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: (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)

Killer Car Fallacy

If you read the news daily you may have noticed that humans really like hurting each other. While this popular pastime is generally on the decline, it is still at concerning levels. Whether it be the latest school shooting in the only country that happens in, or the suppression of the people by regimes in all countries, violence happens. And violence is big business.

Many people would obviously like to reduce the amount of violence occurring on our planet. They will often point out the war profiteers, the gun manufacturers, and the lack of regulation on the sale of weapons to oppressors. And without fail, there will be someone who will bravely stand up and defend these practices that facilitate (and perpetuate*) violence. These brave defenders will always use the individualist argument that places the onus on the user and not the tool. One common example used is “Do you blame the driver or the car?”

On the surface, this seems like a sound argument. A bad worker blames their tools, and all that. You see, it isn’t a killer car, it is a drunk driver or a driver who is trying to kill someone.

Of course, this is a false equivalence, a fallacy, a load of nonsense. It’s The Killer Car Fallacy.

Below is a common example of this fallacy in action during an exchange I had on Twitter. The original point being discussed was about US companies being complicit in the suppression of the democracy protests in Hong Kong via their manufacturing of the weapons of suppression. You may remember the USA from their tireless promotion of democracy in the Middle East, Vietnam, and South America.


killer cars

As you can see in my last tweet**, the comparison people try to make between a car and a weapon are nonsense.

A car is designed to transport people and their stuff in comfort, style, and with as much complaining about other drivers as possible. If a drunk driver kills someone with their car, they have misused their car and are at fault. The car can and does kill people, but that is not exactly the advertised selling point. I’m currently unaware of any car manufacturer advertising a toddler per kilometre death rate as a feature.

Compare that to a gun***, which was designed for violence. It is never being misused if it kills someone. Even if the gun was designed for hunting or target shooting, using it to hunt a human or use a human as a target isn’t a misuse in any equivalent way to the car. Unless driver training involves trying to aim the car at pedestrians since I sat my driver’s test.

Target Shooting…

This is without getting into the larger discussion about how cars require licensing, insurance, and safety assessments. Drivers have to prove they are passingly competent – when paying attention during a test, the rest of the time, let’s just hope for the best – and be licensed. There are rules about car operation. One of the rules is about not being too drunk to safely operate the car because we recognise that’s probably not a good idea.

Car manufacturers also have some rules they have to follow. They can’t just sell a car to people without a license. They have to provide certain features to improve safety for drivers (e.g. seatbelts) and non-drivers (e.g. lead-free fuel****). These are all acknowledgements by the car manufacturers, governments, and society at large that there is a larger moral responsibility in the making and selling of cars. It’s pretty clear that there is no equivalence here.

But the Killer Car Fallacy persists. Because apparently selling weapons designed to harm people has no moral responsibilities attached.

The logical fallacy of false equivalency. (self.GunsAreCool)
by GabourKilled by a gun nut

Why am I here? You are a person who used an NRA talking point in the form of a false equivalency.

So? What is a false equivalency? It is a logical fallacy.

You are a libtard/pinko/homo, why should I listen to you? Logic rules remain the same wherever you fall on the political spectrum. Even after showing gun owners the Wikipedia entry, they will continue to use it immediately afterwards and cling to it desperately. That is why this was created.

What is the definition of false equivalency? “False equivalence is a logical fallacy which describes a situation where there is a logical and apparent equivalence, but when in fact there is none.” Wikipedia

I still don’t believe you. What is the structure of the argument? If A is the set of c and d, and B is the set of d and e, then since they both contain d, A and B are equal. Id.

That doesn’t make sense to me. Why does my argument look nonsensical to people who aren’t supporters of my position? I will put it in terms that would offend a gun owner so that you have a better understanding of why you look bad. Nuclear weapons explode (c) but are still just tools (d). Guns are merely tools (d) that shoot people (e). Since they are both tools they are both equivalent. Because they are merely tools, nuclear weapons should be treated the same as guns under the Second Amendment, and citizens should be allowed to conceal carry them into schools, courthouses, or government buildings.

