Humans are a (mostly) kind species. A Dutch historian offers proof.

Rutger Bregman’s “Humankind: A Hopeful History” challenges the Hobbesian notion that humans, left to their own devices, devolve into selfishness.  

Courtesy of Hachette Book Group
“Humankind: A Hopeful History” by Rutger Bregman, Little, Brown and Company, 461 pp.

During the coronavirus pandemic, millions of people are staying home in part to protect the most vulnerable members of their communities from COVID-19. When they do venture out, many don masks, which do less to protect them than to shield any strangers with whom they might inadvertently come into contact. Perhaps the time is ripe to consider the provocative thesis of Dutch historian Rutger Bregman’s new book, “Humankind: A Hopeful History.” His “radical idea”? That “most people, deep down, are pretty decent.”

For far too long, Bregman argues, the opposite has been assumed to be true: “There is a persistent myth that by their very nature humans are selfish, aggressive and quick to panic.” Many of our institutions reflect the view of humanity articulated by 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who believed that without a strong ruler, human beings would revert to “a condition of war of all against all.” For his part, Bregman is more aligned with the work of Enlightenment thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who regarded civilization itself as the corrupting force, introducing war, crime, and other horrors that didn’t exist when Homo sapiens lived in a “state of nature.”

William Golding’s classic 1954 novel “Lord of the Flies” dramatized the Hobbesian view, depicting British schoolboys who devolve into savagery after being stranded on an island. But in an impressive feat of research, Bregman unearthed a long-forgotten real-life version of “Lord of the Flies” with an entirely different outcome. In 1965, six boys from the South Pacific archipelago kingdom Tonga were shipwrecked on a remote, deserted island for 15 months. Unlike Ralph, Jack, Piggy, and their schoolmates in Golding's novel, the children from Tonga worked together to survive until they were rescued. In their isolation, they created systems for growing food, collecting rainwater, and exercising, and they took turns tending a fire they managed to keep lit for more than a year. 

Imagine if this were the story generations of young students were taught in school, Bregman muses. In a similar, more modern example, he compares successful reality TV shows (with producers who must constantly stir up drama to create ratings-worthy conflict) to series that have failed (after producers throw groups of strangers together only to find that everyone gets along just fine). The problem with the pessimistic Hobbesian view, the author insists, is that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. “If we believe most people can’t be trusted, that’s how we’ll treat each other, to everyone’s detriment,” he writes.

Bregman is not naive; he grounds his arguments in reassessments of historical events and in studies from the sciences and social sciences, observing that the preponderance of evidence demonstrates that people are much more inclined toward good than toward evil. He debunks a number of long-held beliefs, such as the claim – a pillar of decades of Psychology 101 classes – that dozens of bystanders witnessed the 1964 murder of Queens resident Kitty Genovese without calling the police or coming to her aid.

Bregman presents his findings in a chatty, engaging style that evokes Malcolm Gladwell. As in Gladwell’s work, there is a cherry-picked quality to the information he presents. There is also a fair amount of generalization and oversimplification. For instance, the author acknowledges a human predisposition for tribalism and xenophobia, but argues that most Nazis fought because they didn’t want to let down their comrades, not because they subscribed to Nazi ideology. His summary of World War II as a “heroic struggle in which friendship, loyalty, solidarity – humanity’s best qualities – inspired millions of ordinary men to perpetrate the worst massacre in history” feels woefully inadequate.

Additionally, Bregman tosses off some claims that seem unfounded, like landscape architect Carl Theodor Sørensen’s assertion (in a section extolling the benefits of unregulated, raw play spaces) that the “sandboxes, slides, [and] swings” of today’s playgrounds are “a bureaucrat’s dream and a child’s nightmare.” That would have been news to my kids.

Despite its flaws, “Humankind” is an enjoyable and thought-provoking read, one whose bold argument has potentially far-reaching implications for how we run our governments, workplaces, schools, and correctional facilities. Bregman admiringly profiles two cushy prisons in Norway that have more in common with Club Med than with any American penitentiary. He notes a recidivism rate of 20 percent, compared with 60 percent for American prisons; furthermore, because the majority of the ex-convicts find employment and stay out of prison, they end up costing the system far less money. 

Bregman aims to prove that most people are not driven by self-interest. In perhaps a measure of how entrenched that view remains, my first thought upon reading of the cost savings in Norway was this: If there’s any hope for the institutional change Bregman advocates – from reforming overly punitive penal systems to granting workers and students more autonomy – fiscal arguments like that one will likely carry the most weight.

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