Inside Story

Decent creatures

Books | If we were smarter, would we realise we’re better than we think?

Sara Dowse 27 May 2020 1825 words

Australian connection: historian Rutger Bregman. Bret Hartman/TED

Humankind: A Hopeful History
By Rutger Bregman | Translated by Elizabeth Manton and Erica Moore | Bloomsbury | $32.99 | 463 pages

For those of you who haven’t heard of him, Rutger Bregman is the author of Utopia for Realists, a book that canvassed the idea, among other things, of a universal basic income. Published in 2017 when Bregman was twenty-eight, it became an international bestseller. During an extensive tour promoting the book he came to Australia, which led in serendipitous ways to the development of this latest book, Humankind — a happy confluence of events to which I will return.

Bregman is a historian who also writes books about philosophy. Given his age and the range of his imagination, he has been called a wunderkind; I am inclined to call him a visionary. But he is humbler than that, content to describe himself as an investigative journalist. He contributes to the Die Correspondent, a highly regarded Dutch online newspaper that eschews advertising on principle (and now has a US edition). Die Correspondent resembles Intercept, or Inside Story and similar organs here and overseas that play such a vital role in keeping independent, long-form journalism alive.

But it’s as a writer of books that Bregman has made his greatest impact. Humankind is a huge, ambitious work, a critical survey of research in the natural and social sciences, woven together with the skill of a born storyteller. Its basic premise is that, as individuals, we Homo sapiens are fundamentally decent people. Not particularly smart, but good.

It’s an audacious proposition, though Bregman is not the first to assert it. As an undergraduate anthropology student long ago, I learned that it was cooperation rather than the Social Darwinists’ much-vaunted competition that gave Homo sapiens our evolutionary advantage. Bregman, given to snappy loaded phrases, calls it “survival of the friendliest.” And for this he has drawn on a mindboggling amount of research from a range of fields, though chiefly evolutionary biology, a discipline that has grown substantially since I was a student and has come up with intriguing findings about our physical and cognitive characteristics.

Hence Bregman’s renaming us as Homo puppy. This is his term for “self-domestication,” a concept derived from studies of how we tamed animals. Domestication involves breeding for desirable outcomes. As wolves were bred into dogs, for example, they became more juvenile, friendly and what we might even call cute. Their snouts became shorter, their tails curlier, their bodies smaller. Likewise, we Homo sapiens differentiated ourselves from other primates and humans. Our brows and jaws became smaller, our faces flatter, our skulls rounder, our bones thinner.

Natural selection was at work, but what scientists now make of it diverges widely from earlier interpretations of how our species became dominant. From biology to archaeology, advanced techniques have led to the more nuanced understandings of this process that Bregman discusses. The fact that the friendliest among us succeeded most as parents gave us the ultimate advantage over other kinds of humans.

Those other kinds included the Neanderthals, who the latest research indicates were smarter than us. They had larger brains, for one thing, and their technology was arguably as advanced as ours at the same point in time. Compared to us, though, they were loners, fitted best for the harsh conditions of the Ice Age. They lived in smaller communities and didn’t move around as much as we did.

As is his style, Bregman characterises the two species as Geniuses and Copycats. Homo sapiens didn’t necessarily invent things, but they picked up skills and technologies from people they mingled with, Neanderthals included, adapting and improving them. Still essentially hunter-gatherers, their communities could be large and organised enough to allow for construction of impressive monuments. Bregman cites Göbekli Tepe, a Turkish archaeological site discovered to be the world’s oldest temple, built not by slaves for rulers but by collective endeavour. By and large our ancestors were peaceful people as well. The archaeological record yields next to no evidence of murder, sustained intertribal warfare or other repeated violent acts.

All of this flies in the face of what we’ve come to believe about ourselves: what Bregman calls the “veneer theory of civilisation.” To elaborate this he takes us back to the Enlightenment, and the opposing social theories of Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau:


In one corner is Hobbes: the pessimist who would have us believe in the wickedness of human nature. The man who asserted that civil society alone could save us from our baser instincts. In the other corner, Rousseau: the man who declared that in our heart of hearts we’re all good. Far from being our salvation, Rousseau believed “civilisation” is what ruins us.

Even if you’ve never heard of them, the opposing views of these two heavyweights are at the root of society’s deepest divides. I know of no other debate with stakes as high, or ramifications as far-reaching. Harsher punishments versus better social services, reform school versus art school, top-down management versus empowered teams, old-fashioned breadwinners versus baby-toting dads — take just about any debate you can think of and it goes back, in some way, to the opposition between Hobbes and Rousseau.


