A book review of Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman (New York: Little Brown, 2019)
by John M Repp
The book is a delight to read and sorely needed at this time, after the January 6, 2021 insurrection. Bregman tells us many stories to pose the question: what is the nature of human beings? Are we “sinful” and “willful” as the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis tells us? Are we primarily “self-interested” as many social scientists tell us? Or are most of us “pretty decent”? Bregman uses much post-1960’s science to make his case.
Let me introduce Homo puppy (p. 65ff.), the name Bregman gives to our species to explain his theory of evolution. Homo puppy was a more domesticated version of Neanderthal man, Homo neanderthalensis. With Homo puppy, the brain, jaw, and teeth are all smaller, the facial features are softer, the male and female more alike, and the adult retains many features of the juvenile. These physical characteristics are analogous to what we find in domesticated animals compared to their wild relations. (see illustration below) Humans are a self-domesticated species.
How did this happen? As humans were evolving, the friendlier individuals, not the physically stronger or more dominant, were able to have more children. It was the “survival of the friendliest”. The reason is friendlier individuals can cooperate with each other better and cooperation and teamwork were the keys to human survival. Homo puppy could also form larger groups. Add in social learning, a retained juvenile characteristic, which compared to adult chimps and orangutans, Homo puppy had in great abundance, and our ancestors could come up with new ways to adapt that would spread around faster. The hands and skill to make a hand axe for cutting and to throw a spear for hunting are examples. At the same time as friendlier and more cooperative individuals were “socially selected”, any arrogant, domineering, and tyrannical individuals were shunned, and occasionally assassinated. Anthropologists have documented this idea by studying the lifeways of foragers over the last few centuries.
One section on artic foxes (p. 60ff.) explains the domestication process very well. A Russian geneticist wanted to breed silver foxes to prove a theory. He thought less ferocious foxes, after breeding for friendliness, would have the same type of physical changes we see in domesticated animals. For the experiment, a breeder first examined all the foxes in their cages on a fox breeding farm in Siberia. If the foxes hesitated for even a second in attacking the gloved hand stuck into their cages, they were selected for breeding. After just four generations, the bred silver foxes started wagging their tails. A few more generations and they were seeking human attention and responding to the calling of their names.
Bregman goes through many things we have all heard that make us doubt whether humans are by nature a good species. For example, he contrasts the perennial bestselling fictional book Lord of the Flies with a real event where six Tongan boys were marooned on an island for fifteen months (p. 22ff.). After eight days adrift, after a storm damaged their boat making them unable to sail or steer it back home, the six landed on the island of Ata’. Much of the time the boys were sad, missing their families and friends. But they did not turn on each other and form fighting factions like the boys in Lord of the Flies. The six worked in teams of two. They made decisions democratically. If there was conflict, they separated the antagonists for a few hours on opposite sides of the island, like a timeout. At first, they hunted coastal birds on the cliffs of the island. Since there had been Polynesian people on that island at one time, before it became “deserted” after Peruvian slavers kidnapped the original people, the boys were able to catch feral chickens and raise them. They built gardens and kept a signal fire going the whole time they were marooned.
There are so many more inspiring stories: the refusal of most soldiers to shoot their weapons in World War II (p. 79ff.); the archaeological study that showed many muskets found on the battlefield at Gettysburg had been loaded more than one time (p. 83ff.), explained by the idea many soldiers would rather load their muskets over and over rather than shoot the enemy; what really happened on Easter Island – the deforestation was not done by careless humans (p. 115ff.); a description of a large Dutch non-hierarchical home healthcare business (p. 264ff.); a new kind of school (p. 288ff.); a clear explanation of some of the more difficult ideas in the Sermon on the Mount (p. 323); a description of a Norwegian prison (p. 326ff.); and a description of participatory budgeting in the chapter entitled “This is what democracy looks like” (p. 300ff.).
Bregman ends his book with a story many people in the peace movement know: the Christmas eve truce of 1914 (p. 366ff.) spontaneously organized by the rank-and-file of both sides in the trenches of World War I. He adds details most of us have not heard. This type of truce has happened many times in other wars: in the Spanish Civil War, the Boer Wars, the American Civil War, in the Crimean War and in the Napoleonic Wars (p. 370). The officers “turned themselves inside out to halt the plague of peace. On 29 December (1914), German Army Command issued an order that strictly prohibited fraternizing with the enemy.” (p. 376) The British field marshal did the same and threatened court-martial. Sometimes, letters were passed across the lines like one by a French unit to a German one that warned a General was coming, “…so we will have to fire”.
Bregman comes down on the side of Rousseau in the famous debate in Western philosophy between Rousseau and Hobbes on the nature of our species. Today we live in “civilization”, long after most of our kind existed as foragers in small egalitarian bands. Living in huge nations, with many levels of hierarchy, we are “mismatched” with this kind of society and it is this that causes many problems. All the history we read, our daily dose of “news”, Hollywood movies, and TV shows, all tend to make us believe the worst about our species. Bregman has a big mountain to climb to convince people of his thesis. I suspect most elite individuals will not accept his analysis. This would not surprise him since he tells us that many of those perched at the top of huge corporate and government hierarchies have actual or “acquired sociopathy” (p. 226). For the rest of us, and for the young people who need a better world, Humankind can be recommended.