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Humankind: A Hopeful History

If you look at recent developments in human history, the world may seem like a grim place, in which humanity is setting itself for destruction. However, if you consider the research made in various disciplines such as anthropology, archaeology, sociology, philosophy and psychology, you’ll see that in fact the contrary is happening. Preben Thorø, CTO at Trifork Switzerland, talked to Rutger Bregman, historian and author of “Humankind: A Hopeful History”, about how the world is a much better place than we perceive it and how research can restore our belief in the good of humanity.

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If you look at recent developments in human history, the world may seem like a grim place, in which humanity is setting itself for destruction. However, if you consider the research made in various disciplines such as anthropology, archaeology, sociology, philosophy and psychology, you’ll see that in fact the contrary is happening.
Preben Thorø, CTO of Trifork Switzerland, has talked to Rutger Bregman, historian and author of Humankind: A Hopeful History, about how the world is a much better place than we perceive it and how research can restore our belief in the good of humanity.

Research for the book

Preben Thorö: So I'd like to welcome you, Rutger Bregman, the author of the book, "Humankind," which is, is one of the very, very best books I've ever read, maybe the best book. So thanks a lot for taking your time to have this conversation with me today.

Rutger Bregman: That's so kind of you to say, Preben. Thanks for having me.

Preben Thorö: One of the things I like is the fact that the book is just well written, what I like is the level of research that you have put into this book and then that it leaves the reader with a wonderful, optimistic, positive view on the world. But I'd like to dive into the amount of research because it is a lot of research. Did you plan that upfront? "So now I'm going to just keep on researching and writing this book."

Rutger Bregman: I worked on this book for quite a while, I think around six years. The reason I wanted to write it was that I started to notice that in so many different disciplines, anthropology, archaeology, sociology, and psychology, researchers were moving towards a more optimistic, more hopeful view of human nature. But they often didn't seem to know it about each other. So there was one specific moment when I was interviewing a psychologist, the named is Marie Lindegaard. She has done extraordinary work on the bystander effect. This effect that supposedly means that whenever there's a local emergency, someone's drowning, someone's attacked in the streets, we don't do anything, we're just apathetic. We're like it's someone else's responsibility.] Psychologists believed that for a long time.

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So she'd done some extraordinary research where she showed based on camera footage because there are cameras and cities everywhere these days. And you could just look at the footage of real incidents. She built a huge database and proved that actually in 90% of all cases, 90%, people help each other. She was telling me about her research. I was telling her afterward about new trends in evolutionary psychology and this notion that scientists have come up with of survival of the friendliest, which means that for millennia, it was the friendliest among us who had the most kids and had the biggest chance of passing on their genes to the next generation. This friendliness is our secret superpower. And I was explaining that to her. And she said something that I remembered, which was, "Oh, my god. So it's happening there as well in this other field." And then I realized, "Oh, wow, she's such a brilliant researcher, but she doesn't know what's going on in the field next to hers." And then I was like, "Okay, maybe someone should we try and connect the dots." And not to be the specialist that knows everything about this particular subject, but to look at the bigger picture. And that's really what I've attempted to do in this book.

The other side of the Stanford Prison Experiment

Preben Thorö: I think that's a line that you can follow through the entire book. It's like you're focusing on the research, and then presenting the immediate results. But then diving one step further down, saying, "Hey, if we take a closer look at this, it's not what we thought it was, it shows something completely different." And your examples just show that over and over again. Did you know that up front? I mean, all these studies that have been published and have been accepted, there is another side to that. Is that something you just decided, "So, let's see if there is another side," or what?

Rutger Bregman: Writing this book was a journey for me as well. So, I'll give you one example. The Stanford Prison Experiment is probably the most famous experiment that was ever done in the history of psychology. The standard story goes something like this. In the early '70s, there was a researcher called Philip Zimbardo, who's still alive, who came up with the idea to create a fake prison in the basement of Stanford University. He had 24 students, 12 of them, he turned into guards. 12 of them were prisoners. And then supposedly, very quickly, after the experiment started, everything got out of hand. The guards turned into sadistic monsters. And so the message of the Stanford Prison Experiment is there's a beast in each and every one of us. So evil is just below the surface. It's an example of what scientists call veneer theory, the notion that our civilization is just a thin layer, just a thin veneer.

Now, I must say that I used to believe this experiment. So I had written about it in earlier books of mine. I thought that it was sound science. It was in all the textbooks and psychology students from around the world who were being taught about the Stanford Prison Experiment. It was only when I was working on this book that I thought, "Well, let's take another look at the experiment, and then let's see if there's any archival material on how it happened." And then what you find is that the whole thing is a hoax to be blunt about it. So we now know that the guards were specifically instructed to behave as monstrous and sadistic as possible. And we also know that many of the guards didn't want to do it. But then Zimbardo, the researcher, told them, "Look, you've got to do this because we need these results so that we can go to the press and say, 'Prisons are horrible environments. We need to reform the whole thing." So it's an extraordinary example of what you could call fake science. But still, somehow this has ended up as one of the most famous, influential experiments in the history of psychology. That's something that is a pattern that you see in many, many cases.

