Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman

What would the world look like, if we didn’t assume the worst of our fellow human beings? If collectively we had a positive, an optimistic view of human nature, rather than a cynical one, would we need governments, managers, police officers and schools in the way we know them today? Is it naïve to believe that, deep down, humans are actually good?

Those are the motivating questions behind Rutger Bregman’s hopeful history. Against everything we have been taught to believe since Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes – the so-called realists – the historian poses the revolutionary argument that friendliness, innate goodness, are the secret ingredient to our extraordinary success as a species.

His investigation of human nature leads Bregman through the millennia and from discipline to discipline. He analyses anecdotes, studies and statistics from psychology and criminology, to biology and anthropology in his quest to debunk the resilient myth that we are above all selfish creatures. Instead, he suggests, we are evolutionarily programmed to cooperate and make friends, that is our greatest survival strategy. Bregman tells of peaceful moments in the middle of wars and about how most soldiers don’t shoot. He offers new insights into and analyses of famous studies of humanity’s badness such as the Stanford Prison experiment or Stanley Milgram’s shock machine, and balances it with a critical interpretation of empathy. The final chapter are examples of alternative model of organising society. What could businesses, schools and democracies look like if we trusted intrinsic motivation and, more importantly, each other?

Humankind is a fantastic read, a true page-turner – which is not necessarily the case for most interesting non-fiction works. Whether you believe in all of his theories or not, I think Bregman makes a strong argument for the intrinsic power of deciding to see the best in people. He uses the concepts of placebo and nocebo to remind us that our mind is a powerful tool and how the way we see and interact with the world impacts reality drastically. I am a passionate advocate for optimism and have long believed it to be the best policy to meet people with an open-mind and eye for the best in them, so perhaps my enthusiasm for this book springs from confirmation bias. But if you have enough of the bad news, the cynicism we encounter everywhere, the distrust and polarisation – I believe this is a great read for you. A glimmer of hope in these (pick your favourite: Chaotic? Dark? Unprecedented?) times!

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