Innocence and experience

Ralph and Jack from Lord of the Flies – rivals, and representative types

Humankind – A Hopeful History

Rutger Bregman, London: Bloomsbury, 2020, 463 pages, £20

Humankind opens in evangelical style –

This is a book about a radical idea. An idea that’s long been known to make rulers nervous. An idea denied by religions and ideologies, ignored by the news media and erased from the annals of world history

Dutch historian Rutger Bregman, whose previous book was 2017’s rapturously received Utopia for Realists, then warns that apostles of this “radical idea” will weather “a storm of ridicule”. Opposition is only to be expected, when we learn that his thinking is in radical opposition to Thucydides, Augustine, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Luther, Calvin, Burke, the Founding Fathers, Bentham, Nietzsche, Freud, Garrett Hardin and Malcolm Gladwell. Any idea that scants so many sources must surely be compelling.

It transpires his world-altering idea is very simple, to the point of bathos – “Most people, deep down, are pretty decent”. Those who are instinctively wary of world-altering ideas may laugh, or recoil, but we should take this one seriously, because it cuts to who – and what – we are.

To the author, almost all questions resolve down to a basic dichotomy – a negative versus a positive view of humanity. Were the first hominids killer apes, or egalitarian pacifists? Is there original sin, or was there Edenic innocence? Is humanity flawed, or are there just flawed societies? Do we trust Hobbes, or Rousseau – or does truth reside somewhere between nasty brutishness and noble savagery? Utopia for Realists may have been a bestseller, but how concrete is the author’s commonwealth, how nebulous his nowhere? We are not as bad as we believe we are, he insists – and by believing we are bad we may be making ourselves so.

A defining incident for him is from 1966, when an Australian sailor rescued six Tongan boys from an island where they had been marooned for over a year. The boys had coped with insularity admirably, growing and hunting food, organising rotas for cooking, gardening and guard duties, resolving quarrels, singing and praying together, and even setting a broken leg. They had also kept a signal fire going, to attract passing boats. Their exemplary behaviour was in marked contrast to that fictive, but infinitely more famous, tale of stranded boys, William Golding’s 1954 classic, Lord of the Flies.

For Bregman, Golding is hugely symbolic as a populariser of the “veneer theory” of civilization, so he is at pains to undercut the credibility of Golding’s vision of boys as barely-disguised beasts. He points out the post-Belsen context, and Golding’s personal failings – “What an unhappy individual he’d been. An alcoholic. Prone to depression. A man who beat his kids.” Golding also remarked, “I have always understood the Nazis, because I am of that sort by nature”, and misspelled acquaintances’ names, which to Bregman signified a basic lack of interest in people as persons.

“Unhappy individual” William Golding

Bregman is right to notice private foibles, because these do shape personal philosophies. He carries this too far when he condemns Churchill’s scientific adviser (and advocate of bombing civilians) Lord Cherwell for “wearing a bowler hat and having an icy expression”. If allegedly frigid physiognomies or authorial alcoholism are determinants of outlook, then it is surely permissible to call into evidence Bregman’s own apparent character, as revealed in Humankind.

We learn that the realist utopian has lost his childhood Christianity, cries readily, needed six attempts to pass his driving test, and can write of Ice Age existence that “rather than a struggle for survival, it was a snuggle for survival” (emphasis in original). His whole persona seems anxiously aquiver – and Humankind an existentially anxious book, notwithstanding its ‘hopeful’ message. He badly wants to believe in human goodness (and Western civilization’s corruptness). He is one of many who yearn for a future of communalism, equality and peace, and so search eagerly for early exemplars. Crises of confidence give rise to needy creeds, real worries to wishful thinking. But we cannot turn back the clock to a time before clocks.

The author draws interesting parallels between human evolution and Dmitri Belyayev’s famous (and ongoing) experiments in breeding Arctic foxes for friendliness. Within 20 years of that project’s commencement in 1958, the selected animals, members of a species noted for ferocity, spent longer playing, would wag their tails, bark, and respond to their names. Their tails curled, spots appeared on their coats, their snouts got shorter and their bones slenderer, and males looked more like females. Selection for amiability resulted in gradual hormonal changes that made them even tamer, and more intelligent.

Similarly, Homo sapiens evolved from Neanderthalensis, losing along the way much of the Neanderthals’ bulk, strength and rugged facial features. Size and strength were less important for an increasingly social species, while big brow-ridges and too many teeth may have impeded communication. Sapiens was weaker, more ‘puppyish’, and even had smaller brains than our antecessors, but we were becoming sociable, and this had impelled imagination and innovation. Belyayev’s work does not invalidate ‘original sin’ ideas, because if his experiment is discontinued, the ‘tame’ foxes will quickly revert to their fiercer phenotype – but it makes us ponder the malleability of Nature, and the actuality of Richard Dawkin’s Selfish Gene.

