‘Catastrophes bring out the best in people,’ writes Rutger Bregman. ‘I know of no other sociological finding that’s backed by so much solid evidence that’s so blithely ignored.’ Bregman may be specifically discussing the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, but the bigger picture, he argues, is clear: people are ‘pretty decent’. Following previous success with Utopia for Realists, his new book Humankind is dedicated to discussing this ‘radical idea’ in depth.
Specifically, this means booting out ideas such as ‘veneer theory’ – the idea that civilisation is a thin veneer keeping humans from descending into barbarism – in favour of a positive view of Homo sapiens as a compassionate, empathetic, generous species. Rejecting the theories of Thomas Hobbes, who believed humanity was protected from inherent wickedness by civilised society, and instead listening to fellow philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who suggested that life was far better when humans existed as free-wheeling nomads, before the invention of agriculture and civilisation introduced conflict and disease. ‘Civilisation has become synonymous with peace and progress, and wilderness with war and decline,’ writes Bregman. ‘In reality, for most of human existence, it was the other way around.’ Only in the past two hundred years – the final fifteen minutes of the day, as he puts it – has civilised society begun delivering on the promise of a better life for all.
There’s bountiful debunking at play, from the famous Stanford Prison and Shock Machine experiments, to the brutality of Lord of the Flies and the downfall of Easter Island. Even war can’t escape Bregman’s critique, as he argues that humans simply aren’t wired to kill, and would prefer to deliberately fire over their opponents’ heads (as was apparently observed during the First World War). This book is certainly an optimistic shot in the arm during a year in which societies have been tested like never before, where that thin veneer could easily fall away. The fact it hasn’t means, perhaps, humans are far better than we give ourselves credit for.