Humankind: A Hopeful History

by Rutger Bregman

Hardcover, 2020



Call number



Little, Brown and Company (2020), 480 pages


From a New York Times bestselling author comes "the riveting pick-me-up we all need right now" (People), that argues that humans thrive in a crisis and that our innate kindness and cooperation have been the greatest factors in our long-term success. If there is one belief that has united the left and the right, psychologists and philosophers, ancient thinkers and modern ones, it is the tacit assumption that humans are bad. It's a notion that drives newspaper headlines and guides the laws that shape our lives. From Machiavelli to Hobbes, Freud to Pinker, the roots of this belief have sunk deep into Western thought. Human beings, we're taught, are by nature selfish and governed primarily by self-interest. But what if it isn't true? International bestseller Rutger Bregman provides new perspective on the past 200,000 years of human history, setting out to prove that we are hardwired for kindness, geared toward cooperation rather than competition, and more inclined to trust rather than distrust one another. In fact this instinct has a firm evolutionary basis going back to the beginning of Homo sapiens.  From the real-life Lord of the Flies to the solidarity in the aftermath of the Blitz, the hidden flaws in the Stanford prison experiment to the true story of twin brothers on opposite sides who helped Mandela end apartheid, Bregman shows us that believing in human generosity and collaboration isn't merely optimistic--it's realistic. Moreover, it has huge implications for how society functions. When we think the worst of people, it brings out the worst in our politics and economics. But if we believe in the reality of humanity's kindness and altruism, it will form the foundation for achieving true change in society, a case that Bregman makes convincingly with his signature wit, refreshing frankness, and memorable storytelling. "The Sapiens of 2020." --The Guardian "Humankind made me see humanity from a fresh perspective." --Yuval Noah Harari, author of the #1 bestseller Sapiens Longlisted for the 2021 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction One of the Washington Post's 50 Notable Nonfiction Works in 2020… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member PhilipJHunt
A book influenced by, and in the style of Michael Gladwell, that attempts to change how we think about the human being. Readable and thoroughly researched and referenced with 52 pages of citations and notes, Bregman makes the case that humans are fundamentally kind, yet brainwashed to believe the
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opposite. It’s counterintuitive to the 21st century mind. And therein lies the danger to the human race. And our planet.
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LibraryThing member jgoodwll
Thomas Hobbes was wrong. The life of man without government was not nasty, brutish and short. Steven Pinker was wrong in ‘The Better Angels of our Nature’ (as I saw when I read it: he imagined deaths by fighting were immense the further you went back, but he left out hunter-gatherer peoples).
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It was when people settled down in villages that they had to begin worrying about property. Human nature is that most people are good most of the time.

Schoolchildren now study 'The Lord of the Flies'. It's propaganda. In 1966 six Tongan boys were marooned on a desert island. They got on fine till they were found 15 months later.

In the Second World War, most soldiers never actually shot anybody. And the Germans who refused to stop fighting when they could see they'd lost were not Nazis, they were fighting so as not to let down their mates.

The Easter Islanders did not destroy their island. They were fine till Europeans got there.

Those American experiments where “guards” ended up torturing “prisoners”, where people were giving each other electric shocks, where boys at a summer camp fought each other… By and large faked.
That woman in New York who was murdered while 38 people failed to call the police: there weren’t 38, there were two, and one was gay and afraid of being exposed (the other was nicknamed Adolf by local children).

In other words, an excellent book.
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LibraryThing member brokenangelkisses
We're all familiar with the notion of a placebo. We all know how powerful placebos can be, but it's perhaps rarer to recognise the power of noceboes. In 'Humankind', Rutger Bregman is determined to disabuse us of one particularly devastating nocebo, 'veneer theory'. This is the widely accepted idea
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that our civil natures are only skin deep, papering over our "true" selfish, manipulative, deeper selves.

What if, Bregman argues, we are mistaken about our fundamental nature? What if Machiavelli was wrong, and in believing other people are selfish, we create the unkind world we perceive? Of course, if this is true - and Bregman is convinced of it - then the answer is simple: we need to adjust our perception of humankind to credit humans with, well, kindness.

-- What's it about? --

See above. Are we fundamentally selfish or cooperative as a species? How does our perception of humanity's nature affect our daily reality, including the laws governments use to control us?

Bregman examines commonly held exemplars and "proofs" of veneer theory and exposes the flawed beliefs and inaccurate information that such conclusions rest upon. Instead, he concludes that 'Kindness is catching. And it's so contagious that it even infects people who merely see it from afar.'

-- What's it like? --

Utterly fascinating. Deeply appealing. Potentially revolutionary. If Bregman is right - and I believe he is - then we hold the power to affect radical change in our communities, simply by changing the filter through which we see the world and acting accordingly at all levels, from the individual through to local and national government.