The author’s re-examinations of case studies that purport to prove the omnipresence of evil are equally interesting. Stanley Milgram’s 1961 “Shock Machine”, which inveigled volunteers to administer (fake) electric shocks to actors, is undercut by Milgram’s methodology, and earnest wish to explain the Holocaust (akin to Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil”, although Bregman feels Arendt was misinterpreted). The 1964 killing of Kitty Genovese in New York, whose small-hours screams for help were apparently ignored by 38 neighbours, is shown to have been a more enigmatic event, with most of the allegedly uncaring onlookers actually unaware of what was occurring.

Napoleon Chagnon’s 1968 book The Fierce People, which portrayed the Amazonian Yanomamis as an intrinsically Hobbesian tribe existing “in a chronic state of war”, may have been exaggerated. Controversy continues about whether the Yanomamis are especially violent or, if they are, why; Amazonian tribes have long been persecuted by colonists and governments, and visiting researchers with preconceived ideas may ‘contaminate’ the population under study, as their mere presence alters tribal behaviour. Philip Zimbardo’s 1971 Stanford study, in which psychology students acted as ‘prisoners’ or ‘guards’, with shockingly swiftly deteriorating group dynamics, are shown to have been more stage performances than scientific experiments. 

But even if Yanomami violence has been overstated, these latter–day Stone Agers were (or are) clearly never “noble”. Steven Pinker has speculated that all humans probably lived like the Yanomami, until the advent of agriculture, arts and government. For Bregman, the opposite is true – civilization is the cause, rather than cure, of social ailments, up to and including war. He paints an attractive, uninteresting picture (utopias are always dull) of the earliest humans as egalitarian and non-acquisitive nomads, interacting easily with other tribes, and building complexes like Turkey’s Göbekli Tepe (10th-8th millennium B.C.) not to “stroke some chieftain’s ego [but to] bring people together” (how can he know that?). Then restless spirits devised such horrors as farming, private property, legal codes, territories, tribal gods, and yet worse – inequality, money, racism, sexism, and war (oddly, he also mentions bestiality). “10,000 years ago”, he shakes his neat beard sadly, “the trouble began”.

The chief “trouble” is war, and Bregman devotes much energy to disproving Man’s martial nature. He cites the military historian Samuel Marshall, whose 1946 book Men Under Fire famously suggested that only 15%-25% of Second World War US servicemen fired their guns in combat. Marshall embroidered his own military record, and had slapdash research methods, yet there is similar evidence from other wars. 90% of the muskets recovered after Gettysburg had not been fired, while George Orwell recollected that during the Spanish Civil War many combatants “always did miss everyone else, when it was humanly possible”. Yet much depends on whether the soldiers are remembering accurately, or being truthful, and the circumstances of the conflict; in civil wars, there may be a generic reluctance to fire on fellow-countrymen, while Marshall himself found GIs in Vietnam were more willing to shoot than those of 1941-5. Bregman suggests Marshall’s “fear of aggression” goes back to Man’s beginnings, citing shortage of evidence for warfare from prehistoric art and skeletons – although there is some evidence, and even if there was not, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Animals defend their homes and hunting grounds; it would be passing strange if we semi-animals did not have equivalent instincts.

To the author, humans are not just pacific, but intrinsically altruistic. It is certainly true that in our private lives, we probably all know more people who are kind than people who are not. The problem is that for good or ill, history is made by unrepresentative minorities. He lauds the general courage and orderliness aboard the Titanic and in the World Trade Center, and “the Blitz spirit” (but overlooks that the UK crime rate increased by 57% between 1939 and 1945). Still on urban policing, albeit in a different jurisdiction, he derides James Q. Wilson’s “broken windows” theory of crime (if you ignore vandalism, it attracts worse criminality), without explaining what did cause the extraordinary plummeting in crime in New York between the late 1980s and 2000.

His proposals are regrettably platitudinous and inelegantly expressed, including “Think in win-win scenarios” and “Try to understand the other, even if you don’t get where they’re coming from”. He wants high expectations, openness and opportunity – but who does not? More helpfully, he makes good arguments for rehabilitative prisons, community involvement in local government budgeting, and environmental resources to be regarded as social commons.

One subject on which he is really counterintuitive is empathy – for him no mere bromide, but an oxytocin-powered “searchlight [which] singles out a specific person or group in your life” at the expense of others. Wehrmacht soldiers, he points out, fought not for any ideology, but out of an empathetic wish not to let down their family and friends – while terrorists are bands of brothers, united against Others. An empathy encompassing everybody is an impossibility. Even babies prefer people who look like them; the author admits regretfully we are “born with a button for tribalism”. Diversity, he wishes earnestly, may eventually make us friendlier – but he acknowledges it could have the opposite effect. When it comes to this and other ancient ailments, ultimately all this well-meaning author can suggest is that we hope for the best. It is a poor kind of pabulum for the prostrate patient.

The review first appeared in Chronicles in November 2020, and is reproduced with permission

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