Monday, October 5, 2020

Review: Humankind: A Hopeful History

Humankind: A Hopeful History Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Humankind is an optimistic take on human nature  grounded in Science , Philosophy, and History. The author explains why humans are intrinsically good. He isn’t naive, and acknowledges that bad things happen but he explains that we tend to focus on and remember the bad things. Bad news tends to get more attention and play and thus reenforces this dynamic leaning to a downward spiral -- Good news stories don’t go as viral as bad news ones, and the banal, everyday good things people do don’t get reported. 

All bad news isn’t just a case of it getting our attention, and Bregman gives us some insight into why hate, for example, can spread in some cultures. In some cases, it is our desire  to be good, to belong, and to be collaborative can lead to us to follow  people acting in ways that are contrary to that. Even empathy -- which seems like a good thing -- can cause us to focus on the wrong things at times.

We also learn why widely spread research results, such as  “The Stanford Prison Experiment,” “No Broken Windows,” and  “The Tragedy of the Commons” are at best highly incomplete and at worst, just wrong.  Many of these ideas that assume that people  are motivated by self interest, and seek power are often based on, well, assumptions about other people (because we often believe that we are different). We also learn about why less restrictive prisons can be more safe, and have less long term costs (and how the US almost adopted a model common in Norway). You also learn that the fabled 1914 Christmas Truce, after which English and German forces refused to fight each other, was not unique in history. 

One thing I really enjoyed about the book -- once I got used to it as it is very different from many similar books -- is that walks through the evolution of ideas.  You might be tempted to highlight and share some insight, only to read a paragraph later a “wait, there’s more!”  style discussion. Which makes sense, as human nature and interactions are complex.

The book resonate with things I’ve long thought, in particular that  forming connections is essential to reducing intolerance, and that organizational dynamics affect well being and productivity, and that it’s often worth giving people the benefit of the doubt before assuming bad intentions. This book gave me a good sense of the historical and scientific basis for thinking that these are not crazy ideas (or at least ideas that only make sense in the contexts I have experience in). Similarly it gave me some sense of awareness to detect when my optimistic nature could possibly lead me astray.

In terms of structure, the first half of the book makes the case for goodness with a walk through history.  The second half of the book interweaves stories and examples that provide guidance on how you can apply the information in the book in your personal, work, and community life.

Part history, part scientific survey, and part philosophical argument for the goodness of humans, Humankind will generate ideas for you to think about, and ideas for things you can try to do to change your approach to interacting with others.

View all my reviews on Goodreads.

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