Whether he's debunking the theory behind Britain's blitz in 1940 or exploring what really happened when a young group of boys was marooned on a desert island, I was perpetually fascinated by the gap between public perception and reality. It turns out, being a realist is not the same as being a pessimist, and even terrorists benefit from your willingness to understand that under a weight of differences, you are both human.

-- Final thoughts --

Having studied psychology a little at school, I was particularly intrigued by Bregman's critical evaluations of certain famous psychological studies: Kitty Genovese and the bystander effect, Stanley Milgram's shock experiments and Zimbardo's prison experiment. Short version: the narrative surrounding them was fatally flawed and they don't prove what everyone believes they proved. The full details surrounding the manipulation of each scenario are shocking, but perhaps not as surprising as what happens if you drink tea with terrorists...

I feel like this should probably be required reading for everyone. It's a genuinely hopeful book that explores human history to arrive at a conclusion that surely connects with our deepest conviction - that we, ourselves, are good people. If we are fundamentally good natured, why do we persist in doubting that everyone else is? Maybe it's time to reject veneer theory once and for all.
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LibraryThing member bbbart
I really enjoyed this book - or collection of essays if you wish - by Bregman. I am very happy to have some of my misconceptions in social psychology set right (the shock-experiment, the Stanford prison experiment, the murder of Kitty Genovese, etc...). It was also refreshing to see somebody
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bluntly oppose great thinkers like Pinker and Gladwell and join the "new realism"-ranks of Harari. I found this new history of mankind very compelling and interesting to read.

However, I also agree with most of the criticism online: sometimes the author's writing betrays a pedantic desire to have an exclusive right to the truth, and from time to time he even reverts to fallacies he elsewhere condemns. I also found the very large font size, big margins and huge chapter headings in this edition and the sensationalist style overall somewhat negatively impact my taking his obviously hard work seriously.

Still, he has me convinced that people indeed are inherently good and the subtitle "a new history of mankind" is not exaggerated for this book.
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LibraryThing member Othemts
The thesis of Rutger Bregman's book is that the vast majority of human beings the vast majority of the time have good intentions. Not only that, but scientific research backs up this optimistic perception of human goodness. Furthermore, trusting in the goodness of others is key to the health and
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success of individuals and societies. It is the belief that humankind is inherently corrupt that is often manipulated to have people carry out evil. Accepting the "veneer theory" that human society is only a thin layer over the cruel and selfish human psyche is akin to the placebo effect, or in this case what Bregman calls the "nocebo" for its negative psychological effects.

Bregman breaks down what we "know" about human behavior by debunking a number of famed studies such as Stanley Milgram's obedience tests and the Stanford Prison Experiment, as well as histories of the collapse of indigenous society on Easter Island and the popular story of neighbors indifference to the murder of Kitty Genovese. After reading the truth behind these stories and how they were manipulated to make the worst possible reading, you might find yourself thinking humans are good but psychologists and journalists are evil.Bregman also contrasts the fictional Lord of the Flies with the real-life experience of Tongan boys who survived being stranded on a desert island for a year through cooperation.

After showing that many cases of humans descending to "savagery" actually had many instances of people wanting to help out, Bregman also explores experimental camps, schools and workplaces where children and adults are trusted to do the right thing with positive results. Bregman builds on existing philosophy, often contrasting the views of humanity of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Hobbes. He also draws on evolutionary biology that shows that cooperation was necessary for human survival and the desire to help is hardwired into humanity.

This is just the kind of book I needed to read right now and it's something I think everyone ought to read.

Favorite Passages:
Tine De Moor calls for"institutional diversity" - "while markets work best in some cases and state control is better in others, underpinning it all there has to be a strong communal foundation of citizens who decide to work together."
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LibraryThing member neurodrew
Humans evolved to emphasize cooperation, friendliness (homo puppy), and are inclined to trust one another.

This book is interestingly written, well-referenced, and rearranges my thinking about prehistory. It covers in many places the archeological material similar to "The Dawn of Everything" that I
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finished reading not long ago. He also discusses modern psychological studies, like the Milman shock experiments, the Standford jail experiment, and intelligence tests, pointing out the flaws in the analyses that suggested humans could be mean, and talking to participants about what they felt during the trials. He discusses S.L.A. Marshall's discovery that in war, few soldiers fire their weapons. He considers the human gift to be that of cooperation, not intelligence or memory. He thinks the equality of the sexes in forager bands was a strong advantage. He notes that a study of human skulls over 200,000 years established that our faces and bodies have grown softer and rounder, and the jaws and teeth more childlike, in the same way that domesticated dogs resemble wolf pups. Hence his playful term homo puppy. Civilization brought war bands that evolved into dynasties, and inheritences made people jealous. He suggests that in cold of the ice ages bands slept close together, "...the struggle for existence was actually the snuggle for existence."
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LibraryThing member ericlee
I thought Bregman's previous book, Utopia for Realists, was pretty good. This book is even better.

