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Angels and Demons-Book review "Humankind: A Hopeful History" (Rutger Bregman)

Angels and Demons of human nature

Book Review of “Humankind: A Hopeful History” by Rutger Bregman (2020)*

In 2019 an estimated 90,000 people became the victims of organized violence in Afghanistan, Mexico, Yemen and Syria. Add to that the number of deaths of the other 36 armed conflicts that are currently being fought somewhere on this planet, and the picture is discouraging. How can this aggression be reconciled with the positive image of humanity that journalist and historian Rutger Bregman presents to us in his newly translated book “Humankind: A Hopeful History”? Humans, according to Bregman, have evolved to be friendly - Homo puppy - because it gave them the greatest chance of survival and offspring. In other words, it’s "survival of the friendliest" stupid! This well-written book supports this thesis with interesting anecdotes and scientific insights.

Where did it go wrong with Homo Sapiens? Bregman blames the agricultural revolution. Before that, humans lived peacefully as hunter-gatherers in somewhat paradisiacal conditions with an abundance of food, freedom and space. Agriculture put an end to that. Humans settled, worked hard to gather possessions, and worked even harder to keep them. With this transition, our ancestors lost their innocence. The result of this major transition: theft, murder, war and poverty.

With this narrative, Bregman rejects the human ideal of philosopher Thomas Hobbes and embraces wholeheartedly that of Jean-Jacques Rousseau who stated: “The first person who, after enclosing a piece of land, got it in his head to say that it was mine and found people simple enough to believe him was the true founder of civilization. What crimes, wars, murders, what miseries and horrors would the human race have been spared, had someone shown the courage to cry out to his fellow men, "Don't listen to this impostor."

This philosophical position is attractive: Humanity has been corrupted by modern civilization. Similar views are expressed in Harari's “Sapiens” (2014) and my own book “Mismatch: How our stone age brains deceive us every day” (2018) that I wrote with Dutch novelist Ronald Giphart. But there is still something to be questioned on the evidence Bregman provides for his optimistic, hopeful world view.

First of all, humans share a common ancestor with both the peace-loving bonobo and the warmongering chimpanzee. Therefore it is plausible that our character is a mixture of properties of these species. Like the bonobo, we are tolerant of our own group members and like the chimpanzee we are suspicious and sometimes violent towards members of other groups, Bregman also selectively discusses anthropological research, overriding Steven Pinker and Napoleon Chagnon's thorough research into hunter-gatherer violence. Their data confirm the broad scientific consensus that our progenitors were far from peaceful. And they were certainly not all that interested in their ecological footprints. They were simply with too few to cause ecological disasters of any great magnitude. Bregman’s book also does not give enough credence to evolutionary models of cooperation (like reciprocity and multiselection) which demonstrate, quite clearly in my view, that there can be no uniform positive selection on friendly traits within a population – “doves” -- as these are easily undermined by free-riders and cheaters – “hawks”. Humans are at best conditional cooperators, being friendly to members of their ingroup (like their family) while being at best indifferent and at worst mean and violent towards members who fall outside their tribe. This point is also clearly supported by social-psychological and neuroscientific research into group relations. Study after study show that people almost automatically categorize someone as a member of their own tribe or another tribe and that this has direct consequences: Own group members are favored and members of “outgroups” are systematically discriminated against. People find it not easy to have a lot of empathy for people who look or behave differently, and that is shown in brain activity patterns. Finally, the positive human image of the book does not seem tenable when looking at political reality. Racism, xenophobia, and tribal violence are part and parcel of every society and cost many victims each year. Citizens also have little hesitation in putting an aggressive, authoritarian tribal leader in power if they feel threatened. If we really want to change the world, we have to face these uncomfortable truths about ourselves. Bregman himself would probably agree: his intellectual hero is Bertrand Russell who was not a naïve pacifist. Humans are not good or bad by nature, that is far too simple. Evolution has ensured that, depending on the context, we can be both good ánd bad. Yes, we should try to unleash the “better angels of our nature.” But the portrait that “Humankind” paints of our ancestors being driven from paradise into a modern society full of war, poverty, economic and social inequality is commendable, but really not defensible from a scientific point of view.

Mark van Vugt, Professor of evolutionary psychology, work and organizational psychology, VU University Amsterdam and University of Oxford. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

*This review was first published in the Volkskrant online magazine.

Copyright © 2012– Mark van Vugt