Humankind: A Hopeful History

Humankind: A Hopeful History

by Rutger Bregman

One fundamental principle that has shaped Bregman’s thinking is that every progressive idea—whether it was the abolition of slavery, the advent of democracy, women's suffrage, or the ratification of marriage equality—was once considered radical and dangerous by the mainstream opinion of its time. With Humankind, he brings that mentality to bear against one of our most entrenched ideas: namely, that human beings are naturally selfish and self-interested.

Summary Notes

A New Realism

“If you believe something enough, it can become real.”

It's a common misconception that people are inherently egotistical, violent, and inclined to panic. The veneer theory, popularized by Dutch scientist Frans de Waal, says that civilization is only a thin shell that is brittle and prone to cracking. The truth is that we, as humans, are pretty decent and at our best when a crisis arises. 

No matter what you think about them, certain things are true. Consider the placebo effect:  If your doctor gives you a fake medicine and says it will cure your illness, you will probably feel better. The likelihood increases as the placebo become more dramatic.

However, it also functions in reverse. If you take the wrong medication, hoping it will make you ill, it probably will. As it is known, the nocebo effect hasn't been extensively studied because of the contentious moral issues surrounding persuading healthy people that they are unwell. Despite this, all available evidence points to nocebos' potential for great power.

If the nocebo effect can teach us anything, it's that concepts are never just concepts. Our beliefs shape who we are. We discover what we search for, and our predictions come true.

This means we will all suffer if we treat each other that way or if we think that most people can't be trusted.

Most respondents to a survey in nations from Russia to Canada, Mexico to Hungary said that things are getting worse. The exact opposite is true in reality: extreme poverty, war casualties, infant mortality, crime, famine, child labor, fatalities from natural catastrophes, and the incidence of aviation crashes have all decreased during the past few decades. 

We're at the most thriving, secure, and healthy time in history. Why then do we not see this? Because news is filled with the unusual: events like terrorist attacks, violent rebellion, or natural disasters are more newsworthy. 

Actions to take

The State of Nature

“Mankind are so much the same, in all times and places, that history informs us of nothing new or strange in this particular. Its chief use is only to discover the constant and universal principles of human nature.” -  David Hume 

Thome Hobbes was one of the first thinkers to assert that understanding ourselves comes from understanding how our ancestors lived first. His view of human nature was the one that is the most popular—that people are greedy, jealous, and nasty. He said that when a crisis hits, we turn against each other, and our deeply rooted animal instincts rise to the surface.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, on the other hand, believed that humans are much better. When humans were in a "state of nature” back then, we were still compassionate beings. We had now developed cynicism and self-interest. Once, when we were strong and healthy. Now we were weak and sluggish. His opinion was that civilization had been a grave error. We shouldn’t have wasted our freedom.

We, humans, in evolutionary terms, are babies. As a species, we’ve only just emerged. There is so much we don’t know about ourselves, and a lot we have misunderstood in the past and so will be in the future. But we can look back at our history to draw some conclusions, preferably without our biases affecting our judgments.

Animals, like chimpanzees and orangutans, are not much different from us (as toddlers) in intelligence than we would think. They are on the same level as us in means of spatial understanding, calculation and causality. On the evolutionary scale, the one skill that distinguishes us from other animals is our ability to learn from others–social learning.

It turns out that people are extremely social learning machines. We're meant to grow, connect, and have fun. The fact that blushing is the only expression that is exclusively human may not seem so strange. After all, blushing is fundamentally social because it involves people demonstrating their concern for others' opinions, which builds trust and encourages cooperation.

We are hardwired to relate to those around us and constantly leak emotions. But rather than being a disadvantage, this is actually our greatest strength because social beings are not only more enjoyable to be around but also ultimately more intelligent.

Actions to take

The Curse of Civilisation

“Humans think much better than we think.”

Humans also have a dark side. We have a fatal flaw that makes us gravitate toward those who are most like us.

According to research, the effects of oxytocin appear to be restricted to one's own group. The hormone can increase aversion to strangers and enhance affection for friends. It turns out that oxytocin does not promote global brotherhood. It fuels the sentiment of "my people first."

Parenting demonstrated sexual equality as well. Compared to many fathers today, men in prehistoric societies spent more time with their children. The entire tribe was responsible for raising the children; everyone held the infants, and sometimes different women even breastfed them. 

‘Such early experiences,’ notes one anthropologist, ‘help explain why children in foraging societies tend to acquire working models of their world as a “giving place.” Whereas modern-day parents advise their children not to talk to strangers, we were reared on a diet of trust in prehistory.

When Rosseau, the first man to claim land, said it was his property–it started to go all wrong. It wasn't simple to convince people that land, animals, or even other people could now be considered their property. Foragers had already shared almost everything. But inequality grew as a result of this new ownership practice. Even after someone passed away, their possessions were passed down to the following generation. The wealth gap widened once this type of inheritance entered the picture.