Well that’s a stupid argument, what are other kinds of false equivalencies that gun owners use?
The variations are endless, but here are some common ones:
-Guns and alcohol are equivalent, because they both ______
-Guns and cars are equivalent, because they both ______
-Guns and knives are equivalent, because they both ______
-Guns and bleach are equivalent, because they both ______
-Guns and fists are equivalent, because they both ______
-Gun and stamp collecting are equivalent, because they are both _____
-Guns and _______ are equivalent, because they both _____

And those are all false equivalencies? Yes.
Are you sure? Yes.
Really? Because I would really like that to be not true. Everyone in /r/guns uses them constantly, and they get tons and tons of upvotes for it! Doesn’t that mean they are even a little right? No. Justin Bieber is pretty popular within his bubble, doesn’t mean it makes sense to people viewing it from the outside.

Can you do it for me? Imagine cars are just as legal as they are now, resulting in 33,000 traffic fatalities each year. Now, imagine guns are completely banned and there are zero deaths from their use each year. No government body would pass a law that instantly implemented the current United States gun proliferation laws while simultaneously handing out 270,000,000 guns to the civilian population. Especially considering the fact that 30,000 people would then be killed each year and 100,000 wounded. And they would certainly not do so under the pretense that guns and cars should be treated equivalently. This example applies to each of the false equivalencies given above.

Why has this been downvoted a million times? Because there are few good arguments for guns in our society so taking away a popular one, however incorrect it may be, further weakens the talking points. We also only send pro-gun types here to view this and they are not particularly happy to learn that their father was wrong when they taught them this false equivalency or that they have been using a really stupid argument around their loved ones unchecked for most of their lives.

What do you think about gun control? The ability to use logic and to correctly reason should be a basic skill for everyone, but is essential for those who carry lethal weapons. Gun owners should have to complete the following sentence before purchasing a gun to show that they can perform basic reasoning: Comparing guns to ________ is a false equivalence because __________.

* Because what industry making weapons of violence wants to see the amount of violence decline?

** This conversation did continue, but I bowed out after they tried to use my own arguments as though it applied to their points.

*** I’m using guns here despite the original example being the use of non-lethal devices like teargas. Direct deaths from a tool are easier to show the fallacy than the use of non-lethal force to suppress others. But it is still the same bad thinking. Some will try to use knives as an example because it is a greyer tool. Knives can be used to kill and are often designed to do so. But for knives, the context of their use switches from tool to weapon based on use and still fits this paradigm, albeit in a more complicated way.

**** Regulations they fought long and hard against despite the harm they knew it was doing.

Kids these days.


Something I’ve noticed on social media, and the media in general, is the denigration of kids these days. Whether it be Gen Whatever complaining about the Millennials, or just people complaining about how (insert disparaging adjective here) the younger generation are, I never fail to be amused with the curmudgeons and their ironic statements.

Complaining about the younger generation has been a popular pastime for old people since the invention of young people. Usually, the complaints are followed by the creaks of arthritic joints as canes, walking sticks and Zimmer frames are waved at the sky; because everyone knows kids live in the sky these days. Even some of the great philosophers have gotten in on the act of denigrating these uppity kids:

Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannise their teachers. – Socrates (469–399 B.C.E.)

That’s right, since the dawn of time, old people have complained about young people and how they are destroying society. And we should know, just look at how terrible society is now: deaths from war are at a thousand year low, homicides are also on a steady decline, the economy is on a 2000 year high, literacy levels are at an all time high, we live longer, and less kids die so they get to grow up, become old, and complain about the kids these days. How can we live in such a terrible time in history!

You see what is happening is a form of nostalgia, pining for a time that never really existed. This golden age only appears golden through a pair of rose coloured glasses, from which only the good memories remain, the bad memories having been covered over with years of alcohol abuse. The kids these days are doing the same stuff the oldies were doing at the same age (as witnessed in this Daily Show video).

We really need to stop with this ageist nonsense. Society has advanced: kids learn different things at school because different things will be expected of them in the future, computers are a thing now, phones are really handy, pop music is as dull as ever, and nobody cares how far you had to walk to school back in your day. So let’s stop picking on different age groups and get back to criticising the things that really matter: sport referees.


More articles worth a read:
2,500 years of kids these days.

Update: Vsauce did a fantastic video on Juvenoia (i.e. fear of kids these days) that is well worth a watch.

