Book Reviews

This excellently researched book explores whether altruism and cooperation are inherent to human nature.

Reviewed by: Dr Shane Mc Guinness, FRGS

A Welcome Dose of Optimism?

The reality we currently occupy is filled with fertile opportunity to assume the worst in people: despotic leaders, the short-sighted destruction of the natural world and the irresponsible few perpetuating a global pandemic. Yet in my own work as a conservation biologist, these obtuse presumptions are decreasingly helpful and can be counterproductive. People – and a trust in their better selves and good nature – are fundamental to protecting the natural world, by instilling a sense of belief, ownership and responsibility, leading to a respect for this miraculous bubble we call planet Earth. This idea, that altruism and cooperation is inherent to human nature, is the thesis presented by Rutger Bregman (as translated from Dutch Elizabeth Manton and Erica Moore) in his most recent work Humankind: A Hopeful History.

This excellently researched book begins by presenting two important and opposing philosophies of human nature. This first is the work of Thomas Hobbes and Frans de Waal, who view humans as hiding behind a thin veneer of goodness which conceals a more primitive and self-centred ‘state of nature’. As Bregman notes, “cynicism is a theory of everything”, so this negative view of human nature often prevails (especially in 2020). Indeed, Richard Dawkins suggests that we are genetically destined to be selfish (see The Selfish Gene and others). It is an absolutist idea, though Bregman contends that for humans it has never been evolutionarily selective to be selfish per se. Our great superpower as a species is our ability to cooperate and be social, although recent media-driven Hobbesian theory proposes that we are destined to squander this evolutionary gift; always one step from anarchy, if it were not for our glorious leaders (political, religious, commercial). This may indeed be self-serving for those in power: "a democracy with engaged citizens had no need of career politicians". Bregman further laments the commercial benefits of pessimism; “nice doesn’t sell ads”.

The opposing philosophy (the one underpinning this book) is that proffered by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the 18th century French essayist who claims that humans will ultimately tend to cooperate, especially in moments of adversity. It is this theory that Bregman supports with great skill and ample reference to numerous powerful case studies. The most engaging of these is “The Real Lord of the Flies”. In this true story, six restless Tongan teenagers steal a fishing boat in 1965 with plans of sailing to Fiji, but are quickly shipwrecked on the deserted island of ‘Ata. Adopting a Hobbesian view here would presume that the veneer of this society is doomed to conflict, self-interest and failure. However, in this unwitting petri-dish, the opposite occurs. The boys do not simply survive for 18 months on the island until their rescue, but establish agriculture, raise chickens and even reset a broken leg.

So, does humanity boil down to this philosophical boxing match between Hobbes and Rousseau? Between conservatives and liberals, left and right, grounded realistic and unbridled optimist? Bregman believes so and is firmly placed in Rousseau’s corner.

Although not to the level of delivery and depth of thought as, say, Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens, or the narrative weavings of Robert McFarland’s Underland, and sometimes leans towards the sensationalist or absolute, Bergman presents the ideas in an engaging and erudite fashion. However, there is little nuance presented here, or any suggestion of a continuum between what he proposes as a simple dichotomy of human society. Also, in much the same way Richard Dawkins (in his various recent works) has done, Bregman spends the initial chapters presenting a highly convincing argument, but then consumes numerous chapters detailing repeated examples to back-up this argument. It is perhaps testament to how good a job he initially does that these seem unnecessary; we already believe him. The examples are sometimes incredible – like soldiers repeatedly reloading their rifles in the American Civil War to avoid firing them (some were found with 23 balls in the barrel!) or troops from both sides leaving their trenches in 1915 to play football on Christmas Day – but there is scope to delve deeper into why this has arisen and what this means for the human race. Perhaps this extension is already in draft form on Bregman’s computer.

The logic of this highly enjoyable book is irrefutable, and his realism is powerful. By questioning the presumed destiny of doom, Bregman also offers us hope. As he notes, “powerful people… see all humanity in their own image", leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy, as a sort of ‘nocebo’ (opposite of placebo). The fact that nobody had previously heard of the Polynesian boys on the island of 'Ata, whereas William Golding's Lord of the Flies is a global bestseller, is testament to this. If anything, though, this book shows us that we are not beholden to this narrative. And in this year, of all years, we might just need a dose of optimism.


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