How believing in human kindness and altruism can be a new way to think

An exclusive excerpt from Rutger Bregman's latest book, Humankind: A Hopeful History, that provides a new perspective on the last 2,00,000 years of human history.

 |  8-minute read |   28-07-2020
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In Humankind: A Hopeful History, author Rutger Bregman takes some of the world’s most famous studies and events and reframes them, providing a new perspective on the last 2,00,000 years of human history. From the real-life Lord of the Flies to the Blitz, a Siberian fox farm to an infamous New York murder, Stanley Milgram’s Yale shock machine to the Stanford prison experiment, Bregman shows how believing in human kindness and altruism can be a new way to think – and act as the foundation for achieving true change in our society.

We present an excerpt from the chapter titled The Curse of Civilization.



(Humankind: A Hopeful History. Paperback. Rs 699)

Excerpt courtesy: Bloomsbury


Was Jean-Jacques Rousseau right? Are humans noble by nature, and were we all doing fine until civilisation came along?

I was certainly starting to get that impression. Take the following account recorded in 1492 by a traveller on coming ashore in the Bahamas. He was astonished at how peaceful the inhabitants were. ‘They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword ... and [they] cut themselves out of ignorance.’ This gave him an idea. ‘They would make fine servants ... With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.’

Christopher Columbus – the traveller in question – lost no time putting his plan into action. The following year he returned with seventeen ships and fifteen hundred men, and started the transatlantic slave trade. Half a century later, less than 1 per cent of the original Carib population remained; the rest had succumbed to the horrors of disease and enslavement.

It must have been quite a shock for these so-called savages to encounter such ‘civilised’ colonists. To some, the very notion that one human being might kidnap or kill another may even have seemed alien. If that sounds like a stretch, consider that there are still places today where murder is inconceivable.

In the vast reaches of the Pacific Ocean, for example, lies a tiny atoll called Ifalik. After the Second World War, the US Navy screened a few Hollywood films on Ifalik to foster goodwill with the Ifalik people. It turned out to be the most appalling thing the islanders had ever seen. The violence on screen so distressed the unsuspecting natives that some fell ill for days.

When years later an anthropologist came to do fieldwork on Ifalik, the natives repeatedly asked her: was it true? Were there really people in America who had killed another person?

So at the heart of human history lies this mystery. If we have a deep-seated, instinctive aversion to violence, where did things go wrong? If war had a beginning, what started it?

First, a cautionary note about life in prehistory: we have to guard against painting too romantic a picture of our forebears. Human beings have never been angels. Envy, rage and hatred are age-old emotions that have always taken a toll. In our primal days, resentments could also boil over. And, to be fair, Homo puppy would never have conquered the world if we had not, on rare occasions, gone on the offence.

To understand that last point, you need to know something about prehistoric politics. Basically, our ancestors were allergic to inequality. Decisions were group affairs requiring long deliberation in which everybody got to have their say. ‘Nomadic foragers,’ established one American anthropologist on the basis of a formidable 339 fieldwork studies, ‘are universally – and all but obsessively – concerned with being free from the authority of others.’

Power distinctions between people were – if nomads tolerated them at all – temporary and served a purpose. Leaders were more knowledgeable, or skilled, or charismatic. That is, they had the ability to get a given job done. Scientists refer to this as achievement-based inequality.

At the same time, these societies wielded a simple weapon to keep members humble: shame. Canadian anthropologist Richard Lee’s account of his life among the !Kung in the Kalahari Desert illustrates how this might have worked among our ancestors. The following is a tribesman’s description of how a successful hunter was expected to conduct himself:

‘He must first sit down in silence until someone else comes up to his fire and asks, “What did you see today?” He replies quietly, “Ah, I’m no good for hunting. I saw nothing at all ... Maybe just a tiny one.” Then I smile to myself because I now know he has killed something big.’

Don’t get me wrong – pride has been around for ages and so has greed. But for thousands of years, Homo puppy did everything it could to squash these tendencies. As a member of the !Kung put it: ‘We refuse one who boasts, for someday his pride will make him kill somebody. So we always speak of his meat as worthless. This way we cool his heart and make him gentle.’

Also taboo among hunter-gatherers was stockpiling and hoarding. For most of our history we didn’t collect things, but friendships. This never failed to amaze European explorers, who expressed incredulity at the generosity of the peoples they encountered. ‘When you ask for something they have, they never say no,’ Columbus wrote in his log. ‘To the contrary, they offer to share with anyone.’

Of course there were always individuals who refused to abide by the fair-share ethos. But those who became too arrogant or greedy ran the risk of being exiled. And if that didn’t work, there was one final remedy.

Take the following incident which occurred among the !Kung. The main figure here is /Twi, a tribe member who was growing increasingly unmanageable and had already killed two people. The group was fed up: ‘They all fired on him with poison arrows till he looked like a porcupine. Then, after he was dead, all the women as well as the men approached his body and stabbed him with spears, symbolically sharing the responsibility for his death.’

Anthropologists think interventions like this must have taken place occasionally in prehistory, when tribes made short work of members who developed a superiority complex. This was one of the ways we humans domesticated ourselves: aggressive personalities had fewer opportunities to reproduce, while more amiable types had more offspring.

For most of human history, then, men and women were more or less equal. Contrary to our stereotype of the caveman as a chest-beating gorilla with a club and a short fuse, our male ancestors were probably not machos. More like proto-feminists. Scientists suspect that equality between the sexes offered Homo sapiens a key advantage over other hominins like Neanderthals. Field studies show that in male-dominated societies men mostly hang out with brothers and male cousins. In societies where authority is shared with women, by contrast, people tend to have more diverse social networks. And, as we saw in Chapter 3, having more friends ultimately makes you


Sexual equality was also manifest in parenting. Men in primitive societies spent more time with their children than many fathers do now. Child-rearing was a responsibility shared by the whole tribe: infants were held by everybody and sometimes even breastfed by different women. ‘Such early experiences,’ notes one anthropologist, ‘help explain why children in foraging societies tend to acquire working models of their world as a “giving place”.’ Where modern-day parents warn their children not to talk to strangers, in prehistory we were raised on a diet of trust.

And one more thing. There are strong indications that hunter-gatherers were also pretty laid-back about their love lives. ‘Serial monogamists’ is how some biologists describe us. Take the Hadza in Tanzania, where the lifetime average is two or three partners, and women do the choosing. Or take the mountain-dwelling Aché in Paraguay, where women average as many as twelve husbands in a lifetime. This large network of potential fathers can come in handy, as they can all take part in child-rearing.

When a seventeenth-century missionary warned a member of the Innu tribe (in what is now Canada) about the dangers of infidelity, he replied, ‘Thou hast no sense. You French people love only your own children; but we all love all the children of our tribe.’

The more I learned about how our ancestors lived, the more questions I had.

If it was true that we once inhabited a world of liberty and equality, why did we ever leave? And if nomadic foragers had no trouble removing domineering leaders, why can’t we seem to get rid of them now?

The standard explanation is that modern society can no longer survive without them. States and multinationals need kings, presidents, and CEOs because, as geographer Jared Diamond puts it, ‘large populations can’t function without leaders who make the decisions’. No doubt this theory is music to the ears of many managers and monarchs. And it sounds perfectly plausible, for how could you possibly build a temple, a pyramid, or a city without a puppet master pulling the strings?

Also read: How the urge to migrate is coded in our genes


Rutger Bregman Rutger Bregman @rcbregman

The writer is a historian and the author of Utopia for Realists. He is based in Holland.

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