I think you’re Mythtaken: Guns #2 – The second armour-piercing round

After a recent discussion about gun myths, I realised that my last blog post hadn’t covered anywhere near enough of the myths that are floating around (this article will mainly be about US guns, but parallels from the resources and science cited can be drawn to other countries). This is obviously because stuff is much easier to make up than to research, just ask Bill “tides go in, tides go out” O’Reilly. One of the big problems with research in the US on guns is that the National Rifle Association has effectively lobbied to cut off federal funding for research and stymieing data collection and sharing on gun violence. As a result there are a lack of hard numbers and research often tends to be limited in scope. Scope: get it? So like a lost rabbit wandering onto a shooting range, or a teenager wearing a hoody, it’s time to play dodge with some of these claims.

Myth: Guns make you safer, just like drinking a bit of alcohol makes you a better driver.

The myth I hear the most often is that guns make you safer;  just like the death penalty is a great deterrent, surveillance cameras stop crime, and the internet is a good source of medical advice. The problem with this myth is that people like having a safety blanket to snuggle. What they don’t realise is that guns don’t make you safer, they make you 4.5-5.5 times more likely to do something stupid to someone you know and love than be used for protection.

I want to be clear here: there’s nothing wrong with going shooting at the range, or hunting vermin. The problem is thinking that you can use a gun for self-defence, when it actually makes the violence problem worse. That gun escalates the violence because people have it there: why not use it? To wit the criminals enter into an arms race and a shoot first policy.

Owning a gun has been linked to higher risks of homicidesuicide, and accidental death by gun. For every time a gun is used in self-defense in the home, there are 7 assaults or murders, 11 suicide attempts, and 4 accidents involving guns in or around a home. 43% of homes with guns and kids have at least one unlocked firearm, and in one experiment it was found that one third of 8-to-12-year-old boys who found a handgun pulled the trigger, which is just plain unsafe.

As for carrying around a gun for self-defence, well, in 2011, nearly 10 times more people were shot and killed in arguments than by civilians trying to stop a crime. In one survey, nearly 1% of Americans reported using guns to defend themselves or their property. However, a closer look at their claims found that more than 50% involved using guns in an aggressive manner, such as escalating an argument. A Philadelphia study found that the odds of an assault victim being shot were 4.5 times greater if they carried a gun. Their odds of being killed were 4.2 times greater.

It is even worse for women. In 2010, nearly 6 times more women were shot by husbands, boyfriends, and ex-partners than murdered by male strangers. A woman’s chances of being killed by her abuser increase more than 7 times if he has access to a gun, and that access could be the woman keeping one around just in case her attacker needs it. One US study found that women in states with higher gun ownership rates were 4.9 times more likely to be murdered by a gun than women in states with lower gun ownership rates; funny that.

There is also the action hero delusion that often gets trotted out when talking about guns for self-defence. The idea is that everyone is a good guy, so give them a gun and you have a bunch of action heroes ready to fight off the forces of evil. This has worked so well that all governments are thinking of getting rid of the military….

The reality is that the average person is not an action hero and would fail miserably in a high stress situation with actual bad guys. You only have to look at the statistics:

  • Mass shootings stopped by armed civilians in the past 30 years: 0
  • Chances that a shooting at an ER involves guns taken from guards: 1 in 5

I’ve seen several examples cited of “citizens” shooting someone who looked intent on killing everyone they could (with a gun…). But in every instance the “citizen” was actually an off-duty police officer, or a person in law enforcement, or someone in the military. In other words, the people who stop mass shootings or bad-guys with guns, are trained professionals.

There have also been a few studies done that claim X million lawful crime preventions, therefore guns must be good; notably by researchers Lott and Kleck. To say that their research is flawed is like saying Stephen King has sold a few books. Lott’s work has been refuted for extrapolating flawed data. Kleck’s research has similarly been refuted by many peer reviewed articles:

Myth: Guns don’t kill people, people kill people, quite often with a gun, because punching someone to death is hard work.

If this myth were true we wouldn’t send troops to war with weapons. I get where people are coming from with this myth, because the gun itself is an inanimate object and is only as good or bad as the person using it. Yes, I did just quote the movie Shane: thanks for noticing. But here is the thing, in a society we are more than just a bunch of individuals, we are a great big bell-curve of complexity. So when you actually study the entire population you find that people with more guns tend to kill more people—with guns. In the US, states with the highest gun ownership rates have a gun murder rate 114% higher than those with the lowest gun ownership rates. Also, gun death rates tend to be higher in states with higher rates of gun ownership. Gun death rates are generally lower in states with restrictions such as firearm type restrictions or safe-storage requirements.

