Book review: Humankind by Rutger Bregman

Humankind: A New History of Human Nature: A Hopeful HistoryHumankind: A New History of Human Nature: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

People: Look at this nice thing we did.
Media: Boring!
Sociopath: Look at this terrible thing I did.
Media: Can you do that more? Maybe with a chainsaw this time? See how nasty people are!

With Human Kind, Rutger Bregman attempts to debunk an idea that underpins our social and economic systems. At the core of our society is this assumption that everyone is selfish, nasty, and would quite happily murder you, drink your flesh in a protein smoothie, and play with your entrails if it wasn’t for threats of state violence or eternal torment. Bregman addresses what he calls the Rousseau vs Hobbs debate over human nature with the intention of showing Russo was correct and we’re not so bad after all. And since we’re not so bad, maybe we need to rethink all the things we do based on this assumption.

Since I started reading philosophy I’ve slowly been coming to the realisation that society has been built upon what was good for the powerful. These ideas are often in opposition to evidence, morals, and the principle of not being a dick to others.* How can the Hobbsian view of human nature have won? People generally get along just fine. Most of the bad things we experience are from the outliers (sociopaths) or Hanlon’s Razor. Well, the simple answer is that the powerful can use the Hobbsian view to justify their position in society and to perpetuate it.**

Bregman does a pretty good job of tackling some of the common examples and studies used to “prove” how bad people are. One by one, they fall apart as scrutiny is applied to them. While the real-life Lord of the Flies story was the sort of thing that should be the stuff of legend, I found the debunking of the Kitty Genovese murder the most satisfying. They both illustrate how good news and bad news will be highlighted completely differently. This influences our view of the world. We should be careful in that regard.

As an argument, I think Bregman proves his point.

But… There is a bit too much glossing over important points. There are also some contentious assertions, like the idea that Homo-puppy (humans) domesticated itself by selecting for kindness. That isn’t to say these points are wrong, but they are taking quite a few short cuts and artistic flourishes (and Homo-puppy is a pretty cool flourish). One example, the selection for hairless apes as part of domestication is probably not true, or at least more complicated than implied.

Overall, this was an excellent book. I think if we all took these arguments seriously (and did the lateral reading to see how much support it has) then we could make a better world for everyone.

Or we could let the handful of nasty people continue to ruin it for everyone.

* That’s a direct quote from Jesus.
** Or as I put it in my review of Rousseau’s Origins of Inequality: inequality is a way for the rich and powerful to build a moat and castle.

Comments while reading:
Love the bit about the Easter Island insult roughly translating to: the flesh of your mother sticks between my teeth.

There are some interesting points made in pursuit of the argument but they do gloss over a large amount of research. It would be very easy to dismiss the argument if you were so inclined. One example is in his criticisms of Steven Pinker. If I hadn’t already read several papers and articles that dive into how wrong Pinker’s claims have been, then it would be easy to see Bregman as cherry-picking. But then again, you could spend a long time just discussing prehistoric violence studies, which isn’t that exciting for the average reader.

How do you get people to bad things? Well, you need to bully and coerce. But you can’t just give people an order or force them, as they tend to resist. You have to appeal to their good side. They have to believe they are helping, that they are doing it for “the greater good” or because they trust the person asking for their help.
“In fact, people go to great lengths, will suffer great distress, to be good. People got caught up in trying to be good.” (Don Mixon, psychologist who replicated the Milgram experiment.)
“In other words, if you push people hard enough, if you poke and prod, bait and manipulate, many of us are indeed, capable of doing evil. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. But evil doesn’t’ live just beneath the surface; it takes immense effort do draw it out. And most importantly, evil has to be disguised as doing good.”

The Bystander Effect isn’t what we think. “…you can see that in 90 per cent of cases, people help each other out.”
But of course, that doesn’t sell papers or drive outrage media. Good news stories blip, bad news you can fill entire days of coverage with. So they’ll spin a story, or they’ll focus on the exceptions, or they’ll do both.

The comments about education and bullying are interesting. Institutions that utilise hierarchical structures and introduce competitiveness essentially manufacture nastiness and bullying as a result. The book also skipped over something very briefly that is going to start being more important in education circles, and that is how bad testing is (particularly standardised testing). Teaching people to be able to pass a test is not the same thing as education.

The rich and powerful don’t blush. Rising to power essentially turns off your shame (thus you don’t blush) or you rise to power because you’re more likely to be shameless (sociopaths, narcissist, etc). This is why one of the tactics of keeping the powerful inline doesn’t really work. Shaming people with satire, mockery, humour, etc, would work on the average person, but that isn’t the case with the sort of people who feel they are better than us plebs.

Quibble: there is a lot of talk in this book about humans being 99% the same as whatever chimp. I’m a little sick of seeing this misunderstanding. We aren’t really X% similar in the way that implies. A lot of genetic code isn’t for making humans or chimps, it is for making cells, or biological functions, or transcribing proteins. So it fails to understand what DNA does.

