Humankind: A Hopeful History

Humankind: A Hopeful History

Book Review

The author attracted international attention because in Davos he called upon the wealthy people there to simply pay taxes. Things can be different in the world, and better, he thinks. He is also the author of the book Utopia for Realists [1].

In his bestseller, Humankind: A Hopeful History [2], Rutger Bregman disproves a lot of scientific research that concludes that we, as human beings, are no good. He says that we are brainwashed with the idea that we are selfish. We have created systems that bring out the evil in people. But Bregman posits that we are built to trust each other. If employers start operating based on the good in employees, layers of managers can be done away with and employees can organize themselves. Proof that things are already getting better in that way is already there.

The writer has done an extensive study of psychology, archaeology and anthropology into the history and behavior of people and finds more and more evidence for a hopeful human image. If you are inundated with negativity in the news, you have a greater chance of developing a grumpy worldview and you run the risk of becoming a cynical pessimist.

This book is about the radical idea that most people are virtuous!. It is an idea which the established powers have oppressed for centuries and that religions and ideologies oppose. It is an idea about which the media report little and its history seems to be one long denial.

At the same time, it is an idea that can be supported by knowledge from many fields of science. It is supported by evolution and confirmed by everyday life.

In the book he gives many examples of the tendency for people to be virtuous. In the historical past, hunters and gatherers formed peaceful communities. But when agriculture came into being, things gradually went wrong because profit and private property became more and more central. The group instinct lost its innocence. In combination with scarcity and hierarchy, this turned out to be a wrong turn for the development of mankind. (There are still tribes in the Amazon who do not understand that a piece of land can belong to ‘someone’. The earth belongs to everyone and therefore belongs to no one. How logical!)


Faith in depravity, says Bregman, is reassuring in a strange way. It sets us free. If most people are no good, then resistance and commitment do not make much sense. A sinful human nature is an easy explanation for evil. Economists say: you shouldn’t deny selfishness, you should make use of it. Desire for money brings people all over the world together (free market). But capitalism is out of control, the sociopaths are in power, the human measure is lost in protocols. The starting point, a wrong human image, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We keep walking in circles, facing our downfall.

Bregman rightly observes that the awareness of our reality from the so-called Enlightenment perspective degenerates into cynicism because this point of view legitimizes selfish actions based on the American insights that selfishness (‘greed’) is good and that selfishness is a virtue (‘The Virtue of Selfishness’).

Bregman states: our dark image of man is in need of a complete revision. We know that can do something about the problems, but for that we have to look at the world in a different way. We must drastically reform our systems, now geared towards punishment and distrust. Renewal and the way out of the great cultural and economic impasse is only possible if we dare to revolutionize our current approach to the world and humanity and learn to face our fellow human beings with confidence.

Is being too good of a neighbour a crazy idea? Bregman is realistic enough to characterize naive empathy as an energy-guzzling and exhausting attitude and pleads for a less personal and more neutral attitude as far as energy is concerned, namely that of compassion. This goes in the direction of impersonal but committed love for fellow human beings and nature. Sympathetic systems will produce sympathetic people. If the idea that most people are virtuous becomes the norm, then this idea would spark a revolution, turn society upside down. It’s a life-changing medicine, so you’ll never look at the world the same way again.

Critics of the status quo praise the ambition to attack in a holistic way the still current neo-liberal view that every human being is a ruthless egotist, even though history shows clear examples of great rascals. Conclusion: Humankind: A Hopeful History gives a courageous twist to the potential power of mutual trust in every human being as a basic virtue – a hopeful perspective.

Frans Spakman



[1] Rutger Bregman, Utopia for Realists, (Gratis geld voor iedereen), de Correspondent, 2016

[2] Rutger Bregman, Humankind: A Hopeful History, Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, 2020






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Date: March 13, 2020

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