Humankind. A Hopeful History Rutger Bregman.
Bloomsbury Publishing. London. 2020. p. 463. $ 32-99
ISBN TPB 978-1-4088-9894-9
A review by Reg Naulty, Canberra Quaker Meeting, Australia
In this book, Rutger Bregman presents scientific evidence showing that a more realistic and positive view of human nature than is commonly held, is reasonable. For example, many environmentalists see humans as a destructive plague on the earth. And the news, according to Bregman, habitually gives a dispiriting picture of human beings. He points out that the news, instead, could have truthfully reported every day for the last 25 years that extreme poverty had come down by 137,000 since yesterday.
Some literary works have contributed to a low estimate of human nature, the novel “The Lord Of The Flies”, for example. That presents a version of the “veneer theory” ie that civilisation is a thin veneer which is easily destroyed by circumstance. Bregman is much concerned to refute that theory. Accordingly, he tells the true story of six boys who in 1965 became wrecked on a tropical island for fourteen months. They worked out a peaceful form of conflict resolution, and organised their slim resources so well that when they were finally rescued, they were all hale and hearty and on good terms with one another.
Bregman has anthropological evidence to show that over the past 200,000 years, our faces and bodies have grown softer, more youthful and more feminine, and that people have become weaker, more vulnerable and infantile for longer. How then, did we prevail on the earth? Bregman answers that people ultra-social learning machines. We crave togetherness and interaction. When it comes to choosing a mate, we select for kindness.
Given this optimistic picture, what does Bregman say about World War 11 and the holocaust? To the excuse “I was just obeying orders”, used by Adolph Eichmann and others, Bregman replies that orders passed down by the Nazi bureaucracy tended to be vague, and that Eichmann and his like responded by doing the sort of thing they thought would please their superiors. No excuse there. Bregman remarks that war- time Germany came after a long ideological preparation.
There is a difference between the leaders of Nazism and the rank and file in the army. Their motivation was comradeship, to look after their mates. The same goes for the foot soldiers of Islam. Three quarters of them were recruited by acquaintances, and they have scant knowledge of Islam.
Bregman has some astonishing statistics about the behaviour of soldiers on battlefields. In WW 11, more than half of US veterans never killed anyone, and most casualties were the work of a small minority of soldiers. In the US Air Force, less than 1% of fighter pilots were responsible for about 40% of the planes brought down.
A huge data base of statistics going back to 1900 shows that more than 50% of non-violent campaigns were successful, as opposed to 26% of violent ones. More people join non- violent campaigns, on average, eleven times more. And not just males but also women, children, and elderly people with disabilities.
Our covid19 and global warming times need a book like this. It puts faith in humanity on a firm foundation. The book is a joy to read.