Humankind - by Rutger Bregman


Humankind - by Rutger Bregman

Read: 2022-02-13

Recommend: 4/10

I appreciate the critical thinking skills and the story-telling ability of Rutger Bregman. In contrast to the veneer theory (bad side), it brings forward the other side (good side) of the same coin regarding human nature. However, I don’t think he has brought down Richard Dawkins’ arguments about selfish genes because they might as well create altruistic and cooperative human beings.

Here are the ten rules of thumb at the end of the book

  1. I: When in doubt, assume the best

  2. II: Think in win-win scenarios

  3. III: Ask more questions

  4. IV: Temper your empathy, train your compassion

  5. V: Try to understand the other, even if you don’t get where they’re coming from

  6. VI: Love your own as others love their own

  7. VII: Avoid the news

  8. VIII: Don’t punch Nazis

  9. IX. Come out of the closet: don’t be ashamed to do good

  10. X. Be realistic


Here are some text that I highlighted in the book:

  1. The Psychology of the Masses’ – by one of the most influential scholars of his day, the Frenchman Gustave Le Bon.

  2. That most people, deep down, are pretty decent.

  3. veneer theory.

  4. Imagine for a moment that a new drug comes on the market. It’s super-addictive, and in no time everyone’s hooked. Scientists investigate and soon conclude that the drug causes, I quote, ‘a misperception of risk, anxiety, lower mood levels, learned helplessness, contempt and hostility towards others, [and] desensitization’ That drug is the news.

  5. The first thing to understand about the human race is that, in evolutionary terms, we’re babies. As a species we’ve only just emerged. Imagine that the whole history of life on earth spans just one calendar year, instead of four billion. Up until about mid-October, bacteria had the place to themselves. Not until November did life as we know it appear, with buds and branches, bones and brains. And we humans? We made our entrance on 31 December, at approximately 11 p.m. Then we spent about an hour roaming around as hunter-gatherers, only getting around to inventing farming at 11:58 p.m. Everything else we call ‘history’ happened in the final sixty seconds to midnight: all the pyramids and castles, the knights and ladies, the steam engines and rocket ships.

  6. Dmitri Belyaev’s theory was that people are domesticated apes

  7. Human beings, it turns out, are ultrasocial learning machines. We’re born to learn, to bond and to play. Maybe it’s not so strange, then, that blushing is the only human expression that’s uniquely human. Blushing, after all, is quintessentially social – it’s people showing they care what others think, which fosters trust and enables cooperation.

  8. The same goes for organisations like Amazon and Uber, which systematically pit their workers against each other. Uber, in the words of one anonymous employee, is a ‘Hobbesian jungle’ where ‘you can never get ahead unless someone else dies’

  9. Perhaps the best illustration of the true nature of states is the Great Wall of China, a wonder of the world meant to keep dangerous ‘barbarians’ out – but also to lock subjects in. Effectively it made the Chinese empire the largest open-air prison the world has ever known.

  10. Originally, I wanted to bring Milgram’s experiments crashing down. When you’re writing a book that champions the good in people, there are several big challengers on your list. William Golding and his dark imagination. Richard Dawkins and his selfish genes. Jared Diamond and his demoralising tale of Easter Island. And, of course, Philip Zimbardo, the world’s best-known living psychologist.

  11. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

  12. There was one journalist, a radio reporter named Danny Meenan, who was sceptical of the story about the disinterested bystanders. When he checked the facts, he found that most of the eyewitnesses thought they had seen a drunken woman that night. When Meenan asked the reporter at the New York Times why he hadn’t put that information in his piece, his answer was, ‘It would have ruined the story.’

  13. ‘Terrorists don’t kill and die just for a cause,’ one American anthropologist notes. ‘They kill and die for each other.’

  14. The thing we need to understand is that most of these terrorist agents were not religious fanatics. They were the best of friends. Together, they felt a part of something bigger, that their lives finally held meaning. At last they were the authors of their own epic tale.

  15. After centuries of speculating how babies see the world, here was cautious evidence to suggest we possess an innate moral compass and Homo puppy is not a blank slate. We’re born with a preference for good; it’s in our nature.

  16. Even when people try to treat everyone as equals and act as though variations in skin colour, appearance, or wealth don’t exist, children still perceive the difference. It seems we’re born with a button for tribalism in our brains.

  17. One thing is certain: a better world doesn’t start with more empathy. If anything, empathy makes us less forgiving, because the more we identify with victims, the more we generalise about our enemies. The bright spotlight we shine on our chosen few makes us blind to the perspective of our adversaries, because everybody else falls outside our view.

  18. The overwhelming majority of soldiers were killed by someone who pushed a button, dropped a bomb, or planted a mine. By someone who never saw them, certainly not while they were half-naked and trying to hold up their trousers.

  19. The big advantage of Niccolò Machiavelli’s philosophy is that it’s doable. If you want power, he wrote, you have to grab it. You must be shameless, unfettered by principles or morals. The ends justify the means.

  20. ‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,’ British historian Lord Acton

  21. Money may be a fiction, but it’s enforced by the threat of very real violence.

  22. Some societies have coped with this by engineering a system of distributed power – otherwise known as ‘democracy’. Although the word suggests it is the people who govern (in ancient Greek, demos means ‘people’ and kratos means ‘power’), it doesn’t usually work out that way.

