A Hopeful Look Ahead (and Back): A Review of “Humankind: A Hopeful History”

What do you think of human nature? When you look around, consider your surroundings and the society you live in – what comes to mind first? Perhaps you think of how hopeless you felt after browsing through the news app that only fed you one disturbing and bad news report after another. Perhaps you remember your last outburst of rage at the ruthlessness of the profit-driven business world and the ignorance of politicians when it comes to climate change. And you may even feel that throughout this pandemic – when people should be coming together and acting in solidarity – everyone around you is selfish and no longer bothered. Turns out, despite all this, humans are actually not that bad. You don’t believe me? Well, hear me – or rather listen out to the Dutch historian Rutger Bregman.

In his latest book, “Humankind – A Hopeful History”, published in May 2020, Bregman argues humans are fundamentally good. A simple statement, but, viewed in the light of pretty much all Western history, philosophy, psychology, and anthropology, it is radical and new. The book delves deep into the history of Western thought, beginning with the concepts of human nature of two 17th and 18th-century philosophers, Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Hobbes held that only a strong state and firm leadership would keep us from descending into unbridled anarchy and saw human nature as innately selfish and untrustworthy – a notion that has shaped our perception of ourselves to this day. In contrast, Rousseau saw civilisation, with its hierarchical order and notion of ownership, as the cause of discord among us and argued that in the hypothetical state of nature there would be neither envy nor mistrust.

Bregman builds on this view and uses an interdisciplinary approach to refute the premises of human nature by combing through human history from its beginnings to the present. For instance, it was not intelligence, cunning and strength that made homo sapiens prevail, but a trusting cooperation and naïve confidence in future – which is why Bregman prefers the self-coined term “homo puppy” for our species.

Bregman criticises the often pessimistic reporting of today’s media, challenges psychologists and philosophers, politicians, teachers and parents. Through a wealth of delightful digressions into anecdotal incidents in history, the reader is drawn ever more deeply into the exhilarating idea that humanity is indeed good and that a perfectly peaceful and just future is possible. He employs many prominent but discredited case studies from psychology, such the Sanford Prison experiment, discussing for instance a gruesome murder in New York, William Golding’s novel, The Lord of the Flies, and a successful grass-root campaign in Venezuela. Bregman refutes the Hobbesian worldview and surprises time and again with the positive implications of his startling examples. But what about undeniable evidence of evil, such as mass genocide and the Holocaust, you might wonder. Even for this, Bregman sensitively finds a place in his new optimistic view of humanity, and analyses the role of power structures, influence, and survival in decision-making in a non-illusioned way.

Bregman goes beyond creating a revised history of the “homo puppy”. He also explores this view as a means to create a better society: underpinned by intriguing real-life examples from recent years. Some issues, however, do remain untouched by Bregman. For example, the book does not address gender violence and inequality, and largely sidelines cultures and histories beyond the ones labelled as “Western”.

Nonetheless, the optimistic view Bregman develops is infectious, and in fairness, it is probably impossible to cover the whole of human history in less than 500 pages. “Humankind – A Hopeful History” is a thought-provoking book full of refreshing, heart-warming and intriguing ideas, that will leave you addicted to more of this hopeful view of humanity, and offers an exciting glimpse into the future. As the pandemic reaches its second anniversary, what better read could one ask for?  

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