Book review: Humankind

This is going to be a somewhat odd book review because the book I am reviewing, isn’t actually available. At the time I am writing this, the book entitled “Humankind” by Dutch historian Rutger Bregman hasn’t been published in English yet. However, it’s already available in Dutch bearing the title “De meeste mensen deugen” which translates to “Most people are alright”. In the book, Bregman explores the question “what if we have been wrong about ourselves the entire time?”

What am I doing, reviewing a book that isn’t even available in the English language yet? Well, the reason for that is simple: it’s a book worth reading. You see, Bregman is a man of shall we say…unusual ideas. Having unusual ideas is not unique but he manages to support them by a wide array of facts, research and examples from daily life. While his ideas may be unusual, they’re certainly not outlandish.

About Rutger Bregman

The author isn’t naive or out of touch with reality either. Rutger Bregman holds a Master’s degree in history from the university of Utrecht and the university of California. Bregman has published four books to date, including “Utopia for realists” which sparked an international interest in basic income. Bregman held a TEDx talk about his ideas in 2014 which you can see here. He also writes regularly for The Correspondent and tweets here .

Humankind

Dutch cover of Humankind

So what makes this book so special that it warrants a review before the English language version is even published? Well, that all begins with the central premise of the book. Bregman challenges the idea that humans are inherently bad, untrustworthy creatures. He asks “what if the idea that humans are bad is simply a false premise?”

Juxtaposing Thomas HobbesLeviathan with the much more favorable view of humanity of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who claimed that things all went wrong when the first man fenced a piece of land, Bregman explores both these positions. The prevailing view throughout Western history is that people are corrupt, selfish and prone to violence. This idea was embraced, deliberately or not, by kings and church alike to keep people in their place. Only a strong leadership and justice could prevent a descent into chaos and violence.

But what if this premise is not just wrong, but actually a self-fulfilling prophesy? From psychology, it’s well known that people mirror the way you treat them. If you treat people in a friendly and open way, they are likely to respond in that way. Similarly, if you treat people as if they are untrustworthy, they will find ways to prove you right.

Exploration

Photo of Londoners going to work after an air raid during the London Blitz
Londoners going to work after an air raid during the London Blitz

From this basic premise, Bergman explores archaeology, history, psychology, sociology and economy for examples that show how people are and how they react to an array of difficult situations. Drawing on examples ranging from the London Blitz to the Easter Island civilization, Bregman constructs a totally opposite but compelling view of humankind being basically kind, decent and willing to help others.

Despite being full of information, short excursions into philosophy and various fields of science, the book never gets boring or technical. Information is presented in a very accessible way and the large chapter titles make things easy to find.

Much to his credit, Bregman does his best to stay objective, questioning his own research as he goes along. Of course he is compelled the address the obvious question: if people are basically kind and decent. how come they are capable of such immense evil and cruelty?

Paradoxically, it is our empathy towards those close to us that enables us to be harsh or cruel to those far away or outside of our social circle. Paired with cynicism in our leadership, this is a recipe for disaster.

A new realism

Bregman pleads for a new realism, one where we stop seeing people as intrinsically evil, egotistical and violent because the data simply doesn’t support that view. Time and time again, during times of difficulty, people band together and help each other. So what happens if we embrace this new realism and start treating people with respect, dignity and trust? Bregman explores that as well, citing real world examples from around the world and comes up with a surprising conclusion: it works!

Feel good

It’s perhaps easy to act cynical and see this book as a naive feel-good book written by someone with weird ideas. Bregman makes that difficult by citing lots of findings and building a logical case to support his call for a new realism. It’s hard to dismiss his conclusions and I have to admit that they resonate with me. It’s good to hear a more positive sound among the daily din of negativity and bad news. This book paints a more agreeable vision of the future, a future that I wouldn’t mind seeing come to fruition. So yes, “Humankind” is a feel-good book but it’s certainly not naive. I finished it with a smile on my face and I highly recommend you read it too.