Book review: Human Kind

Rather than a dystopian future, in the UK were clapped in the street during Coronavirus. Source: Damien Walmsley on Flickr

When my children were younger, if they heard bad news I would reassure them that there are many more good people in the world than bad people. This is one of the reasons we have so few police compared to the population.

Human Kind, written by Rutger Bregman in Dutch and then translated to English, takes this view a few steps further.

The book explains, in lavish and often repetitive detail, how we are naturally a good-natured species, and it’s the media that makes everything sound bad.

Although we are good natured in our actions, it seems there’s a part of our brain that is attracted to and remembers bad news over good news.

Newspaper and news website headlines are an obvious example.

In Human Kind, Bregman goes through other deeply intrenched examples and breaks them down. He researches the background of Lord of the Flies, when a group of youngsters become violent when stranded on a desert island, and provides similar examples where a stranded group worked together and provided harmonious outcomes.

Another example is the famous Stanford Prison Experiment, where a group of volunteers were asked to run a prison environment. Some volunteers were prisoners, and others were guards. The experiment was halted after six days because the guards became so sadistic to the prisoners. Bregman provides evidence of similar experiments before and after Stanford where nothing of the sort happened, and the Stanford guards were encouraged to act badly.

The book finishes with “Ten rules to live by”, which I probably related to most of all. In the rest of the book I found the informal writing style difficult to follow. I could only read Human Kind for a few days before I needed to give it a couple of weeks’ break.

I consider having a mainly positive outlook on life, even before reading Human Kind. Since reading the book I’ve noticed more positive news stories that didn’t get the level of coverage that a negative story would have.

In 2020 there were some amazing events. The first is that Africa is now free of Polio. The second is a series of breakthroughs to create peace in the Middle East.

The Polio article was in a small news column one weekend inside the FT.

On the FT front page that day (see the Tweet below) were stories about the Japanese Prime Minister stepping down; President Trump protests; Merkel and Putin disagreeing over Belarus, and how Tour de France riders would struggle to beat the virus (the Tour de France continued to run without any virus-stoppages). Should one of those headlines have read “Africa declared free from Polio”?

The most interesting point about Human Kind is that it was published shortly before Coronavirus. In Hollywood, a virus such as Covid-19 would result in rioting on the streets, a mass crime wave and all sorts of dystopian behaviour. How did we respond to Coivd-19 in the UK? We stood outside our homes and clapped for doctors, nurses and other essential workers to pay our respect.

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