Humankind: A Short Book Review

It’s a strange coincidence that the latest episode of Bigg Boss is playing on the TV as I struggle to put my thoughts in place for this review. The show derives its entertainment value from behaviors that the contestants exhibit when they’re put in situations manufactured to elicit extreme reactions. It is built on the premise that the right combination of circumstances manages to bring out the worst in us – our inherently wicked nature, which is a more accurate representation of who we really are.

Using archaeological, anthropological, and sociological evidence, Rutger Bregman’s Humankind makes a case for our inherent goodness. He argues that the success of our species through its hunting-gathering days rested on the back of collaboration and kinship, and the advent of agriculture ended all of that. It gave rise to the notion of private property and ownership, which in turn meant the arrival of war and patriarchy. He talks about some of the most commonly cited examples that exhibit the depravity of the human mind – the Milgram experiment, the Stanford prison experiment, the Holocaust – and picks them apart to make his case. He gives examples of events that transpired at the height of the fighting in World War II that show the friendship that soldiers who didn’t really want to fight experienced across enemy lines. He talks about the media sensationalizing the bystander effect through stories and events that show our lack of empathy, compassion, and decency, leading us to believe in a pessimistic view of our species.

It’s almost as if he was sitting in front of a whiteboard and drawing a mind-map of all the aspects he wanted to cover when it came to the nature of humankind and the result was an intricately woven tapestry of arguments that span the 10,000 years of mankind since the arrival of agriculture, the whole point of which was to highlight that we aren’t frail and evil. I want to end this review with an iconic scene from the movie, The Dark Knight. The Joker pits a group of prisoners and citizens fleeing the city of Gotham against each other by rigging their ferries to bombs, switches to which were given to opposing groups. He agrees to safe passage for any group that presses the switch, destroying the other ferry. This is a classic prisoner’s dilemma and you’d expect either or both the groups to act in their best interests and press the button before the other group does. But neither do… Funny how movies sometimes are a more accurate representation of who we really are…


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