The Best of All Possible Worlds?
June 20, 2020 9:44 AM   Subscribe

Steven Poole is not impressed by Rutger Bregman’s new book Humankind: A Hopeful History. “The attempt to replace a story about humans’ essential wickedness with a contrasting story about humans’ essential loveliness has already run aground – as it was bound to, since any claim that complex human beings are essentially one single thing or another is a fairytale.“

Rutger Bregman is a Dutch historian who previously wrote Utopia for Realists. You may heard of his speech at Davos castigating billionnaires.
posted by adrianhon (26 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
 
Human beings work together to the extent they understand their interests to be aligned. I often wonder how much the generosity of toddlers aligns with the oft observed mushy distinction between self and other at that age.

Usually I see people including myself switch between a trusting mode and a suspicious one based on the environment they're in. It's like a weird magic trick - as long as people trust implicitly they behave in ways that reward others trusting implicitly and much more often than not as soon as they expect to be distrusted by some Other they both start to distrust and start to behave scurrilously.
posted by PMdixon at 11:41 AM on June 20 [5 favorites]


I definitely was skeptical of the premise while reading this book knowing humans aren't limited to one innate quality (there are definitely innate human abilities, I know you behaviorists are still out there). Of course, Rutger Bergman has his biases going into the book like we all do, but he made his case and cited peer-reviewed research where he could. For far too long, it has been popular for mainstream intellectuals to write about the innate wickedness of humans, which also oversimplified human capabilities similar to Poole's criticism of Bergman. But the consequences of mainstreaming innate human wickedness are far more harmful than attempting to mainstream innate human kindness. I'll only address where Rutger's thesis of "human's essential loveliness" effects psychological studies.

There have been many negative consequences for the mainstreaming of the Stanford Prison Experiment, Milgram studies on obedience, and the myth of the bystander effect especially in the media portrayal of Kitty Genovese. We have Zimbardo citing SPE and Milgram studies while testifying in cases involving war crimes. SPE has been criticized for decades for incomplete datasets and researcher coercion, but it remains one of the most popular psychological studies. So when Bergman cited Le Texier's findings, I was hopeful that this would help move the spotlight away from that experiment.

We've suffered decades of right-leaning local governments using weak studies to support urban apathy. So when Bergman citied a study showing bystanders helped in 90% of emergencies, I was again hopeful we could move away from an unsupported theory. Especially since the story of Kitty Genoese was used to demonize growing civil rights movements in cities across the nation.

Seeing Bergman's message as a "fairytale" is a fair criticism because of the oversimplification of innate human abilities, but if the more positive narrative is a successful counter to the polar opposite then it's worth supporting.
posted by Become A Silhouette at 12:01 PM on June 20 [23 favorites]


Eeesh, this book sounds terrible. A better read in a similar vein is Rebecca Solnit's A Paradise Built in Hell. She argues that the common purpose arising out of disasters brings out the best in many (not all) people. What strikes me most about it it the proximate physicality of the life affirming acts: building shelter, feeding people, organizing. Not so easy in a pandemic. Still if anyone needs something a little more hopeful to read right now it's a good choice.
posted by oneirodynia at 12:06 PM on June 20 [3 favorites]


I meant to add this excerpt:

“What is this feeling that crops up during so many disasters?” Ms. Solnit asks. She describes it as “an emotion graver than happiness but deeply positive,” worth studying because it provides “an extraordinary window into social desire and possibility.” Our response to disaster gives us nothing less than “a glimpse of who else we ourselves may be and what else our society could become.” Her overarching thesis can probably be boiled down to this sentence: “The recovery of this purpose and closeness without crisis or pressure” — without disaster, that is — “is the great contemporary task of being human.”
posted by oneirodynia at 12:07 PM on June 20 [3 favorites]


What is his evidence? Infants and toddlers, studies suggest, have an innate bias towards fairness and cooperation.

One of my favorite personal anecdotes is watching two toddlers (one I knew well:) equidistant to a toy, moving towards it at the same rate and noticing each other at the same moment, each barring teeth at the other. When interrupted, toddled off, played nice elsewhere...

But lets discuss the human condition on a geologic time scale...

Will the subsequent species loose all but one digit as that is all that's need to swipe with? Will kindness be a long historical distant concept that is argued about by embedded processors biolinked cycling through the possibilities of scarcity prior to Post Fully Automated Luxury Gay Space Communism societies?

