Humankind : A Hopeful History (2020) by Rutger Bregman is a curious book that is a mish-mash of various bits of history and psychology research that has a grand thesis that we’re all pretty decent folks and we should just be nice to each other and things will be grand. It’s appealing suggestion.
Bregman starts out looking at how people have recently banded together in various trying times including the Blitz, the Allied bombing of Germany and after natural disasters. Bregman doesn’t pick the Holodomor or The Great Leap Forward where human behaviour under combined suffering was not nearly as noble.
He goes on to look at how the idea that hunter gatherers were inclined to violence against each other and suggests that they were largely peacefuland disputes various claims by others including Steven Pinker. A bit of reading around on the internet appears to show that this is far from a fringe theory and may in fact be the case. But it’s far from clear that it was not the case either. Suggesting that war is due to agriculture and property is more than a bold claim.
The book then looks at how various psychology experiments that showed that people can be made to do awful things, such as the Stanford prison experiment and the Milgram experiment were very poor experiments that shouldn’t be used to push the idea that it’s easy to get people to do ill. However, impressively while citing these dubious bits of research he goes on to cite SLA Marshall who claimed that most soldiers avoid shooting to kill. It’s worth quickly reading Marshall’s wikipedia entry, which includes the line “more recent historians have contended that much of the research he conducted for his most famous work, Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command, was either biased or even completely fabricated.”
There is an interesting bit on ‘Lord of the Flies’ and what happened to a real group of young men who were shipwrecked where the boys worked hard together to survive.
The book looks at how prisons that concentrate on rehabilitation and try to treat people as well as possible do well, which does seem to be backed up by various justice systems around the world. There is also a foray into very free schools, which Bregman suggests are great at educating. However the one Bregman visits is failing to meet basic educational standards in the Netherlands, which made me laugh out loud.
Bregman does some admirable work in collating the debunking of various false studies, but then accepts happily a few ideas that appeal to him.
Humankind isn’t a terrible book, but it’s worse than his previous book ‘Utopia for Realists’. There are some interesting facts in there and Bregman writes well, but the book overall is pretty weak.