Enlightenment I have issues with. There’s this assertion that the enlightenment was awesome because it gave us science, capitalism, modern democracy, etc. While Bregman does a good job of highlighting that it also gave us modern racism, it underplays just about every other criticism of enlightenment. You have to remember that it didn’t give us democracy, that had to be fought for by everyone other than the landed gentry. You have to remember that the invisible hand and selfishness weren’t good ideas, they were ideas that allowed the rich merchants to be in charge. You have to remember that Reason™ has been used to justify the status quo, hold down social progress, further marginalise the disadvantaged, create massive inequality. You have to remember that the enlightenment happened just after and during the scientific revolution.

In other words, there is a lot of cheerleading around Enlightenment without adequate acknowledgement of the problems and consequences, and discussion of how many things were converging at the same time (there is an argument to be made that a certain level of population density and people with spare time occurred, thus driving forward a large number of things, rather than it being down to a couple of big-name thinky people with invisible hands and justifications for landed gentry merchants being in charge). I mean, most of these ideas were come up with by Ethiopian philosopher Zera Yacob 50-100 years earlier, so there’s that too.

There are a couple of points made about punching Nazis and extremism that showed a want to either distance Bregman’s comments from those “radical lefties” or an attempt to appeal to the “enlightened centrists”. I’m not sure what the thinking was here, but it did show through a few blind spots. For example, Mark Bray’s book on Antifa outlines how punching Nazis is hardly the only thing Antifa do and there is solid reasoning used when it is done (and the march Bregman talked about being used to fundraise efforts at getting people out of the Nazis groups would classify as anti-fascist action, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it were under the banner of Antifa). It also showed a lack of understanding of political and social change. Yes, that much cited study on violence concluded that non-violent movements were more successful… Except that would have to ignore all the violent efforts that made the non-violent efforts possible (because everyone knows that ending Apartheid was all non-violent protest – e.g. rebuttal here).

View all my reviews

Sketch summarising Russo’s argument for the start of the world’s problems.

Other reviews:
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7470881/
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/may/12/humankind-a-hopeful-history-by-rutger-bregman-review
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/jun/10/humankind-by-rutger-bregman-review-a-hopeful-history-of-our-nature (This one is a somewhat critical review that I feel makes a couple of good points – like the parking over the bike lane – but also either skimmed the book or really loves to be black and white about things in a way Bregman wasn’t)

The Actual 10 Most Deadly Animals in Australia

People look upon Australia as the home of every dangerous creature that walks, crawls, or throws telephones at hotel staff. This is true. But anyone with Australian friends – and not just those people you have webcam sex with – will tell you that Aussies seem to survive in spite of all this death.

Like every country, a lot of attention is focused on the stuff that doesn’t actually kill us that much (spiders) rather than stuff that kills most people (being a round, gelatinous ball of lard). So here are the 10 most deadly animals in Australia for 2000-2010 according to the National Coroners Information System of Australia.

10) Emus
Right now you are probably wondering what an emu is and why it killed 5 people. The easiest way to describe the emu is as an Australian version of the ostrich; that is, a long legged, long necked, flightless bird, and being Australian it is likely to be wearing a hat with corks dangling from it and be planning to kill you.

Five people isn’t a huge death toll for an Australian animal, but you have to remember that emus like to live in the middle of the country. You know, the part of Australia that people avoid because it is too hot and lacks beaches. So emus only occasionally have the opportunity to kill people.

9) Crocodiles
If there is a muddy river in Australia there is a good chance there is a crocodile waiting to eat someone. Unfortunately for the crocodiles, Aussies and tourists have gotten wise to their antics after watching Crocodile Dundee and have only been able to snack on 9 people.

Since people are more aware of crocodiles, they now act as sign enforcement officers. Most rivers and water holes have warning signs that tell people not to go swimming on penalty of death. Crocs are there to make sure those signs are enforced.

8) Snakes
Racking up a measly 14 deaths for the decade are venomous snakes. That’s right; Australia is home to pretty much all of the most deadly snakes in the world and they only manage to kill 1.4 people a year.

Australian snakes make all other country’s snakes look more lame than a 50 year old at a nightclub. In other countries snakebite is treated as a painful experience that might require a hospital visit. Might. In the next day or two. In Australia a snakebite is pretty much a death sentence, with snakes ranked in terms of how many minutes you have to get antivenin into your body before you’ll be visiting the morgue.

So why the low death count? Why is one of the most feared animals in a country filled with deadly animals killing so few people? Well, when you live in a country like Australia with so many poisonous critters trying to kill you, the local hospitals, and people who are scared of their own shadows, like to stock up on antivenins. Ambulances are used to bringing some antivenin to you.

The reason snakes don’t kill that many people is down to the way Aussies deal with snakebites. Take the recent example of an average Aussie bloke. The world’s second most deadly snake bites him and he does two things: calls an ambulance and grabs a nice cold beer. Because if you’re going to die, you might as well die refreshed. After dispatching the snake that bit him, the man was cool, calm and collected. If the ambulance didn’t arrive in time, well he’d have enjoyed a beer and the great outdoors. Keeping calm gave the ambulance time to save his life, and enough time to finish his beer.

