike this brings out the worst in people. This is known as veneer theory – the idea that civilisation is nothing more than a thin veneer that cracks at the merest provocation. Bregman argues that disasters bring out the best in people.
A case in point is the terrible flood caused by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005 in which 1,836 died. At the time there were press reports of lootings, roving gangs and two children having their throats slit in a storm shelter and a seven year-old raped.
The English historian Timothy Garton Ash wrote in the Guardian at the time: “remove the elementary staples of organised, civilised life - food, shelter, drinkable water, minimal personal security - and we go back within hours to a Hobbesian state of nature, a war of all against all.”
The truth emerged months later, long after the media circus had left town. There were no reported cases of rape or murder. There had been looting but mainly by groups that had teamed up to survive, some cases even banding with police. Hundreds of civilians had formed rescue squads and boats had come from as far away as Texas to help save people from the rising waters.
There was serious trouble however. Police opened fire on six unarmed black residents killing a 17 year-old boy and a mentally disabled man. Bregman concludes: “Dictators and despots, governors and generals – they all too often resort to brute force to prevent scenarios that only exist in their own heads.”
A classic example of the veneer theory is William Golding’s disturbing novel The Lord of the Flies which is how he imagined a group of boys would behave if shipwrecked on a remote island. When he won the Nobel prize for it the committee wrote: “it illuminates the human condition in the world today.”
But it is fiction. Bregman unearthed a real life case of a group of boys who became shipwrecked on a Pacific island. They were rescued more than a year later, fit and healthy after working harmoniously together for all that time. That, argues Bregman, is the true human condition.
Bregman examines why humans, as opposed to other primates, have been more successful as a species. He cites intelligence tests designed by German researchers which show human toddlers doing roughly the same as chimpanzees and orangutans when tested for spatial understanding, calculation and causality. Japanese research shows chimps outperforming humans in processing information.
Meanwhile archaeologists have discovered that our extinct human cousins the Neanderthals had 15% larger brains. They were both physically stronger and more intelligent than us.
He argues that the key to human success is our social learning skills where we are 100% superior to other primates measured. Unlike similar species we learn from each other – our unique capability is sociability. Key to this he says is that we are the only species that blushes (this shows we care what others think).
Given all that Bregman still has to confront why humans can be so cruel, to account for the prisons, the gas chambers, the horrors of war.
Here he cites a mountain of evidence going back two centuries which shows that even in the heat of battle soldiers display an antipathy to bloodshed. Of all the muskets recovered from the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, 90% had not been fired. In the Second World War work by academic Randall Collins estimated that only between 13 to 18% of troops fired their guns. Collins is quoted: “The Hobbesian image of humans, judging from the most common evidence is empirically wrong. Humans are hardwired for solidarity; and this is what makes violence so difficult.”
This should not necessarily give us too much comfort. The more remote you are from the person you kill the easier it is to press the button. Artillery, bombs and drone strikes are much more effective than the musket and bayonet. We might be averse to killing, so our masters have found other ways to fight wars.
Bregman argues that there were no wars in pre-history, citing anthropologist Brian Ferguson: “War does not go forever backwards in time. It had a beginning.”
He claims that the first evidence of that kind of conflict dates from a period most would see as the dawn of civilisation – the time when mankind started to abandon its nomadic existence and settled in farming communities. Two reasons are given for this – the possession of land gave people something to fight over, and living in communities encouraged people to focus on their own communities as opposed to those of others. This in turn led to the emergence of warlords, chieftains and kings.
And power corrupts. Fascinating research is cited here. The more expensive your car the ruder your road manners. BMW drivers are the worst! And people in power tend to acquire an antisocial personality disorder, meaning they are “more impulsive, self-centred, reckless, arrogant and rude than average.” They tend to see others in a negative light, that they are idle and unreliable, in need of supervision and to be told what to do.
Bregman argues that in today’s world whether in business or politics the odds are stacked in favour of those who exhibit these dubious qualities. “In this type of world, it’s not the friendliest and most empathetic leaders who rise to the top but their opposites. In this world it’s survival of the shameless.”
He cites further research into infants at Yale’s “Baby Lab” which shows that from the earliest age babies have an aversion to unfamiliar faces, unknown smells and foreign accents. So whilst we are a friendly species we are instinctively wary of strangers.
The crux of his argument is that for 95% of human history (up until the advent of organised farming) we were nomadic foragers and this would not have mattered. We would have talked to the strangers and be-friended them.
But once we settled in groups we were more inclined to repel outsiders. “Inspired by fellowship and incited by cynical strongmen, people will do the most horrific things to each other.”
Therefore civilisation has been the cause of, not the answer to violence and cruelty.
Given this, the question arises as to whether we could do things differently. If we started to expect the best of people rather than presumed the worst, what impact might that have?
When he pitched this book to a German publishing house. He was turned down flat. The publisher told him that Germans did not believe in humanity’s innate goodness.
Yet if that is all you choose to believe – that people are inherently bad and civilisation is merely skin deep then that, for you at least will become a self-fulfilling prophecy, a theory of everything devoid of hope.
Bloomsbury chose to publish it. Bregman is fast becoming the most prominent thinker of his generation. There is some hope after all.
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