Is the world going mad?

Preben Thorö: Yes. Fake science. Fake science. That's a new term. It's very easy for the time being to get the impression that the world is going mad and is out of control, which is why I wanted to have this conversation with you. Because when you read the book, you're left with another way more positive feeling about the world. But it is easy to get that impression from the media right now. Is the world going mad right now?

Rutger Bregman: Well, I certainly agree with you that it is easy to get that impression. And look, I don't think there's anything to worry about. In many ways, you could argue that this century is one of the most dangerous centuries in the history of human existence. And I'm not just talking about the risk of climate change here. But, I mean, we've also recently, once again, been reminded of the risk of nuclear war, or think about the risk of synthetic biology and viruses that could develop in the lab and could go on for quite a while, the risk of artificial intelligence. But then at the same time, we have also made extraordinary progress. It is very easy to forget just how bad the past was. So if we just look at poverty, for example, over 90% of the world population lived in extreme poverty up until the year 1800.

I've just been researching the history of slavery and abolitionism, the fight against the slave trade. And again, it's pretty astounding to realize that up until the year 1800, around three-quarters of the world population was in some kind of forced labor. They were some kinds of slaves, sometimes literally slaves, sometimes serfs. If you just look at some basic metrics, whether it's life expectancy or poverty, we've made tremendous progress. Extreme poverty has halved since the 1980s. It could have been something on the front page every day. Like every single day, we pulled out, what is it, more than 200,000 people out of extreme poverty. It's pretty wonderful news if you put it like that. So, as a historian, I always think it's important to put things in perspective so that you know where you come from because then you can see that, yes, things are still really bad but they're getting better in many respects. And that is real progress that we should cherish.

People are not born evil

Preben Thorö: I couldn't agree more. You have some strong evidence in the book about the fact that fundamentally we don't want to kill each other. We don't want to fight. Could you give a couple of examples of that?

Rutger Bregman: Sure. If you watch a Hollywood movie, or, I mean, any series on Netflix, or HBO, or whatever, you might get the impression that humans are killer apes, that we are wired to kill, that it's supposedly very easy for us to turn violent. But more than a century of historical and psychological research pretty much tells us the opposite. We humans find it pretty difficult to engage in violence. I mean, we are capable of it, but we also have a natural revulsion against it. One of the first people who discovered this was an American historian and army man called S.L.A. Marshall, who estimated during the II World War when he was traveling the front and interviewing a lot of soldiers, he estimated that only around 15% to 25% of soldiers fired their guns. Now, there's a lot of discussion around these statistics, but later research has backed it up.

There's one wonderful book written by Randall Collins, a sociologist, called "Violence," in which he persuasively argues that indeed humans are not hardwired to be violent, we are hardwired to be social, to work together. That is the secret superpower of our species. It has enabled us to conquer the globe. If you ask the question, "Why have we conquered the globe? Why not the Neanderthals? Why not the bonobos?" Well, this friendliness, this ability to connect is essential. That doesn't mean we can't be violent. But certain circumstances are necessary for us to overcome our natural revulsion against it. So, for example, distance plays an incredibly important role. If you study the history of warfare, what you see is that...well, for example, look at the Battle of Waterloo or the Battle of the Somme, in the First World War, the vast majority of the casualties came from artillery, because it's much easier, psychologically speaking, to push a button and kill a lot of people far away than to look someone in the eye and pull the trigger.

Now, it is also possible to condition people or to brainwash them, as many modern armies now do to sort of teaching them how to kill other people, but that is not without its dangers. So, when the American army started to do this, especially during the war in Vietnam, many soldiers paid a high price. So, we know, again, from extensive statistical research, that the soldiers who kill enemy combatants in battle, especially if they do it up close, often develop PTSD. They become traumatized. This suggests to me that even though we are capable of all kinds of horrific behavior, I mean, in some ways, you could argue that we're one of the cruelest species in the animal kingdom, but it's not exactly what we're evolved to do. If we eat food, we enjoy that, if we have sex, well, we usually enjoy that as well because it's good for the species. But then often, when we engage in terrible acts of violence, we kill something inside ourselves as well, which is, I think, says something deep about our species.

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Preben Thorö: So we are social beings, and we don't want to do anything bad for the species. Yeah.

