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Human Kind  - A Hopeful History

Author: Rutger Bregman


Rutger Bregman is a Dutch historian whose book, Human Kind, became a best seller in 2020. From his research he has concluded that human nature is fundamentally inclined towards kindness and generosity. You may not have heard of Bregman, and his ideas may be viewed cynically in the light of the war in Ukraine and also the recent tax cuts in the UK which favour the rich over the poor. The contention that we are born good and are later corrupted by the ways of the world is not a new one, and was expressed by the 18th century French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau.

The book contains many references to Rousseau and offers evidence from modern studies of child and adult behaviour that question the assumption that we are fundamentally motivated by self-interest. Bregman cites research conducted in an infant cognition centre in 2007 when the researcher, Kiley Hamlin, and her team, were able to demonstrate that infants as young as six months can not only distinguish right from wrong, but also prefer right from wrong.

Only this morning I listened to a programme on RTE radio - a personal reflection on small acts of goodness by strangers and how much they can lift our spirits and imbed themselves as lasting and pleasant memories.

At a personal level, I remember the evening in a busy Metro station when I did not have a ticket to exit through the stile, and a young man came to the rescue and gave me one of his tickets. I also recall my first trip to Paris many years ago when the taxi driver returned some of the tip I had given him, because he thought it was too much. In the public mind Parisians are often thought of as unfriendly – but these incidents changed my mind.

The index to Rutger’s book does not contain any reference to pride, arguably the most corrupting of the seven deadly sins - and a force behind many invasions wars and wanton destruction and the simple desire to promote oneself over others.

For example as I write (October 10 2022) there are reports of over 174 people being killed in a pitch invasion in Indonesia. If the supporters of the losing team had not been so proud of their team they might all now be alive.

Rutger’s argument that people are born good is well supported. The coming together of enemy troops to celebrate Christmas and share gifts during World War II warms most of our hearts. But it worried the Generals and had to stop. The same applied to the early use of rifles on the battlefield, when troops were found to be either not using their weapons or firing above the heads of their official enemies. It was concluded that this also had to stop.

Rutger casts serious doubt on the view of human nature presented in the novel “Lord of the Flies”. At the end of this novel, which is about schoolboys stranded on an uninhabited island, it seems that young people will descend to savagery if they are left to their own devices. He makes the point that this novel is fiction and yet is sometimes cited as if it were true.

Inspired by the story he set out to establish if there had ever been a real incident where young boys were stranded on an uninhabited island. What he discovered was much more reassuring about human kind than the bleak view presented in the novel.

The word “psychopath” is absent from the index. It may be an inconvenient truth that some people come into the world who have a predisposition to being insensitive to the feelings of others. Diversity is after all a part of nature – and not all if it is pleasant.

Rutger knows the measures that must be taken to desensitise people and the influences of propaganda to “harden” us, such as characterised Nazi Germany. There are also the all the other influences that affect our behaviour towards others – some intentional and others simply the product of personal experiences.

Rutger’s book makes you think. In his own words “Human Kind” is about his belief that: “Most people are pretty decent but power corrupts”.

If you don’t have time to read “Human Kind”, and this review has made you curious about the author, this YouTube interview is strongly recommended. It is a long interview and you might prefer to watch it in parts.

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