Hopeful History of Humankind

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* Book: Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman, 2020



Michal Narberhaus:

"There is a recent ‘school’ of progressive interpretation of evolutionary biology that presents itself as based on the latest science. Broadly speaking the core message of these voices is that the discoveries of the past few decades have by now completely debunked the idea of the selfish gene put forward by Richard Dawkins in 1976.

The 2020 bestseller Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman is possibly the most prominent example of this thinking that is becoming popular in progressive activism and beyond.

In a recent interview Bregman says: “For millennia, it was actually the friendliest among us who had the most kids, and so had the biggest chance of passing on their genes to the next generation. It’s deeply embedded in our evolutionary history that, also at times of crisis, but also just generally in life we prefer to work together and be friendly most of the time.”

Bregman’s core argument in the book is an updated version of the idea of the noble savage popularised in 1755 by the French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau claimed that greed and violence are the product of civilisation and that people in their natural state were inherently good. Bregman believes that when humans were hunter-gatherers (which is 95% of human history) “men and women were more or less equal” and that our male ancestors were “more like proto-feminists”. He argues that only after humans settled down and invented agriculture, they became violent and power structures corrupted us.

While Bregman supports his argument with many sources, his selection of evidence is highly biased and a more complete review of the evidence we have today shows that hunter-gatherers weren’t as peaceful, altruistic and feminist as Bregman claims.

In a review of the book, William Bruckner, an evolutionary anthropologist, provides a good overview of the latest evidence against Bregman’s theses. He concludes:

- Bregman presents hunter-gatherer societies as being inherently peaceful, anti-war, equal, and feminist likely because these are commonly expressed social values among educated people in his own society today” and that “in reality, human beings everywhere are neither inherently freedom loving and peaceful, nor inherently coercive and violent, but can be either or both depending on their socioecological and cultural context.

Metaphorically speaking the selfish gene is still true!

As many of the anecdotes in Bregman’s book correctly show, humans are of course much more than purely selfish beings. In that sense the selfish gene metaphor has clearly been misunderstood and misused to justify the greediest forms of capitalism. Social Darwinism was another form of ideologically biased interpretation of evolutionary biology. This misconception has been overturned by the knowledge we now have about innate human morality and our natural predisposition for cooperation and pro-social behaviour.

What makes humans truly distinctive from other primates, including from chimpanzees, is that we are especially cooperative. Without this ability we wouldn’t have been able to build a civilisation as astonishing as ours.

However, the mechanisms that humans evolved and that are required for a human social group to function as an organised unit are complex. Importantly, they are not simply the consequence of the noble motives of people wanting the world to be a better place.

It could be a fatal error if we come to believe the core idea of Bregman’s book that deep down humans are mostly friendly and that our cultural systems, hierarchies and power have brought us all the bad stuff. Seeing ourselves as honest and caring from the core of our beings, if this is a false view, will not help us make ourselves or the world better.

Even if one wished evolution would happen very differently, the selfish gene in the metaphorical meaning originally intended by Dawkins is still true." (https://www.protopialab.org/post/why-we-need-to-switch-off-the-autopilot)