Does not sound like a book worth reading, likely short sighted.
posted by sammyo at 12:17 PM on June 20 [1 favorite]


nuance? that's not very 2020

if the more positive narrative is a successful counter to the polar opposite then it's worth supporting

have to disagree with this. i understand the motivation, and given the human tendency to see everything in terms of simple narratives i can't blame people for throwing their hands up and deciding to push a positive one, but it's still a distortion of reality.* i'd prefer people to sit with complexity and contradiction, disconcerting as that can be, rather than immediately lowering themselves into a comforting bubblebath of absolute statements.

* yes, fine, most statements about reality are distortions, but some are distort-ier than others
posted by inire at 12:29 PM on June 20


So, we're going to shit on the book while ostentatiously declaring that we haven't read it, based on a review.

You can believe humans are bad, you don't have to be an example of it.
posted by zompist at 12:52 PM on June 20 [31 favorites]


The grand bargain of modern liberal democracy is that citizens pay a professional political class so that, most of the time, they don’t have to think about politics.

For some value of ‘professional’, I suppose.
posted by Segundus at 12:59 PM on June 20 [1 favorite]


So, we're going to shit on the book while ostentatiously declaring that we haven't read it, based on a review.

You can believe humans are bad, you don't have to be an example of it.


forgive me, i forgot that discussing a just-released book based on a critic's negative review was an example of human evil, mea culpa

unrelatedly, can anyone who has commented on an fpp before reading the link please report to metafilter jail
posted by inire at 1:02 PM on June 20 [7 favorites]


"So, we're going to shit on the book while ostentatiously declaring that we haven't read it, based on a review."

That's one of the purposes of a review, warning readers away from poorly-thought-out books; the reviewer is paid to read it so you don't have to. My reaction to the review is "Nope, won't bother with that one!" Nothing bad about that, as more books are published than any one person could ever hope to read.
posted by Agave at 1:17 PM on June 20 [8 favorites]


the reviewer is paid to read it so you don't have to.

True enough, though a negative review by someone you don't respect may send you straight to the bookstore.

One book reviewer I recall advised that a quality review should send the reader to some book, even if not the one under review. Not bad advice.
posted by BWA at 1:47 PM on June 20 [5 favorites]


Humans evolved in a social milieu, and as a result we are naturally anxious about acceptance and rejection. The wrong leaders in desperate times can manipulate those basic desires and fears to create historical horror shows. Political systems that avoid tyrants help achieve stability by allowing innate good will to become a self-interest through egalitarianism.
posted by Brian B. at 1:55 PM on June 20 [4 favorites]


Political systems that avoid tyrants help achieve stability by allowing innate good will to become a self-interest through egalitarianism.

now fit that on a bumpersticker
posted by philip-random at 2:43 PM on June 20 [4 favorites]


I haven't read the book or other reviews yet, but I did Google the book reviewer and see his speciality is English and the abuses of the English language. And that the guardian has another story on it (for which I would need to register), where it is book of the month.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 2:55 PM on June 20


oneirodynia: Eeesh, this book sounds terrible. A better read in a similar vein is Rebecca Solnit's A Paradise Built in Hell.
Bregman might agree with you
posted by BobTheScientist at 2:55 PM on June 20


the guardian has another story on it (for which I would need to register), where it is book of the month.

this one? the reviewer (andrew anthony) appreciates its optimism and the range of examples of humans being nice to each other, while criticising the sometimes dodgy arguments and the swing from one simplistic extreme to another. his conclusion is qualifiedly positive:

"There’s a great deal of reassuring human decency to be taken from this bold and thought-provoking book and a wealth of evidence in support of the contention that the sense of who we are as a species has been deleteriously distorted. But it seems equally misleading to offer the false choice of Rousseau and Hobbes when, clearly, humanity encompasses both.