7 and 6) Sharks and Bees
One is the undisputed apex predator of the World’s oceans, the other likes to give people sweet treats. With 16 deaths each, we see the humble honeybee kill as many people as the desperately-in-need-of-a-hug sharks. I’m sure if we included the deaths from heart disease that bees contribute to with their delicious honey, the bees would rank ahead of the toothy grinned sharks. Even without the heart disease aspect, if we talk long-term averages, honeybees are actually more deadly than sharks in Australia. Bees kill roughly 2 people per year, whilst sharks are only averaging 1 per year.

In the meantime humans are doing their best to wipe out both animals. Sharks are edible, so we kill 100 million of them a year. Colony Collapse Disorder is pretty much a fancy way of saying we are stressing the bees with viruses, diseases, pests, bad food, frequent travel and pesticides, leading to a decline in honey bee numbers.

5) Kangaroo
Stamping its place as the modern day T-Rex, if T-Rexes were vegetarian and spent most of their lives sleeping under a tree, is the kangaroo. With 18 deaths to its name, the kangaroo is getting back at Australians for their love of eating this national icon.

Kangaroos may look loveable and cuddly, but underneath that skin that is ideal for leather shoes, lays a nasty, vicious bully:

Attacks aren’t that common, but they are hilarious to watch.

The real danger to Aussies from kangaroos is on the roads. Roos are fond of hanging out in the middle of traffic, or leaping out in front of passing cars, so much so that they contribute to 5.5% of road deaths. Not to be outdone, Aussies install Roo-Bars to the front of their vehicles to ensure anything they hit – Roos, pedestrians, children – die instantly.

4) Dogs
Australians love their dogs; they even make movies about them and have landmarks devoted to them. One town is famous for its pet cemetery devoted to dogs. But with 27 deaths to their names, Aussie dogs just don’t seem to love their owners back.

In fairness, dogs are doing Aussies a favour, as they tend to kill kids and old people. The family pet is clearly trying to trim down the weaker members of the pack to make the household stronger, as 78% of attacks are by the pet dog. Legislation is trying to weed out the more suspicious looking dogs, but most dog bites are more a result of the owners than of the dog’s breeding or temperament.

3) Cows
Right now you’re about to say, “Is it really true that all Aussie men are as good looking at Hugh Jackman?” Why yes, it is true. But that is off topic. If you were on topic you’d probably be questioning how cows made this list at all. Are they even Australian? And these things aren’t deadly; they are hamburger fillings and animals that make the green stuff on your dinner plate palatable. Yet cows still managed to kill off 33 Aussies and come in as the third deadliest animal in Australia.

It isn’t like cows have guns in Australia, so how can they be the second most deadly animals? Well, much like kangaroos, cows love to spend time hanging out in the middle of roads, probably deciding which side has greener grass, or looking to hitch a ride to the city. And because Aussies love a good steak, there are more cattle in Australia than people, 26.5 million at last count. That’s a lot of cows trying to hitchhike. Cows also happen to be a fair bit larger than the average kangaroo, so Aussie drivers either die crashing into them, or from crashing into a tree when swerving to avoid them.

The other Aussies on the top of the cow’s hit-list is their chief persecutors: farm workers. Being the biggest of farm animals they account for the majority of animal related deaths on farms, usually by crushing people, or at least their limbs.

2) Horses
That’s right, horses! Just let that fact sink in for a moment. Horses have killed 77 people in a decade in Australia. Australia has sharks, crocodiles, snakes, and spiders that are deadly enough to make Rambo look like a cub scout, but horses killed more people than all of those terrifying critters combined.

So how did horses beat out such deadly competition? Well, 92% of those deaths are from horses deciding they’ve had enough of someone sitting on their back. The rest of the time the horses decide that they need to crush or trample people, possibly to see if humans can be made into glue as well.

1) Humans
Was this ever in doubt? Humans are by far the most deadly Aussie animals. When you compare the animal deaths to other causes of death in Australia, like drowning killing 290 per year, or car accidents killing 1200 people per year, it is clear that even the most deadly of Aussie creatures, the horse, just aren’t that deadly.

But Aussies are generally getting better at not killing each other. There are 270 murders per year and this rate has been declining for the past 20 years. If this trend continues, then within a decade all the other animals in Australia may actually kill more Aussies than people murdering each other.

In the meantime, if you want to stay safe in Australia: don’t let a horse drive your car near water while you argue with an Aussie about whether that’s a knife. Safety first.

Update: Okay, so this piece is a few years old now and more recent data is available from a ANHMRC study looking at data from 2000-2013.

Creature Deaths
(2000-2013)
Hospitalisations
(2001-2013)
Snakes 27 6,123
Hornets, wasps and bees 25 bees, 2 wasps 12,351
Spiders 0 11,994
Ticks and ants 5 4,533
Marine animals 3 3,707
Scorpions 0 61
Centipedes / millipedes 0 119
Unknown animal or plant 2 536

Since 2000, 74 people have died from being thrown or trampled by a horse. Twenty-six people have died from shark attack and 23 from altercations with dogs. Crocodiles have been responsible for 19 deaths.

And compared to 4,820 drowning deaths and 974 deaths from burns in the same period, the snake bite figures figures are still remarkably low. (Source)

Horses and humans still on top!!