There's a scene in the 1986 film, Hannah and Her Sisters, where Mickey, struggling with an existential crisis, asks his father why there were Nazis. His father replies, "How the hell do I know why there were Nazis? I don’t even know how the can opener works!"
Most of us aren’t qualified to explain why some people do evil things. But we don’t need to despair, it turns out, because there’s hope for us all. That’s the somewhat contrarian view of Dutch historian and author, Rutger Bregman, whose latest book, Humankind: A Hopeful History, posits the theory that, rather than being savages underneath it all, we’re actually hardwired to be friendly.
Writing the book, Bregman told Ray D’Arcy on Wednesday, took about six years because it contains thoughts and ideas from a variety of scientific fields, including sociology, psychology and anthropology. The book came about partially because Rutger’s previous book, Utopia for Realists, argued for a universal basic income.
While he was on tour promoting Utopia for Realists, he noticed that a lot of people, although they liked the idea of a basic income, didn’t think it would work in real life.
"Always, after about 20 or 30 minutes, I would end up having these discussions about human nature, where people would say, 'Yeah, but in the end, you’ve got human nature to deal with. People are just selfish.’"
Humankind, then, digs a little deeper into human nature to show that, in fact, we’re not such dark, cruel creatures after all. Bregman even talks about scientists adapting Darwin’s famous ‘survival of the fittest’ line, changing it to ‘survival of the friendliest’.
"For millennia it was not the smartest, or the nastiest, or the strongest among us who had the kids, but actually the friendliest had the bigger chance of passing their genes on to the next generation. Because that was an evolutionary advantage to be friendlier. Having friends helped you to survive during the ice age, which was obviously a very tough environment."
One of the recurring themes of Rutger's book is, as Ray puts it, that civilisation has been our undoing. We were fine when we were hunter-gatherers. We were healthy, there were no wars. Then we invented agriculture, settled down and it all went to hell in a handcart.
"Basically, everything went wrong: we got these hierarchies, we invented a patriarchy, we get all these infectious diseases, right, all the modern infection diseases, like measles and the plague and malaria and Covid-19. These are all modern, civilised diseases because we live too close to our animals."
Bregman’s book talks about scientific research in the 1960s which suggested that people would default to being cruel and nasty, given the opportunity. Scientists spoke about a ‘think veneer’ of civilisation.
Rutger gave Ray his take on that sort of thinking: "My critique of that is that it trivialises things like the Holocaust. They basically say, ‘Oh how do you explain the Holocaust? Well, because people are just evil. That’s just what we are. There’s a Nazi in each and every one of us.’ As a historian, I think that’s a very superficial explanation."
There’s lots more to think about and unpick – including why William Golding’s Lord of the Flies doesn’t paint a realistic picture of human nature – in the full conversation between Ray and Rutger Bregman and you can hear it all here.
Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman is published by Bloomsbury.