Humankind | Rutger Bregman

Summary of: Humankind: A Hopeful History
By: Rutger Bregman

Introduction

Dive into the world of ‘Humankind: A Hopeful History’ by Rutger Bregman, as we explore how crisis situations affect human behavior and challenge widely-held beliefs about humanity. Learn about historical events that disprove the notion that humans are inherently selfish and violent. Discover how humans have evolved, and why empathy can have both positive and negative consequences in different contexts. Throughout this riveting summary, you will uncover our true human nature and the importance of believing in our inherent goodness.

The Psychology of Crises

The Psychology of the Masses by Gustave Le Bon influenced historical figures, including Hitler, by suggesting that in times of crisis, people revert to their violent and selfish nature. However, the Blitz in London during WWII disproved this theory. Despite the fear and destruction, Londoners remained calm, helped each other, and even exhibited decreased rates of alcohol abuse and suicide. The crisis brought out the best in people and strengthened British society. The key message here is that crises like war don’t automatically turn us into barbarians, but rather can bring out our best qualities.

The Myth of Human Selfishness

We’ve all heard of the famous slogan “Keep Calm and Carry On,” which was initially printed by the British Ministry of Information during World War II to maintain British morale. This slogan affirmed the idea that resilience and stoicism were a quintessential British character trait. However, repeated examples of people behaving altruistically in times of crisis challenge the notion that humans are inherently selfish. Studies demonstrate that humans behave less selfishly after a calamity, which highlights the fact that it is prosocial behavior rather than savagery that come out in adverse situations. Despite this, we still persistently cling to our negative image of humanity, attributing selfish motives to those who act helpfully. The negativity bias has been shown to have a firm hold on our imaginations.

The Power of News and Fiction on Our Outlook

Most of us have a bleak outlook on humanity, seeing people as fundamentally egoistic. The reason can be traced back to the negative news and fictional stories we consume. News is inherently negative and reinforces our pessimistic self-image, working like a nocebo. Fiction, such as Lord of the Flies, can also reinforce negative stereotypes. However, real-life examples, like the case of six children stranded on a remote island, prove that people are not always violent in dire situations. It’s time to question the truthfulness of the stories we consume and the impact they have on our perception of humanity.

Debunking the Myth of Human Evil

There’s a common notion that without laws and rules, humans are naturally inclined towards evil and violence. But recent evidence suggests that this isn’t true.

For centuries, philosophers have debated whether humans are inherently good or bad. Thomas Hobbes famously believed that without rules and laws, humanity would be in a constant state of war. However, recent research suggests that humans aren’t naturally evil, contrary to the Hobbesian perspective.

Historically, anthropological excavations and fieldwork corroborated Hobbesian views of humanity. Yet, both anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon’s observations of the Yanomami people and psychologist Steven Pinker’s statistical analysis disprove this notion.

In his 1968 book, The Fierce People, Chagnon asserts that the Yanomami people living in the Amazon were in a constant state of war. However, subsequent research discovered that the Yanomami people had daily contact with modern city-dwellers and farmers, which made them atypical. Further, Chagnon provided axes and machetes during his field research, thus indirectly exacerbating the instances of violence among the Yanomami people.

Pinker’s 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, famously calculated a 14% murder rate among pre-civilized people by studying excavated skeletons, concluding that civilization tamed humans’ natural barbarism. However, Pinker’s numbers were incorrect as 20 of the 21 excavations he cited were from a time after humans had settled down and after agriculture had been invented. Thus, his conclusion was unwarranted, and there was no robust evidence to support the claim that pre-civilized people were prone to violence.

In conclusion, the notion that humans are natural barbarians is flawed since it relies on outdated and inaccurate evidence. Instead, recent research suggests that humans aren’t evil by nature.

The Misconception of Pre-Civilized Humans

Are humans inherently evil or is civilization the only thing keeping us from being barbaric? The idea that pre-civilized humans were violent and warlike is a common misconception. Evidence has shown that humans are not naturally evil, contrary to what Thomas Hobbes believed. Fieldwork and archaeological findings have exposed flaws in the conclusions drawn by researchers like Napoleon Chagnon and psychologist Steven Pinker. The Yanomami people Chagnon studied were not representative of pre-civilized ancestors and Pinker’s numbers were inaccurate. The belief that civilization tamed the violent nature of humans is not supported by substantial evidence.

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