There will always be a battle between our altruistic and selfish instincts, our openness and our protectiveness – it is the very stuff of human drama. Still, if the devil has all the best tunes, it makes a welcome change to read such a sustained and enjoyable tribute to our better natures.
"
posted by inire at 3:23 PM on June 20


I think you can choose not to register. If you click on 'not now' you will go straight to the article regardless, or did the last time I tried it.
posted by glasseyes at 3:29 PM on June 20 [2 favorites]


Whether humans are fundamentally evil or good is an age-old philosophy question. I've pondered it a bit myself, and I have concluded that, with few exceptions, all humans can choose to be good or choose to be evil.
posted by Stargazey at 4:06 PM on June 20 [1 favorite]


Look it's simple: Everything's complicated.
posted by aubilenon at 4:20 PM on June 20 [7 favorites]


metafilter: we're going to shit on the book while ostentatiously declaring that we haven't read it, based on a review
posted by Ahmad Khani at 5:55 PM on June 20 [3 favorites]


now fit that on a bumpersticker

"To permit irresponsible authority is to sell disaster."

-Robert A. Heinlein.
posted by clavdivs at 9:30 PM on June 20


Every time someone wants to tell me about "human nature", they turn out to have some shitty agenda. And that's regardless of wether their theory is that humans are good or bad. I believe we have agency, we can choose to do things that harm or things that create happiness. Sometimes, circumstances leave us with bad choices, but that doesn't necessarily mean our nature is evil. Our nature is indifferent, it knows neither good nor evil.

Determining what is good or evil is a societal task. IMO, that does not mean all norms are equal. What it does mean is that communities/society are responsible for their ethical choices. During this corona pandemic, it has been interesting to see that at some level, it has been OK for the Swedish society to sacrifice a significant amount of vulnerable people for the sake of keeping bars open. It hasn't been said out loud, but that was the choice and that is what happened. On the other hand, my mother in a safe nursing home here in Denmark feels she is imprisoned without trial or verdict because I can only visit her under surveillance in a controlled space. So it's not black and white. (And if you are Scandinavian, this is a reversal of the old stereotypes of Danes and Swedes).

Interestingly, the assumption that human nature is essentially wicked is most often a foundation of conservative thinking. The idea is that we need to police that wickedness at all levels of society, which again leeds to the legitimacy of paternalistic violence. But an individual can have culturally ingrained conservative assumptions while they lean left politically. I remember my gran telling me that my 6 month old baby was "manipulating" me, which is ridiculous, but was how she had been taught to understand the world: we are born evil, and need to be disciplined into goodness. I've noticed that in societies where conservative thinking dominates the public discourse, more people tend to imagine a basic wickedness, regardless of political opinions, and vice versa, in societies where socialist ideas prevail, even conservatives trust in the fundamental goodness of man.
posted by mumimor at 10:59 PM on June 20 [4 favorites]


Just about to read this book.

Here's a link of a podcast with an interview of the author on ABC radio Australia - Nightlife, that may be of interest
posted by Bluepenguin05 at 11:54 PM on June 20 [2 favorites]


I tend to evaluate particularly pointed reviews on the basis of the density of withering patrician sarcasm, scare quotes, whistlewords like "hippyish," and how frequently I find myself hearing the voice of William F. Buckley condescending to James Baldwin in the text, which, in this case, is often.

Haven't read the Bregman book, but I've seen him speak and found him compelling, so I'd be willing to give the book a try. Poole, on the other hand, is the kind of critic you want to push down the stairs even when he's making points you'd readily concede.

Your mileage may, of course, vary.
posted by sonascope at 7:46 AM on June 21 [10 favorites]


I guess I'm a Hobbesian. Beyond small groups, cooperation is surprisingly difficult. To get people to behave cooperatively, you need norms, and norms are only effective when there's some kind of sanction, whether that's moral (your own conscience), social (shame at being caught), or legal (arrest and punishment).

For a large-scale example of an anarchic society with weak or non-existent norms, see the Internet.

Another example is international politics. What recourse did the rest of the world have when Japan invaded China? Or more recently, when Russia seized Crimea? The basic problem is described by Joel Shmookler's parable of the tribes: "You can cover whole sheets of parchment with limitations, but only power can limit power."
posted by russilwvong at 9:52 PM on June 22 [1 favorite]


This review seemed like an odd hit piece. At the end, the reviewer (the Guardian staff linguist) puts forth some petty gotcha about the rule averse hippy and what about the cyclists!? Think how they must feel? Did that not occur to you Bregman!

I mean, Bregman is Dutch and a cycling advocate so it is obviously not something Poole needs to point out. It would have been good to have a round of reviews. I mean, who cares what Poole thinks. He has no particular expertise here and I too find him more than a bit off-putting.
posted by vacapinta at 7:15 AM on June 23 [1 favorite]


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