Rutger Bregman: Yes. I think you could argue it in that way. On the other hand, I mean, you have to acknowledge that so many of the terrible things we do as a species, and there are quite a few, whether it's warfare, ethnic answering, or genocide, I don't want to deny any of that, we often do it in the name of the good. We often do it while we think we're standing on the right side of history. I mean, think about the Russians today, the average Russian soldier, or even Vladimir Putin, he's probably not like the Joker in the "Batman" series or "Batman" movies. Like the Joker just enjoys violence for violence's sake. He's just a sadist and that's just it. He just wants to watch the world burn. And I'm not saying these kinds of people don't exist. But what I am saying is that they're very, very rare and that most evil is perpetrated by people who believe they're standing on the right side of history, which is, I mean, that's not a comfortable fact. That's very disturbing.

Are leaders evil by nature?

Preben Thorö: Yes. But why? If we fundamentally do not want to kill each other, why do we do so, why do we follow our leaders? Are leaders evil by nature?

Rutger Bregman: Well, there are many, many reasons of course. One mechanism that I focus on in the book is the behavior of, well, just average drafted soldiers in wartime. So, if we go back to the Second World War, there was this moment in 1944, and 1945 when the Allied faced a question, they thought, "Why are these Germans still fighting? I mean, they're going to lose the war. The Russians are coming in the East." And it was...especially after D-Day, it was pretty clear that it was lost for the Germans. But still, they were fighting more ferociously than ever and the German army was probably the best in the world and maybe in history, if you just look at the number of casualties they caused, they were on average 50% more effective than the Allied soldiers. So psychologists couldn't understand it. What was going on here? Were these soldiers completely brainwashed, were they like ideological maniacs, and were they all Nazis to the core?

They then started to do is they started interviewing prisoners of war and asked them, "What's going on here?" And again and again, they heard the same answer. It's like, "We're not fighting because of ideological hatred or anything like that. That does play a role, but not the main role." No, it was mainly out of loyalty to comrades, loyalty to friends. And actually, the German army commanders knew this, that these German soldiers didn't want to let their friends down. And so they tried to keep the bands of brothers together so they could fight as effectively as possible. Now, again, this is pretty disturbing that we can do these terrible things in the name of loyalty, in the name of friendship, but that is a fact about our species.

The Christmas Truce of 1914

Preben Thorö: Yes. You have another example, which I found very strong and that was Christmas Eve in 1914. Could you tell me about that?

Rutger Bregman: Yes, yes. Sure. Well, this is an example of what can happen even during wartime when the distance disappears. So, as I mentioned, distance is essential in the establishment of hatred. But then what happens in the trenches is that these soldiers are very close to one another. Sometimes it's just like 50 or 100 meters between them. And at Christmas 1914, they could hear each other singing Christmas carols and so they started singing for one another. And an extraordinary phenomenon happened, which was described by some historians as the outbreak of peace. So during wartime peace was breaking out on the front. And the generals...and the army commander was very frustrated by it. They tried to keep it in check and say, "No, no, you can't do this, you can't have a good time with the enemy." But they even started meeting each other and started drinking wine with one another. There are extraordinary descriptions of fraternization between German and British soldiers.

And thousands and thousands of soldiers participated. If it were up to sort of the average soldiers, the First World War would have ended that Christmas, but obviously, it wasn't up to them. So, what then the army command decided to do is to start bombarding with artillery, which is, again, a different psychological mechanism at the enemy lines, and then it was all over. But in one of the main books about this extraordinary episode, a historian describes this phenomenon of peace as the iceberg. So we often look at war as the standard condition in which humans are and that peace is the exception. And historians often talk about it that way. Like, there's a war, war, war, and when there's not a war, we call it the antebellum. But maybe we should turn that around and see peace as the iceberg that is trying to come up every single time. And you need to put in a lot of effort to push the iceberg down. Because if you just let things go on, then people start socializing again, and are like, "What are we doing here in the trenches? Why not have a good time together?"

Preben Thorö: Yes. And I know, people might say it's naive, but you need to dream big. And I'm hoping so much that we could get this message out to some of the parts fighting right now that it is perfectly okay to lay down weapons. That is the natural thing to do. And I think that story about 1914 Christmas Eve, is an astonishing example. 

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Rutger Bregman: Yes. It just reminds us again that war is the exception in human history. It's a quite recent phenomenon as well. So from archaeological research, we know that it started the moment we settled down and we started living in villages and cities and when we invented agriculture, but before that, when we were nomadic hunter-gatherers, warfare was pretty much nonexistent. And we've been nomadic hunter-gatherers for the biggest part of our history for around 300,000 years. But even in this so-called civilized period of our history, the last 10,000 years, even then war is the exception. Throughout most periods in human history, people live in peace because that's what they prefer. And, yes, that doesn't mean we should be naive about anything or anyone, but I think it's a realistic view of our species and our history to realize that war is the exception, not the rule.

Preben Thorö: Thank you. I think that's a wonderful way to conclude this conversation. Thanks a lot for joining me today.

Rutger Bregman: Thanks for having me, Preben.

Preben Thorö: Thank you.