The farmers quickly outnumbered the foragers. Farming communities could produce more food per acre, which allowed them to build bigger armies. Nomadic tribes that kept their ancient way of life had to oppose invading colonists and their contagious diseases.

Ultimately, tribes that resisted a proposal to a dictator were suppressed by force. These initial conflicts marked the beginning of the great race that would influence world history. As societies scaled up to meet the implacable demands of war, towns dominated villages, towns were annexed by cities, and provinces absorbed cities. This resulted in the final catastrophic event that Rousseau bewailed. The birth of the state.

For centuries, civilization was a failure. Most people experienced suffering rather than prosperity with the development of cities, states, agriculture, and writing. We have only forgotten how miserable life used to be in the last two centuries because improvements came so quickly.

Today, vaccinations save more lives annually than would have been prevented if there had been global peace for the entire 20th century. Second, we have more wealth than ever. Extreme poverty is now only experienced by less than 10% of the population. Third, slavery is no longer practiced.

Actions to take

In the Basement of Stanford University

“In a matter of days, the Stanford Prison Experiment spins out of control—and in the process reveals some grim truths about human nature.”

The Stanford Prison Experiment is a well-known experiment that seeks to reveal human nature. College students were set up as prisoners and corrections officers in this study. The study demonstrated that when given the freedom of choice, people turn into wicked, evil, and cruel beings. This was shown by how cruel the guards handled the prisoners.

The study's director, Philip Zimbardo, insisted that the Stanford Prison Experiment guards did not receive orders for forty years in countless interviews and articles. The rules, the penalties, and the humiliations they inflicted on the prisoners were all their own inventions.

The opposite is true in every way. It turns out that Jaffe, one of Zimbardo's students, was the author of eleven of the study's seventeen rules. Jaffe was the one who created a thorough plan for the arrival of the prisoners. From securing them with ankle chains, taking off their clothes, to requiring them to remain motionless for fifteen minutes. 

Jaffe spent six hours with the guards on the Saturday before the experiment, instructing them how to use their chains and batons most effectively. He informed them that he had a list of what happened and what would have to happen. His fellow guards praised him for his "pseudo-creative ideas" after the ordeal was over.

Despite mounting pressure, most Stanford Prison Experiment guards remained reluctant to use any "tough" tactics. Two-thirds of the group rejected the sadistic games. To the chagrin of Zimbardo and his team, one-third showed kindness to the prisoners. The Sunday before the experiment began, one of the guards resigned, citing his inability to follow the rules.

Actions to take

Stanley Milgram and the Shock Machine

“Apparently, two-thirds of those ordinary dads, pals, and husbands were willing to electrocute a random stranger. Why? Because someone told them to.”

Many of us are capable of doing evil if we are pushed hard enough, prodded, baited, and manipulated. Good intentions often lead to bad results. However, evil doesn't just lurk below the surface; it takes a lot of work to bring it out. Most importantly, evil must appear to be doing good.

During the Second World War, hundreds of German soldiers began knocking on doors all over Denmark to round up all the Danish Jews. That evening, the Germans heard that most Jews had left after hearing about the raid. In fact, that warning was the reason they survived the war. 

This Danish exception just shows that civil society's humanism can be mobilized. Even without centralized planning or coordination, a network of escape routes was swiftly created. Numerous Danes—rich and poor, young and old—realized that the time had come to act and that turning a blind eye would betray their nation.

Their rescue was a dim but brilliant point of light in a time of total darkness. It was a victory for bravery and humanity.

Actions to take

How Empathy Blinds

“In practical terms, says Professor Bloom, empathy is a hopelessly limited skill.”

One problem that perplexed the scientists at the beginning of 1944 was why the Germans kept up fighting even if they were vastly outnumbered and trapped between an impending Allied invasion in the west and the advancing Russians in the east. Had they undergone such extensive brainwashing? What else could account for the Germans' determination to fight?

German prisoners were interrogated one after the other for weeks. The answers were identical: It’s not the appeal of the Nazi ideology nor the illusion that they could somehow prevail. It’s also not that because they are brainwashed. The actual cause for the German army's ability to fight with an almost superhuman effort was much more straightforward – friendship.

Some truths are nearly unbearable to accept. How could those monsters were also inspired by what was noble and just about humanity—that they too were fueled by valor and fidelity, devotion, and solidarity?

The solidarity of brave warriors, not the sadistic tendencies of degenerate bad guys, was where evil first emerged. Millions of regular men were inspired to commit the worst massacre in history during the Second World War by friendship, loyalty, and solidarity—the best traits of humanity.

Empathy is a natural ability that we have and are capable of using because of who we are as people. We can envision what it would feel like to walk in someone else's shoes. We are not only capable of doing this but also skilled at it. We can easily absorb someone's emotions because we are like emotional vacuum cleaners. Just consider how even movies and books have the power to make us laugh and cry.

