FEW people seeking a breezy summer read buy 450-page books about social psychology and evolutionary ethics. That is about to change. Rutger Bregman’s impressively positive Humankind may become the go-to classic for all those who are looking for hope in troubled times. Bregman is the Dutch historian who annoyed the world’s billionaires at the 2019 World Economic Forum, when he said that tax-avoidance was ruining the world. Humankind proves that Bregman is no mere agent provocateur. This is one of those smart, readable books destined to sell shed-loads.
Humankind’s thesis is simple: Homo sapiens is the dominant species not because we are ruthless predators, but because we are good. We are successful because we are relational and co-operative — so much so that we should, he thinks, be called “Homo puppy”. For Bregman, it is “civilisation” and its structural iniquities that cloud our “nomadic” brains and lead us into perdition. If this sounds dangerously close to an Edenic fantasy about the nobility of humanity’s “natural” state, the strength of Bregman’s argument lies in the examples that he deploys.
His most striking example of “innate” human goodness is his account of the “real Lord of the Flies”. In William Golding’s fictional version, boys get stranded on a tropical island and descend into savagery. According to Bregman, it has been read as an exemplar of “veneer theory”: the idea that, without strict rules, civilised humans rapidly revert to cruelty. Bregman exposes Golding’s fiction as bunk through the true story of a group of Tongan teenagers who were stranded on an island for a year. They created a co-operative society and remain friends for life. It’s jaw-dropping stuff.
Still, one example does not make a plausible thesis; so Bregman attacks “veneer theory”, case by case. He shows how famous psychological experiments such as “Milgram’s Shock Machine” and the “Stanford Prison Experiment” — which supposedly demonstrate our underlying beastliness — are rubbish. If his examples do not quite make a full thesis, his critique leads him to call for a “new realism”, in which society is shaped around trust in our resilient goodness rather than our presumed meanness.
Humankind is not comfortable reading for Christians. Bregman grew up in a conservative Evangelical context, and he treats Christianity as a version of “veneer theory”. I wish that his chapter on the power of “turning the other cheek” took seriously the impact of Jesus’s dictum on Christian practice. There are also moments when his example-based approach is limited and glib. None the less, this is a book to bathe in. Popular, infuriating, and at times brilliant, it is delicious summer reading: a reminder that we are marked by Original Blessing as much as Original Sin.
Canon Rachel Mann is Rector of St Nicholas’s, Burnage, and a Visiting Fellow of Manchester Met University.
Humankind: A hopeful history
Church Times Bookshop £18