Humankind: A Hopeful History  
By Rutger Bregman. Bloomsbury. 2021. 426 pages
Original Dutch title: De Meeste Mensen Deugen: Een Nieuwe Geschiedenis van de Mens

Rutger Bregman is a Dutch journalist and the author of four books on history, philosophy, and economics. His latest work, Humankind, has been translated into over 30 languages and was a New York Times bestseller.

Against the “persistent myth that by their very nature humans are selfish”, he defends their basic goodness. For Bregman, the pessimistic view stems from a variety of sources: the media, which aggravates our “negativity bias”; economists with their presumption that we act always for personal gain; the greats of the Western canon itself, from Thucydides to Freud; Christianity (in particular Augustine and Calvin) and the doctrine of original sin, and notable Western thinkers like Machiavelli and Freud.

His theorising, in particular his heavy use of pop evolutionary biology, is peppered with gripping real-life stories. He describes the amazing story of a group of Tongan schoolboys marooned on an island for a year in the 60s. They lived in peace and harmony before being rescued – unlike the savage band of English public school boys in William Golding’s famous 1954 novel Lord of the Flies.

Bregman’s argument hinges on his conviction that evolutionary biology has formed a basic tendency towards niceness and altruism in human beings, as a quality conducive to human survival and propagation — “the survival of the friendliest” as he terms it. Humans are ultrasocial, and niceness facilitates this sociability and with it survival and thriving.

He revisits Rousseau’s doctrine that civilisation is to blame for occluding the natural goodness of man and expands the notion that private property is the root of all evil. For Bregman the initiation of private property somewhere back in antiquity ended “the days of liberty, equality and fraternity”. Private property and farming also brought to an end “the age of proto-feminism”, ushering in the age of infectious diseases and even STDs (asserting bestiality to stem from the ownership of private livestock). And with the rise of STDs came “the male obsession with female virginity” and “the idea, still upheld by millions today, that sex before marriage is a sin.”

Bregman’s assertions on the development of societies, religious practice, economics, law, the relationship of the sexes, etc are hard to believe. For instance, he asserts that money, marriage, law, writing, coinage all “started out as instruments of oppression”. And yet he doesn’t seem to consider that their ubiquity undermines his thesis that man is basically altruistic.

Does the horror of Auschwitz negate his theory? His answer is that “Auschwitz was the culmination of a long and complex historical process in which the voltage was upped step by step and evil was more convincingly passed off as good. The Nazi propaganda mill … had had years to do its work, blunting and poisoning the minds of the German people.”

This is a strange assertion, for the Nazi party’s rise in Germany was meteoric (from 3 percent of the vote in 1928 to 18 percent two years later) and the first concentration camp, Dachau, was opened less than two months after Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany. Bregman simply fails to face the key question: What is evil? The undeniable presence of evil in society and (as Solzhenitsyn famously asserts) lying at the very centre of each human heart, is a mystery Bregman never addresses. To dismiss it as a consequence of too much exposure to too much propaganda is a fudge.

While Bregman’s efforts to banish pessimism are well-intentioned and his heart-warming stories are very engaging, his hopeful history is deficient in scientific rigour and philosophical depth. A period of scarcely more than a decade – that of the Nazi build-up to Auschwitz – is described as “a long and complex historical process”, while anthropological developments in prehistory spanning many thousands of years across a multitude of locations are treated with blasé over-simplification. Nor does he see the fallacy in his reasoning that human beings are basically good (kind, altruistic, etc). This stems from an evolutionary principle whereby friendly (“puppy-like”) organisms will survive and thrive better than unfriendly ones. For Bregman “goodness” is nothing more than genetically hard-wired social chumminess. If that is the case, then it is hardly worth getting so excited about: “altruism” is simply a device employed by evolution for the success of the species.

It is very telling that today a bestseller could be written about goodness without defining it. Bregman is very clear that nasty bods like Nazis, slave-owners and despots are not good. After that the best argument he can muster is that “doing good also feels good”. “We like food because without food we’d starve. We like sex because without sex we’d go extinct. We like helping because without each other we’d wither away. Doing good typically feels good because it is good.”

What a pessimistic conclusion: human goodness doesn’t actually exist; it is just biological necessity by another name.

In his arguments for atheism Bregman is at his most simplistic: “And so rulers needed someone to keep tabs on the masses. Someone who heard everything and saw everything. An all-seeing Eye. God.” With such breath-taking ease the author explains away millennia of the most impressive religious intuitions and creations of human cultures worldwide: sacred festivals, sacred art, worship, mysticism, personal prayer, ethical systems, sacred buildings and spaces.… Just “rulers had to keep an eye on the masses”.

Elsewhere we’re told something slightly different: religion arose from the need to explain catastrophes, and with that “we began to believe in vengeful and omnipotent beings, in gods who were enraged because of something we’d done …. For the first time in history, we developed the notion of sin.” Really?

It is a pity that this briskly-written book is marred by a simplistic interpretation of evolutionary biology and a failure to engage with the fundamentals good and evil. Its presentation is very attractive and the heart-warming stories do – in their superficial way – remind us that the world holds many good people.

Fr Gavan Jennings

Rev. Gavan Jennings studied philosophy at University College Dublin, Ireland and the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, Rome. He is co-editor of the monthly journal Position Papers. He teaches occasional...