Alexander McCall Smith: Humankind by Rutger Bregman makes the case that humans are altruistic, not selfish

Rutger Bregman’s new book Humankind contains a real-life version of the ‘Lord of the Flies’ scenario that turned out very differently to William Golding’s novel, writes Alexander McCall Smith

Rutger Bregman's book Humankind could join the works of people like Sigmund Freud, pictured, in changing the way we think about human nature (Picture: AFP/Getty Images)

There are some books that you read, utterly rapt, in very few sittings, close with a sigh, and think, or even say, “Yes, precisely”. Sometimes such books make you want to write to the author and say thank you. So you get out your pen and you begin: “I do not make a habit of writing to authors...” (It’s remarkable how many letters to authors actually do begin that way.)

I am thinking of writing to Rutger Bregman to thank him for writing his new book Humankind. I shall probably not do so, because we all think of writing far more letters than we actually write. Indeed, there should be a special category of books: The Collected Intended Letters of... or The Unwritten Letters of...

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This book has just been published and is beginning to be widely discussed. It is not entirely novel: the main issue it deals with has long been the stuff of debate in fields as diverse as biology, anthropology, and philosophy. The issue revolves around the question: is homo sapiens really red in tooth and claw? Hobbes and Rousseau are the poles there, and Bregman goes back to that old intellectual tussle, but with new insights, new evidence, and, in some cases, a fresh take on old evidence. This book, which is far from being a dry academic tome, could well be a much needed reminder of the traditional virtues of modesty and the like, of sharing, and of co-operation rather than vicious competition.

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There are, of course, moments when the way in which we look at the world is changed by a single work. Darwin and Freud both produced books that changed the way we saw the world. In Darwin’s case, the publication of The Origin of Species was Copernican in the challenge it posed to our view of ourselves and of our place in the world. Later on, when genetics showed us how much of our DNA we shared with vegetables and pigs, let alone with other primates, notions of human exceptionalism were further weakened.

Freud’s writings similarly unsettled our view of ourselves, this time in the way in which we understood why we do what we do. Freud’s theories may not have survived scientific scrutiny, but the change that he brought about changed our fundamental intellectual framework and ideas of human motivation. Certainly, that was how Auden saw him in his poem In Memory of Sigmund Freud, where he wrote “to us he is no more a person/ now but a whole climate of opinion”.

The Selfish Gene

There have been others who have made people think very differently about the world, although few to the extent to which Darwin and Freud did. Scientific books may catch the popular imagination, as happened with Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, a widely read and highly influential work in its time. Then there was Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of Time that made the author a household name even in those households where cosmology may not be an everyday topic of conversation. That book sold in its millions, but has actually been read by a very small proportion of those who bought it – so obscure are the matters it sets out to elucidate. Even the duffers’ guide to A Brief History of Time has flummoxed most of those who have a copy. And yet for many, Professor Hawking did change their understanding of the world.

Bregman’s book may not change academic opinion to any great extent, but it stands a very good chance of having a real impact on the feelings of the general public. Having been written for ordinary readers, as opposed to specialists, it will no doubt be greeted with the academic sniffiness that is often displayed when a generalist presumes to write on subjects reserved for the Academy. Rutger Bregman, of course, does not pretend to be a professional evolutionary anthropologist or anything of the kind: he is an historian and journalist, described by the book’s publishers as one of “Europe’s most prominent young thinkers”. As a general rule, old thinkers are to be preferred to young thinkers – on the grounds that old thinkers have usually done a bit more thinking, have seen a bit more of the world, and have probably changed their ideas as they go along. But Bregman is a very good advertisement for those young thinkers who range freely over a variety of academic disciplines, are well-read, have open minds and are prepared to challenge philosophical orthodoxy.

The glove he throws to the ground in this invigorating book is a challenge to the received view that people are inherently selfish and violent. That is a view that has enjoyed widespread support, and has always been used as a justification for state coercion and control. It is also music to the ears of those who would regard human life as a matter of ruthless competition rather one of sharing and co-operation. That, Bregman argues, is simply wrong: we are an altruistic, co-operative species, and we flourish best when our institutions – and even business practices – stress trust and sharing. If that message rings true at this particular moment of crisis, then perhaps we should not be surprised. If books require the right zeitgeist to have a major impact, then Bregman’s timing may prove brilliant.

Humankind is kind

The book is crammed full of fascinating examples, including a real-life Lord of the Flies. William Golding, we are told, was something of a misanthrope, and in imagining the story of how badly a group of boys would behave if marooned on a desert island, he extrapolated from the way he would behave. We believed him. But in fact when a group of real Tongan boys were stranded on a small island for 15 months in 1965, they actually behaved extremely well. They co-operated, kept their fire going, and did not fight. All the things we need to do in our own crisis.

Reading Bregman on desert island behaviour sent me straight off to my own shelves, where I happen to have a book called The Robbers Cave Experiment, which gives an account of an important sociological experiment carried out on a group of American boys in 1954. They were not placed on an island, but were observed in camp conditions to see how they co-operated and related socially. They did not emerge as angels, but different sub-groups did co-operate to achieve common goals. That is not good news for the Golding hypothesis. The American boys, of course, were the product of American society, and would have been influenced by its individualistic ethos. The Tongan boys came from a very different society.

Bregman’s book is something of a beacon at the moment, when many are looking for values to profess in our traumatised and altered society.

Essentially he is reminding us that human nature is not inherently vicious; that we should celebrate kindness; and that conflict and confrontation are not what we are somehow programmed to perpetuate. People have started to talk about this book: perhaps the moment of this entirely positive, heartening message is about to come. Humankind is kind: we have seen that, we want it to be true, and there’s no real reason why we should not act accordingly.

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