Review: ‘Human Kind’ by Rutger Bregman

Aug 15, 2021

What a marvellous book! A powerful refutation of one of the most deeply entrenched and mistaken assumptions built into our taken-for-granted world view that human nature is nasty.

For thousands of years, almost everyone has believed that human nature is nasty, that we are basically selfish, competitive, aggressive and prone to violence, and that civilisation is a “thin veneer” that restrains us but is easily fractured.  Bregman contrasts this Hobbesian view with that of Rousseau, who argued that our original nature was not like this and that it is “civilisation” that is causing the trouble.

The book is a long and detailed examination of lots of evidence on related issues, with 53 pages of mostly scientific references. It is clear and written in an engaging style (although much too long.) It is very convincing. The critiques I found do not dispute the validity of his main arguments.

He begins by demolishing the well known Lord of the Flies book by Golding, which portrays a group of boys stranded on a desert island descending into barbarism. Bregman describes what actually happened when a group of boys were stranded on a Pacific island for many months. They got along just fine, setting up a commune and working together to build shelter and collect food until they were found.  One is still living in Queensland. When they had an argument the rule was for the parties to separate for some time, then come back and shake hands.

Bregman summarises the studies on what happens in disasters such as hurricanes, or accidents when there are no authorities around to impose order.  People typically jump into helping and cooperating to fix things.  It is not the case that when the veneer of civilised order cracks a war of all against all breaks out. There follow four hundred pages of analysis of similar situations and phenomena.

Bregman marvels at the way the negative assumption has dominated thinking for a least two thousand years. “In almost every country most people believe that most other people cant be trusted.” (p. 12.) He puts it in terms of the clash between the Hobbesian ”veneer” view that the state of nature is nasty brutish and short, and thus that civilisation is a fragile shell over it and requires tight top-down rule or order will crumble, and Rousseau who argued that it is civilisation that is the problem, keeping humans “everywhere in chains” and that things were OK in the “state of nature” before civilisation was invented.

Bregman argues that what most characterises the human species is friendliness. “… we are one of the friendliest species in the animal kingdom.” (p. 245.) We like being around others, being on good terms, helping and co-operating. “Humans crave togetherness and interaction.”  (p. 80.) This he says is the major factor in the progress of our species, much more important than competition. Friendlier homo would have been better at communicating and cooperating. “Survival of the friendliest.” Above all, we, and many other animals, enjoy playing with each other. You have heard of Homo Ludens but Bregman calls us Homo Puppy.

Hobbes and the rest of the pessimists think life was problematic until civilisation came along. Bregman goes over the established case that while civilisation has had its merits its coming was a disaster.

Much space is given to the way we humans lived for a very long time as hunter-gatherers. These societies were friendly, not hierarchical or aggressive, providing a high level of freedom for children and women (who were usually able to terminate a partnership and form another as they wished … “serial monogamy”) and “allergic to inequality.” They shared everything and did everything together, in a group rather than as individuals. They had no taxes, bosses, states, religious domination, property or inheritance. Decisions “… were group affairs requiring long deliberation in which everybody got to have their say.” (p. 97.)  One survey of 339 studies concluded that they are “… all but obsessively concerned with being free from the authority of others.” (p. 97.) They had mechanisms for preventing inequality and the rise of powerful individuals, especially the use of shame. The successful hunter would say and be told, that his meat is not much good.  “For hundreds of thousands of years, we had efficient ways of taking down anyone who put on airs.” (p. 101.)

He says they did not make war. In cave paintings from that era “ … there’s not a single depiction of war.” (p. 93.) “How much archaeological evidence is there for early warfare, before the days of farming? … The answer is almost none.”  (p. 93.) Some three thousand skeletons have been found and the analysts “…see no convincing evidence for prehistoric warfare.” 93

But this is not what Pinker claims.  He is famous for claiming that “…we started off nasty” (p. 80) and have been improving since.  Bregman goes into the anthropological literature against this claim. (p. 92.)

So the state of nature seems distinctly not to have been nasty, brutish and short.  Rousseau 1, Hobbs nil. Round two begins.

Then it just about all went wrong. Humans took up farming and Civilisation began. “Rousseau saw the invention of farming as one big fiasco…” (p. 105.) Diet deteriorated markedly and being confined in settlements close to many others and to animals led to poorer health.  More work had to be done. Patriarchy began. Inequality, elites, kings and tyrants began. “The 1% began oppressing the 99%.” (p. 105.) Vindictive vengeful religion began. With property to leave to offspring “… female virginity became an obsession.” It seems debt began; the first evidence of writing we have is of recorded debts.

And it is here that war begins, evident in the first cave paintings of war, and in the kinds of skeleton injuries occurring. “…the first archeological evidence for war suddenly appears 10,000 years ago.” (p. 200.)

But that’s not the worst of it. The “…final catastrophic event so lamented by Rousseau…(was) the birth of the state.” (p. 109.) Bregman concludes, “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.” (p. 112.)

So, Rousseau 2, Hobbes still 0?

But if we’re so friendly, why so much warfare? Bregman’s impressive answer is essentially … because we are so friendly. Again his case is good on evidence. Let’s start with, do soldiers fight wars because they are aggressive and want to kill? It’s pretty clear that in general, they don’t.  After the battle of Gettysburg 17,347 muskets were collected and it was found that 90% were loaded but not fired. (p. 84.) Other similar studies support Collins’ conclusion, “Humans are hard-wired for solidarity; and this is what makes violence so difficult.”

Why then do soldiers fight so hard? He says large studies have found that the answer is not ideology but the strong bonds between the men and the determination not to let comrades down. For example, this stood out in 15,000 pages of transcripts of conversations overheard among German POWs, and also in studies among American soldiers.  (p. 208) Fighting it seems is in fact due to … friendship. “Comaraderie is the weapon that wins wars.” (p. 208.)

Bregman devotes the last half of the book to the ways the Hobbesian assumption leads us to do so many things the wrong way.  “… we continually operate on a mistaken model of human nature.” (p. 251.) It tells us that humans are selfish, vicious, and untrustworthy, and therefore control, repression, correction, and punishment are necessary. He considers the resulting ways we organise corporations schools, prisons etc. Then he provides examples of practices based on contrary assumptions, documenting the stunning achievements when relations are based on friendliness and trust.

Above all the Hobbesian view tells us we need rulers.  We are fallible, perverse and violent animals in need of control from above. How remarkable that a doctrine providing such clear proof of the legitimacy of the ruling class should be so indubitably accepted!

Bregman seems to me to be powerfully correct, (Rousseau wins, OK?) and his analysis has very valuable implications for policy at the personal and social levels.  My concern is that in order to understand the mess the world is in we need to go further than he goes. The basic causal factors in our predicament are not well analysed primarily in terms of our good or bad human nature.  They require attention to be focused on our faulty institutions, systems and culture, and what it is about us that allows them to persist. Without the hunter-gatherer’s levelling mechanisms the few unfriendly and shameless get to the top and run things, including states, to enrich themselves. They are the ones who start the wars.

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