In the context of groups, empathy functions differently than we might expect. Like a spotlight, it. We support the person in the spotlight, but those around them remain in the background: They are not given the benefit of empathy.

Actions to take

The Power of Intrinsic Motivation

‘‘So we have to be idealists in a way, because then we wind up as the true, the real realists.” - Viktor Franki 

The Pygmalion (treating people like they have high potential results in them reaching high potential) and Golem Effects (treating people like they have low potential results in them reaching low potential) are woven into the fabric of our world. Every day, we make each other smarter or stupider, stronger or weaker, faster or slower.

This mirroring functions effectively most of the time. When everyone is spinning on the dance floor, it promotes connections and positive energy. Our intrinsic tendency to imitate others is often seen positively, yet instinct is two-way. We also mirror hatred, envy, and greed. And the outcomes can be utterly disastrous when we adopt one another's bad ideas, believing that everyone else shares them.

Intrinsic motivation

It's interesting how bonuses undermine a worker's moral compass and intrinsic motivation. Targets and bonuses may suppress creativity. When tasks are straightforward and routine, they may be effective. These are precisely the tasks contemporary economies increasingly employ robots to complete; robots do not require intrinsic motivation, unlike us. 

Instead of asking how to motivate others, we should ask how to create a society that encourages self-motivation. This query is neither capitalist nor socialist, conservative nor progressive, etc. It speaks to a fresh realist movement because nothing has more influence than people who act on their desires. 

Children's intrinsic motivation has been systematically suppressed over the past few decades. They have been forced to spend their free time participating in activities like homework, sports, music, drama, tutoring, and exam preparation by adults, reducing their time for play – the freedom to follow their curiosity, learn, create, and experiment for fun, without parental or instructor guidelines.

Parents spend more time with their children. However, spontaneity and playfulness are also a general perception that something important is disappearing. Toddlers can learn to walk and talk without tests or grades. They naturally have it because they are eager to learn about the world. 

Children of hunters and gatherers also learn through play. There is much to do in the jungle, including catching insects, making bows and arrows, and mimicking animal calls. Having a profound understanding of plants and animals is also necessary. Children also learn to work together by playing together. The older children teach the younger ones because they feel they must share their knowledge.

This all boils to asking the right question. It’s not: Can our kids handle the freedom? But: Do we have the courage to give it to them?

These days, the way many of us work—with no freedom, no play, no intrinsic motivation—is fuelling an epidemic of depression.

Actions to take

Drinking Tea with Terrorists

“When you’re treated with kindness, it’s easy to do the right thing.”

Can we go one step further? What if we believed the best not only about our enemies but also about our children, coworkers, and neighbors?

Gordon Allport spent his life wondering about the origin of prejudice and how it could be stopped. He'd discovered a miraculous treatment after years of research.

Since we don't know strangers, we tend to make broad assumptions about them. This made the solution—increasing contact. The majority of scientists criticized Allport's theory as being simplistic and naive.

However, contact is impactful. It fosters greater mutual kindness, solidarity, and trust. It enables you to view the world from their perspective. It also alters who you are because people who have a diverse group of friends are more accepting of outsiders. Contact is contagious: observing a neighbor getting along with others causes you to reevaluate your own prejudices.

More so than a joke or a helping hand, a single negative experience (a clash or an angry look) leaves a lasting impression on us. That is simply how our brains operate. How is it that contact still brings us closer together if we have a better memory for negative interactions? There are countless positive interactions for every negative event we experience. The good outweighs the bad, despite the bad seeming to be stronger.

We must learn how to interact with strangers, beginning early in childhood. One of the most important discoveries to result from science is that we can only eradicate prejudices if we maintain our own identity. We must acknowledge that there is nothing improper about the fact that we are all unique. We can lay strong foundations for our identities and build strong houses – the doors can then be opened.

We frequently find ourselves returning to the front lines. We all too frequently overlook that the person standing 100 yards away is exactly like us. We often engage in cyber-fire with one another while hiding out, whether it be on social media or in online forums. We generalize about people we have never met based on fear, ignorance, suspicion, and stereotypes. 

However,  there is another choice. Bitter enemies can shake hands and turn their hatred into friendship. We can have faith in that, not because we have a right to be tolerant, but because it really did happen.

The best things in life are reciprocal; the more you give, the more you receive. That holds true for friendship, trust, and peace.

Actions to take

Don’t just read. Act.
Read comprehensive summaries and discover carefully compiled action lists for active learning
Phone

Our site saves small pieces of text information (cookies) on your device in order to deliver better content and for statistical purposes. You can disable the usage of cookies by changing the settings of your browser. By browsing our website without changing the browser settings you grant us permission to store that information on your device.