Human kind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman

Cover of Human kind: A Hopeful History

I really enjoyed this and it’s going to stay with me for a long time. I was already onboard with the author’s premise that most people are decent human beings before I started reading, although I was still rather sceptical that Bregman was going to manage to sustain his argument in the light of some pretty overwhelming opposition to it. But I think he did a pretty good job.

The angle that I wasn’t expecting was the one that says that civilisation is what creates the problem and not the solution. That’s how our sense of history gets flipped upside down. Civilisation has become synonymous with peace and progress, and wilderness with war and decline. In reality, for most of human existence, it was the other way around.

I’ve read many of the debunkings of experiments featured here before (like those that ‘prove’ that people won’t help someone if there enough other people around, or gangs of children left alone will turn feral) that I wasn’t surprised by most of the details in this book. I particularly like this quote, apropos of an attempt to recreate the Stanford Prison experiment as a TV show though
For TV producers, the experiment exposed a harsh truth: if you leave ordinary people alone, nothing happens. Or worse, they’ll try to start a pacifist commune.
One thing that will stick with me is how most people don’t want to kill other people, even when their own lives are in danger, not at close range. Most war victims die by the hand someone who didn’t witness the carnage, they pressed a button, planted a mine, dropped a bomb. Training people to overcome that probably leads to a lot of ex-soldiers with PTSD. (Although that was one bit where I would have liked to have had time to check the citations for more info.) But I think this is the main point: Finally, there’s one group which can easily keep the enemy at a distance: the leaders.
Overall it was a refreshing read, even if it did make me feel like running away from civilisation some of the time. I think that at the end of the day the message is that kindness is contagious, and everyone actually wants to be kind.

(the quotes lost their quotiness on importing to nocto – i’ll sort it out later!)


More information about this book can be found on goodreads.

Read on July 27, 2021

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