Bregman presents an optimistic view of human beings, and backs this up with many, many examples. He writes like Malcolm Gladwell, though his only mentions of Gladwell in this book are critical.

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would have liked to see references here to some examples of self-managed, democratic societies of the kind that Bregman advocates, including Georgia's experiment in democratic socialism (1918-21), the kibbutz movement in Israel, Mondragon in Spain, and the cooperative movement more generally.

Having lived many years on a kibbutz myself, I can also see some of the weaknesses in Bregman's argument. It is not enough to just have weekly meetings of the entire community; over time, fewer and fewer people may attend those meetings.

But on the whole, a beautifully written, convincing argument for a kind of anarchist-libertarian-socialist world.
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LibraryThing member BoundTogetherForGood
This book was totally not what I expected. I bought it because I thought it would tell me all about The "real-life Lord of the Flies" shipwrecked boys. The boys left Tonga in 1965, in a small boat, trying to reach Fiji, but ended up on the small island of Ata as castaways for 15 months. They were
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discovered by a fisherman.

Well, the book mentioned the boys, but not in depth at all.

The book is really a humanist exposition, focusing on the tendency for humans to actually be kind, when most people expect the opposite.

Now, the topic of human kindness does interest me; quite a bit, in fact. I've thought about the subject a lot the past couple of years, and more so during 2020, given the current events of this year. I always find myself comparing what is shown on the news to what we experience locally in our village, and in our school system, and our neighborhood. In reality, I have seen very few upsetting things. Yes, we are fortunate. But I also suspect that this is true for most people.

This book did support the fact that most people are kind, and most strangers are not dangerous. As a Christian, I balance that belief with "
Jeremiah 17:9 King James Version (KJV)

9 The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?"

I do believe that any person who does not surround themselves with God's word can revert to such an awful existence. I am encouraged that the research the author did supports the fact that most people really do operate in kindness.

I rated the book pretty lowly because I felt the way that I had seen it advertised was a bait and switch.
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LibraryThing member ricelaker
Excellent, excellent, excellent!
LibraryThing member donblanco
Christianity presents humanity as fallen creatures with an inherent 'sin nature' which required killing all of them but one family and starting over. It didn't fix things though, because it didn't cleanse the sin nature. The Bible is full of rules and regulations to keep us in line. Eventually God
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had to kill his own son to somehow justify not killing all of the rest of us again.

This is the way most people, even non-christians, view humanity. We all have evil in our hearts, just waiting to pop out given the opportunity.

And yet actual history shows us that this is not true. Man is inherently good and requires manipulation to be otherwise.

All of this is a general rule, not an all-or-nothing proposition.

Summary: humankind is generally one of two different natures:

1 - Naturally evil, requiring oversight and manipulation in order to be civilized, or;
2 - Naturally good, requiring peer pressure and manipulation in order to be evil.

Rutger Bregman makes the argument for the second option, and it is a very solid argument. I'm convinced!

The book ends with 10 rules to live by, and I have found them challenging and intriguing. This book is staying with me and I think of it almost every day.
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LibraryThing member danielbu
I liked this. It's nice to have a popular author bring the work of Nell Noddings and Carol Gilligan to the fore. It's too bad that their work has to be retold by a 40-ish white man to get heard...
LibraryThing member davidroche
In a world of bad news and disappointing leaders, I was delighted to be recommended Humankind (Bloomsbury) by Dutch historian Rutger Bregman. This very accessible book examines the innate goodness of the human species, particularly before civilisation got in the way. As a psychology graduate, I
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found his re-examination of famous and alarming studies (the Stanford Prison Experiment, Robbers Cave Experiment, and the Milgram Experiment, amongst others) really interesting and how witnesses were led and a clear, pred-determined and negative outcome was sought from the outset. Evidence from wars on how infrequently weapons were fired, particularly when soldiers engaged face to face with their enemy, with only around 15-20% of weapons being fired and bayonets hardly ever being used. It’s a fascinating book that looks at the humanity of people in a way that Factfulness did for our ever-improving world data. It’s a breath of fresh air that’s as welcome as today’s headlines.
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LibraryThing member Monkeypats
So, this book has a wonderful message and I feel like I learned a lot. It was fascinating a lot of the things we are taught that have been disproven or that are based on extremely limited information regarding the nature of humankind. I will say it got dry and long at times and there were a few
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moments where I thought about not finishing it a few times, but I’m really glad I did.
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LibraryThing member ltsmith
A great read, I really like a book that makes you think and this one does. It also makes a lot of sense about who were are as humans and why we act the way we do. It also explains why the modern world is what it is!


Independent Booksellers' Book Prize (Shortlist — Non-Fiction — 2021)
Books Are My Bag Readers Award (Shortlist — Non-Fiction — 2020)
Blackwell's Book of the Year (Shortlist — Non-Fiction — 2020)


Original language


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Physical description

9.5 inches


1408898934 / 9781408898932
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