It was not the strongest who survived in human history, but the friendliest, says historian and author Rutger Bregman. Because we have a superpower that sets us apart from other species: the ability to cooperate.
Brigitte Woman: In your new book you put forward a daring thesis: man is good. Your readers are amazed, aren't they?
Rutger Bregman: Naturally. Our image of man is generally shaped by cynicism and pessimism: people are selfish. Are you lazy. Anything else is considered naive wishful thinking. But I think that the really naive people are these cynics. It is realistic that people have always behaved fairly decently. He's not particularly strong or smart. Studies have shown that a pig is smarter than a two year old. But humans have a capacity for kindness and cooperation that does not exist in the rest of the animal kingdom. This ability explains why we are able to learn from one another and communicate, build pyramids, land on the moon. Sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, archaeologists, even economists speak of the "survival of the friendliest".
Corona is the acid test for your approach. We see how selfish or altruistic people can be: some steal disinfectants from hospitals, others go shopping for their neighbors. Do you feel confirmed?
Anyone who evaluates the numbers sees that the vast majority behave socially, keep their distance and help one another. But it is a psychological fact that we perceive negative things much more clearly than positive ones. We know this from our own lives: We accept a compliment. Criticism spoils us all day. For decades, sociologists have been studying what happens in times of crisis, such as natural disasters: there is an explosion of altruism over and over again.
Then where does the bad image of humans come from?
This has been with us since ancient times. We have the idea that civilized behavior is just a thin facade with a wild animal still lurking behind it. The Christian concept of sin, Machiavelli, the Enlightenment, novels like "Lord of the Flies", films like "Outbreak" – always the same concept. We are portrayed as absolute egoists. This concept is not only wrong, it has fatal consequences: Because what we expect from the other determines how he or she behaves. If we assume he's selfish, we're going to get him to show himself on his worst. We have become what we teach.
What do you suggest?
In Norway there are prisons where murderers and rapists, despite their heinous acts, are free to go to the movies, make music, befriend the prison guards. Conditions that contradict our intuition. But statistics show that this togetherness works and the relapse rate of inmates is extremely low. What does that mean? When you treat people humanly, they behave humanely. If you treat people like dirt, they act like dirt. Sometimes we cannot trust our intuition, but have to make conscious rational decisions in order to change things.
In your book you oppose the thesis that man is man's wolf with the legend of the good and bad wolf that every person carries within themselves. It is our decision which of the two to feed so that it grows.
Exactly. I haven't written a book about how we are all angels. We are definitely not. We're the friendliest species in the wildlife, but we can also be the cruelest. My book is designed to help bring out the best in all of us.
Assuming the good in your opponent, exemplifying it and turning the other cheek if necessary – that sounds a lot like your Christian upbringing. To other people it seems risky …
Is It Risky To Trust Others? The alternative would be to not trust anyone and thus ensure that you are never betrayed. The price for this security would be far too high. How can you lead a happy, healthy life if you constantly distrust others? The rational choice is to accept that you will be ripped off once or twice in life. It's not a shame, on the contrary. If you have never been cheated on, you should rather ask yourself whether your attitude towards life is right.
But you can hardly blame people for their skepticism when it comes to man-made phenomena such as the climate and refugee crisis, nationalism, and heads of government like Donald Trump or Jair Bolsonaro, can you?
There is no easy answer to all the bad things in our history. How can we explain wars, terrorism or the Holocaust that only happen among humans? I have never heard of penguins locking up other penguins. I can only give the beginning of one answer: Scientists have discovered that our friendliness also has a dark side – group behavior. The worst things happen through loyalty to a group, in the name of camaraderie, through our herd instinct. Another important factor in explaining human atrocities is the distance from one another. The greater the physical and mental distance from the other, the easier it is to hate and kill him. Even in war, people are often unable to shoot each other at close range. Soldiers who have killed someone come home deeply disturbed because they have killed something within themselves. Bombs or artillery make killing more anonymous and much easier. Likewise, psychological distance through conditioning or an ideology that dehumanizes the opponent. It happened in the Holocaust as well as in the Rwandan genocide.
During your research, did you discover a difference in behavior between men and women?
Women have more empathy than men, but that is not innate. That is socialization. We live in a society in which power is so distributed that women must constantly do their best to understand men. Hence the eternal stories about the immense feminine intuition. Women are simply expected to put themselves in the male perspective. The opposite is much rarer.
They assume that our development took a sharp turn for the worse 10,000 years ago. What went wrong there?
For about 300,000 years we as nomads have led a pretty good life. Our workweek added up to 20 to 30 hours, we had a lot of exercise, a varied diet, men and women were equal, there were flat hierarchies based solely on skills: if someone was a good storyteller, everyone listened. If someone was a good hunter, others let him guide them. If there was trouble with other tribes, they moved on. Then about 12,000 years ago we made the huge mistake of settling down. The history of our civilization began. Most of this story is an absolute disaster: our health went down the drain, we got infectious diseases from measles to polio. The farm work was very hard and the working hours became much longer. Private property emerged, from which power relations and patriarchy developed. The highest price of our civilization was paid by women, for whom life became terrible. They became barter goods like cows, were veiled and tied to the house. In addition, wars constantly broke out that had hardly existed among nomads. Settling down was the greatest mistake in human history.
History books claim the opposite: settling down has made progress possible.
We believe this because we have actually made great strides in the last 200 years: Our life expectancy has increased, we have become healthier and more prosperous, there are fewer wars, Corona is manageable compared to the plague. But this is only a short span of human existence, and we don't know how long it will last, as the climate crisis proves.
How big is your hope that we can get this crisis under control together?
I am a historian, not a clairvoyant. I can only say what I hope for. I hope that we will bid farewell to this age that has declared us egoists, a plague, and sees our downfall as inevitable. I hope that a new age begins with a realistic view of man and the world he can create.
They call the media "as harmful as sugar" because they constantly fuel fears and hopelessness.
The media is primarily concerned with what goes wrong: corruption, violence, terrorism. If you follow the news, at the end of the day you think you know exactly how bad humanity is. Psychologists have a name for it: Common World Syndrome. The good is considered boring. It's like reality TV: if you drop people off on an island and let them do what they want, they just become friends. That results in terrible audience ratings. So lies and deceit are sown, people are bottled up with alcohol. And then maybe a little thing happens that can be inflated big. This is how you make good television. Our bad image in the media has a deeper reason. It is mainly promoted by those in power. When we can't trust each other, we need the mighty to control us to make sure we don't eat each other up. The concept of the good person is subversive because it means that we don't need all these managers, generals and kings, that the emperor is naked, like in the fairy tale "The emperor's new clothes".
For your new book you studied humans for five years. You not only did historical research, but also included many other scientific disciplines in your analyzes. Could your complex findings be summed up in one sentence: Strangers are friends we have not yet met?
I like that. Assume that there is good in people. It's not naive. That's realistic. You have the science behind you. Don't be ashamed of your kindness, make it visible, because that's how you inspire other people. This is perhaps the most important message: Kindness is as contagious as a virus. Alone we are nothing. Together we are a wonder of the world.
Rutger Bregman was born in 1988 in Renesse, the Netherlands. After studying history at Utrecht University and the University of California, he made a name for himself as a journalist for the Washington Post and the BBC. He was nominated twice for the "European Press Prize". His first book "Utopias for Realists" became a bestseller in 2017.
Book tip: Rutger Bregman: "Basically good – A new history of mankind" 480 p .; 24.90 euros, Rowohlt.
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