So how did the Hobbesian theory — the one that states we are at bottom selfish beasts apt to revert to barbarism in any crisis, with only the Leviathan state between us and our murderous impulses — get the imprimatur? For Bregman, the defining moment was when we started farming. A group of tribes came to the Fertile Crescent, settled there, and started planting crops — the spring shoots of civilisation. Accompanying this move came the growth of cities, the instigation of hierarchies, and the supplanting of the old disinterested gods with all-knowing omnipotent ones and of tribal leaders with dynastic monarchs.

Of course, this is a gross simplification of developments that countless writers have devoting careers to describing. But the point to be made, and Bregman makes it convincingly, is that settling down wasn’t the unqualified advance we have long assumed it to be. Along with Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, another bestselling narrative, Bregman contends that the agricultural revolution ushered in problems that beset us to this day. Failing crops led to periodic famines. Settlement in confined spaces made us prone to disease. Right now, we’re experiencing a pandemic, for us a once-in-a-century event, but before the public health and medical advances of the last 200 years or so — a mere blip on our 200,000-year timeline — plagues were common occurrences in human settlements.

I mentioned an Australian connection for Bregman’s research, but actually there are two. The first involves William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, a novel about a bunch of British schoolboys stranded on an uninhabited island. Bregman first read it in his teens, and it made a profound impression — as it has on just about every one of its readers, who at a guess would number in the tens of millions. Published in 1954, it won Golding the Nobel Prize for Literature, and all these years later it remains in print, is still being studied in schools, and has been the inspiration for reality TV.

After beginning to question its premise — that humans left to their own devices will ineluctably revert to their vicious animal nature — Bregman noted its depiction of the Hobbesian veneer theory as the secret of its success. Golding, he learned — “a man who beat his kids” — had a very poor opinion of human nature.

Then Bregman got wind of a real-life incident in which some boys were shipwrecked on a Pacific island and survived for a year and a half until they were discovered. Nothing like Golding’s characters, they were bored Tongan teenagers who “borrowed” a boat and went sailing for a lark. Finding themselves on their own they created a mini-society that went a long way towards proving that Rousseau, not Hobbes, was right. The island, deserted years before, was ‘Ata, part of the Tongan archipelago.

The Australian connection? Bregman learned from a digitised Age article that a thirty-five-year-old Australian sailor named Peter Warner discovered the boys in 1966. Given their ages at the time, Bregman figured out that some of the boys, and Warner himself, might still be alive. He was right, and took the opportunity of the 2017 book tour to visit Warner and his friend Mano Tauto, a survivor, on Warner’s property near Lismore.

The ‘Ata discovery was covered in the press back when it happened, a documentary was attempted, and then the incident was forgotten. Unlike Golding’s fiction, people found the real story difficult to believe.

The truth is, we find stories about goodness rather boring. We’re hooked on darkness, and the way the news is presented has a lot to do with it. Bregman calls it an addiction, one best avoided if we want to keep things in perspective. A century of two world wars and a worldwide depression hasn’t helped. The Holocaust alone exemplified the depth of cruelty our species can descend to, and in its wake psychologists undertook experiments purporting to prove what each of us is capable of in extremity.

On re-examination, though, the findings of those experiments have been shown to be spurious. And here’s where the second Australian connection comes in. The woman whose work has done most to debunk them is Gina Perry, a Melbourne psychologist Bregman met on that fateful 2017 book tour.

If nothing else, Bregman has succeeded in toppling Hobbes from his perch. He doesn’t argue that humanity has no dark side. The friendliness of our species tends not to apply outside specific social units — in other words, outside our tribes. Tribalism has stayed with us down the millennia, accentuated by authoritarian societies of one kind or another, including our own. If our hunter-gatherer ancestors were less noble than Rousseau would have it, they were arguably healthier and happier than their civilised descendants.

Yet time and again, the closer we get to our neighbours, as they did, the friendlier we can be. Those further from people unlike themselves are the ones most likely to fan the tribal flames. Here Bergman points to our leaders, who for various reasons find it in their interest to manipulate us. We have given them power, and power inevitably corrupts.

Humankind is an absorbing, challenging work. Its analysis is both intricate and sweeping. Its end points are the demise of democracy, or at least its withering, and the imminent threat of climate change. We have been let down by our leaders, but our greatest danger lies in the cynicism this has bred in us.

Bregman is weakest, I believe, when it comes to countering these dangers. Some of his suggestions, like the basic income of his previous book or the participatory budgets he advocates here, are not without their problems. But in proving that deep down we are decent creatures who can work together for the common good, he has shown us where to start.