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Book Review: ‘Humankind: A Hopeful History’.

I have to admit to spending an awful long time mulling over what it is with the human race that makes us such a toxic species, with our proclivity towards violence and seemingly unplumbed depths of out and out badness.

I remember being convinced that everyone one of us has the capacity for unspeakable savagery and that the veneer of civilisation is so very thin. Now my opinion has changed considerably; all down to one book, ‘Humankind: A Hopeful History’ by Dutch historian Rutger Bregman.

I had read Bregman’s previous book ‘Utopia For Realists: And How We Can Get There’ and was impressed. Bregman seems to be one of those people who are prepared to not accept everything at face value AND to think outside the box. In addition to that, he will call foul if he sees it, as he did with Tucker Carlson of Fox News, (Google it!). And shaming the Davos delegates; “Almost no one raises the real issue of tax avoidance…and of the rich not paying their fair share” . [Link]

Bregman is great at presenting the evidence and supplying concrete examples of how things have been done differently. But in this latest book he goes further.

Humans are hard-wired to see the worst in people and societies have further hard-wired themselves to expect the worst of the whole of humanity. Bregman explains how this has all been of use to us and how it’s been cynically exploited; from; ‘original sin’ to group culpability and the fear of the outsider. But the evidence suggests that if push came to shove we are also hard-wired towards compassion and amazing acts of cooperation and generosity. We are pretty awesome!

In his book Bregman deconstructs the premise of William Golding’s novel, ‘Lord of the Flies’, and proves that in a real situation the complete opposite would happen (and it did, in 1965, when a group of schoolboys were stranded on an island for fifteen months). Bregman says that our ‘superpower is cooperation’. He also examined the Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971 and called it out as baloney, the same with the Stanley Milgram ‘Electric Shock’ experiment of 1961. It looks to me like not only does a whole bunch of English Lit. commentaries on ‘Lord of the Flies’ have to be re-written but also lots of psychology text books!

We’re not completely off the hook though; the concept of ‘empathy’ takes a bashing, and additional bad news is that we can’t unweave the societies we constructed; but, perhaps, by reading Bregman’s book we can at least understand how our motivations work.

A chapter titled; ‘Homo Ludens’ (Man at play) really cheered me up, as it chimed with things that occurred to me gradually over years of working with children (the open-endedness of ‘play’ I mentioned in a previous blog post, here.)

It’s not that difficult to connect Bregman’s optimism to concepts found within Japanese Budo. Recently re-reading Otsuka Hironori’s book, particularly the section, ‘Analects of the Instructor’ it was obvious to me that master Otsuka’s underpinning philosophy was founded upon peace and the bringing of peoples together. In fact, if you deconstruct the Kanji for ‘Wa’, normally understood as ‘harmony’, and take it back to its basic pictographic level you would struggle to find a better example to sum up the spirit of the ‘super power’ of cooperation, with its allusion to the collaborative and civilising mechanisms found in agrarian societies. In Dave Lowry’s book, ‘Sword and Brush: The Spirit of the Martial Arts’, there is a description of ‘Wa’ from Japanese tea ceremony devotees, Harmony (‘Wa’) is, “the capacity to get along with others, to sublimate the self for a greater cohesion within the larger social nexus”. The image for ‘Wa’ is of a pliant healthy rice sprout positioned next to the symbol for a mouth; either representing ‘feeding’ or just civil discourse and communicating, or a combination of both.

To literally restore your faith in humanity, I would thoroughly recommend that you pick up this book and reflect on the wider implications of Bregman’s observations. It could not be more apt, particularly in the times we are living and with the vague possibility of a re-think of our values and systems in a post-Covid world.

Tim Shaw