PediatricsCenters for Disease Control and Prevention

Gun deaths graph: The three states with the highest rate of gun ownership (MT, AK, WY) have a gun death rate of 17.8 per 100,000, over 4 times that of the three lowest-ownership states (HI, NJ, MA; 4.0 gun deaths per 100,000).

The thing is that despite guns being inanimate objects, they affect the user/owner’s psyche. It’s like waking up one morning with a larger penis or bigger boobs: you not only want to show them off, you act differently as a result. Studies confirm this change in behaviour. Drivers who carry guns are 44% more likely than unarmed drivers to make obscene gestures at other motorists, and 77% more likely to follow them aggressively. Among Texans convicted of serious crimes, those with concealed-handgun licenses were sentenced for threatening someone with a firearm 4.8 times more than those without. In US states with Stand Your Ground and other laws making it easier to shoot in self-defence, those policies have been linked to a 7 to 10% increase in homicides.

Now people also like to try and red herring the argument against guns by pretending that video games or mental health is the problem. The NRA tried to claim video games were to blame after the Newtown shootings. Of course we’d be able to see this relationship by looking at gun ownership versus video game playing, like by comparing the USA to Japan.

United States Japan
Per capita spendingon video games $44 $55
Civilian firearmsper 100 people 88 0.6
Gun homicidesin 2008 11,030 11

Sources: PricewaterhouseCoopersSmall Arms Survey (PDF), UN Office on Drugs and Crime

The thing is controlling guns has been shown to work, although there are other factors in play, and policing is still key. But when gun control has been shown to reduce firearm deaths by 1-6 per 100,000 then the case is pretty much closed.

Myth: They’re coming for your guns to stop our freedom and tyranny and democide and Alex Jones said so and aliens made me do it!

As I stated above, the statistics on guns and gun violence is hazy. No one knows the exact number of guns in America, but it’s clear there’s no practical way to round them all up (never mind that no one in Washington is proposing this). Those “freedom” loving gun owners – all 80 million of them – have the evil government out-gunned by a factor of around 79 to 1. If government were coming for the guns, you’d think they’d have done so before being this grossly out-gunned.

guns-owned630Sources: Congressional Research Service (PDF), Small Arms Survey

Yes, 80 million gun owners is a minority! I find it interesting that from 1989 to 2000 there was a decline in gun ownership of 46% to 32%. Now the decline in ownership rebounds to hover between 34 and 43% for 2000-2011 (notably the high point in 2007 was after the Virginia Tech shooting which the NRA did a lot of campaigning around), which shows why the decline didn’t continue. Now compare those rates of ownership to the recent report from the US Bureau of Justice Statistics sums up the rates of gun violence. You can clearly see a decline in gun violence from 1993 to 2000 before a plateau that has pretty much held since. This is confirmed by other studies. This is an important take home point: all the research shows violence and gun violence is on the decline. The idea that people need a gun for protection is becoming more and more ridiculous. This is despite the global decline in violence, and trends seen in countries like Australia (more Aussie stats here). On a side note, in the last lot of statistics you see that the more female, educated, non-white, and liberal you are, the less likely you are to own a gun. 

So scare campaigns may work to boost sales of guns for a while, but overall, most people don’t want or need a gun. The long term trend has nothing to do with the government coming for the guns and everything to do with people realising they don’t need one and prefer to read a good book, or watch a movie, instead of going to the range.

The simple fact is that more guns in society is the best predictor of death, thus it is time to rethink the reasons for owning a gun, especially if that reason is in case you have to John McClane a situation.

More mythbusting gun articles:

More science:

Click to access WhitePaper020514_CaseforGunPolicyReforms.pdf

The surprising decline in violence

Damn. How can a thriller or crime writer make a crust if violence is declining?

I know that we writers are generally known for writing fiction, but we readers – yes, I’m both – are also a fickle bunch who like things to have a level of realism to them. We need there to be a basis for our stories so that you can become more emotionally involved with the protagonists. If violence keeps declining then thriller and crime authors are going to have to look to the sensationalism of media reporting for story ideas. I think we can all agree that you can’t base fiction upon fiction.