  23. In our modern democracy, shamelessness can be positively advantageous. Politicians who aren’t hindered by shame are free to do things others wouldn’t dare. Would you call yourself your country’s most brilliant thinker, or boast about your sexual prowess? Could you get caught in a lie and then tell another without missing a beat? Most people would be consumed by shame – just as most people leave that last cookie on the plate. But the shameless couldn’t care less. And their audacious behaviour pays dividends in our modern mediacracies, because the news spotlights the abnormal and the absurd. In this type of world, it’s not the friendliest and most empathic leaders who rise to the top, but their opposites. In this world, it’s survival of the shameless.

  24. Selfishness should not be tamped down, modern economists argued, but turned loose. In this way, the desire for wealth would achieve what no army of preachers ever could: unite people the world over.

  25. Can it be a coincidence that the largest concentrations of atheists are to be found in countries like Denmark or Sweden? These nations also have the most robust rule of law and most trustworthy bureaucracies. In countries like these, religion has been displaced. Much as mass production once sidelined traditional craftspeople, God lost his job to bureaucrats.

  26. All things considered, we have to conclude that the Enlightenment has been a triumph for humankind, bringing us capitalism, democracy and the rule of law.

  27. Bertrand Russell (1872–1970): When you are studying any matter or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only what are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed, but look only and solely at what are the facts.

  28. Rosenthal dubbed his discovery the Pygmalion Effect, after the mythological sculptor who fell so hard for one of his own creations that the gods decided to bring his statue to life.

  29. I’ve got more bad news: just as positive expectations have very real effects, nightmares can come true, too. The flip side of the Pygmalion Effect is what’s known as the Golem Effect, named after the Jewish legend in which a creature meant to protect the citizens of Prague instead turns into a monster.

  30. Both the capitalist and the communist would tell you that there are only two ways to propel people into action: carrots and sticks. The capitalists relied on carrots (read: money), whereas the communists were mainly about sticks (read: punishment). For all their differences, there was one basic premise on which both sides could agree: People don’t motivate themselves.

  31. nocebo effect: simply believing in something can make it come true.

  32. It’s mind-boggling to see how we get tripped up by targets, bonuses and the prospect of penalties:

    • Think about CEOs who focus solely on quarterly results, and wind up driving their companies into the ground.
    • Academics who are evaluated on their published output, and then tempted to put forward bogus research.
    • Schools that are assessed on their standardised test results, and so skip teaching those skills that can’t be quantified.
    • Psychologists who are paid to continue to treat patients, and thus keep patients in treatment longer than necessary.
    • Bankers who earn bonuses by selling subprime mortgages, and end up bringing the global economy to the brink of ruin.
  33. The good news is things can be different. Bullying is practically non-existent at unstructured schools like Agora. Here, you can take a breather whenever you need one: the doors are always open. And, more importantly, everyone here is different. Difference is normal, because children of all ages, abilities and levels intermingle.

  34. The question is not: can our kids handle the freedom? The question is: do we have the courage to give it to them?

  35. This is where we get the word ‘economy’, which derives from the Greek oikonomíā, meaning ‘management of a household’.

  36. ‘General,’ he says in Afrikaans, ‘there can be no winners if we go to war.’

  37. Contact engenders more trust, more solidarity and more mutual kindness. It helps you see the world through other people’s eyes. Moreover, it changes you as a person, because individuals with a diverse group of friends are more tolerant towards strangers. And contact is contagious: when you see a neighbour getting along with others, it makes you rethink your own biases.

  38. In nonviolent campaigns, one ingredient is essential: self-control. While in prison, Mandela became a master at keeping a cool head. He decided to study his enemy, reading scores of books about the culture and history of the Afrikaners. He watched rugby. He learned their language. ‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands,’ Mandela explained, ‘that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.’

  39. Mark Twain figured that out as early as 1867, observing that ‘travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness’

  40. All too easily we forget that the other guy, a hundred yards away, is just like us. Time and again, we fire at one another from a distance – through social media or online forums, from the safety of wherever we’re holed up. We let fear, ignorance, suspicion and stereotypes be our guides, making generalisations about people we’ve never met.

  41. This is how hate is being pumped into society once again. The culprits this time are not only newspapers, but blogs and tweets, lies spread on social media and toxic online trolls. The best fact-checker seems powerless against this kind of venom.

  42. ‘We aren’t searching for a criminal,’ Juan explains, ‘but for a child, missing in the jungle.’

  43. Because, like all the best things in life, the more you give, the more you have. That’s true of trust and friendship, and it’s true of peace.

  44. What they read, upon entering, was: GNOTHI SEAUTON. Know thyself.

  45. And when in doubt, we’re inclined to assume the worst.

  46. ‘To forgive is to set a prisoner free,’ wrote the theologist Lewis B. Smedes, ‘and discover that the prisoner was you.’

  47. unlike empathy, compassion doesn’t sap our energy. In fact, afterwards Ricard felt much better. That’s because compassion is simultaneously more controlled, remote and constructive. It’s not about sharing another person’s distress, but it does help you to recognise it and then act. Not only that, compassion injects us with energy, which is exactly what’s needed to help.

  48. Why do we care more about people who seem like us? In Chapter 10, I wrote that evil does its work from a distance. Distance lets us rant at strangers on the internet. Distance helps soldiers bypass their aversion to violence. And distance has enabled the most horrifying crimes in history, from slavery to the Holocaust.

  49. For every metre the neo-Nazis walked, the townspeople pledged to donate ten euros to Wichmann’s organisation EXIT-Deutschland, which helps people get out of far-right groups.

  50. Every good deed is like a pebble in a pond, sending ripples out in all directions. ‘We don’t typically see how our generosity cascades through the social network,’ noted one of the researchers, ‘to affect the lives of dozens or maybe hundreds of other people.’