At some point in time, we decided cynicism was synonymous with intelligence and wisdom. We praised cynics for their realism and scoffed at those who held onto fairy tales. Taking off the rose-tinted glasses became a coming-of-age milestone. The general consensus says human beings are self-interested by nature, so we embedded this principle everywhere. Too comfortable with it, we refuse to even entertain the radical opposing idea that Dutch historian Rutger Bregman champions in his new book, Humankind: A Hopeful History (Bloomsbury UK, 2020).
What is this radical idea, you ask? Well, that deep-down, humans are fairly decent.
Anthropology professor Brian Hare tells Bregman that what makes us the kindest species also makes us the cruellest. We are not innately good. After all, we are only human, and history has no doubt proved our capacity for evil—but just as the typical person is no Michelangelo or Shakespeare, they are also no Stalin.
Humankind is exquisitely insightful. Bregman is at his most riveting when unpacking human weaknesses, like how foolishly we fall for evil disguised as good—the Holocaust was once disguised as a fight for German greatness by Nazi propaganda. In the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, volunteers posing as prison guards were increasingly cruel to the prisoner test subjects. Why? Because they believed it was for the greater good of science, Bregman says.
This conniving tactic could be what enables extremist rubbish to manifest as all-consuming, horrific chapters of human history. Bregman convinces readers not with framing tricks and sweeping claims but with pure research. Only after delivering pages upon pages of evidence does he make a claim. His premise is not crazy, so why are we so resistant?
Is it our obsession with horror and spectacle? Bregman explains: shock value generates the most clicks and so, by simple supply-and-demand, our world is saturated with cynicism. In William Golding's 1954 book, Lord of the Flies, civilised British boys turn savage while stranded on an island. Golding's book is a powerful reminder of how fragile civility seemingly is when law and social judgment are out of the picture. Dutch biologist Frans de Waal called it veneer theory, the idea that civility is a thin shell breakable by poor circumstances. As Bregman puts it, "a tweak in our situation" and "out comes the Nazi in each of us". Golding's cautionary tale became a pillar in our view of humankind, despite one tiny detail—Lord of the Flies is fiction.
Bregman uncovered the real story: in 1966, twelve years after Golding's book, an Australian captain incidentally found six Tongan schoolboys on the island of 'Ata. They were stranded for 15 months on an island uninhabited since 1863, when its natives were forced into the Pacific slave trade. So, did Golding's prediction play out? Not at all. No one formed rival gangs. No one was murdered. When one boy fell off a cliff and broke his leg, his fellow castaways set his leg with sticks and leaves. They told him to rest while they did his work for him. Lord of the Flies would have left him for dead.
Bregman argues that our exaggerated pessimism is not only misleading but damaging. He explains that if we continue to treat others as self-interested, untrustworthy, and dangerous then for protection, we will become the same. What we think of others determines our own conduct. After all, friendly Easter Island natives were killed by Dutchmen who thought they would be attacked.
That is what economics professor Robert Frank found in the 1990s, when he tested how treating human nature as egotistical might affect his students. Frank's students became what they were taught: the longer they studied economics, the more selfish they became.
Bregman puts some blame on falsified journalism—twisted information that pushes a shock-value narrative. When Kitty Genovese was dying in front of her apartment, the friend who immediately ran out, without questioning if Kitty's murderer remained, was reported as someone who did not want to get involved. They buried the fact that most of Kitty's neighbours thought she was just drunk. A New York Times journalist said, "It would have ruined the story". They buried the fact that police were called multiple times but did not come. Instead, the story became: 38 witnesses sat idle as their neighbour was murdered.
Yet Bregman is not tunnel-visioned, he is expansive across history, anthropology, crime, psychology, and politics. Above all, he makes Humankind a kaleidoscope of stories. Stories of soldiers repeatedly emptying and refilling rifles to avoid shooting. Stories of German and British soldiers shaking hands during Christmas ceasefires, and Londoners sipping tea as their windows rattled from bombs. Perhaps, it is time we observed human nature with valid evaluation rather than blind cynicism.
Perhaps, as Humankind uncovers, the cynics are the ones out of touch.
Alifa Monjur is studying commerce and law in Sydney.