Book Review: Humankind: A Hopeful (or hopeless) History

Do you have a person in your life who is always happy? You know, that friend who always urges you to look on the ‘bright side’, always has a smile on their face no matter what the weather brings and just simply lights up any room they walk in? Humankind: A Hopeful History is essentially the book-equivalent of that friend.

That friend of mine actually recently came back into my life after a bit of a hiatus (uni, relationships, careers etc…). I’m so grateful to have her back in my life though, she’s a walking mood-booster, and when she’s around the pessimist inside me retreats ever so slightly. Again, Humankind: A Hopeful History is almost the book-equivalent of that. Inside the book, I’m reassured of human decency and all the evidence that points to us being inherently good. But is his argument too simplistic? Am struggling with the idea that we humans are essentially wicked OR lovely, and nothing in between?

I stumbled upon Humankind: A Hopeful History some time over Summer last year. I remember I was having a particularly good afternoon; the sun was shining and there was a little pop-up bookstore in our town. Fast forward to December and I needed a new read so it was time to see what was Bregman finds so hopeful about history.

I can’t remember what drew me to the book originally, but I suspect I felt reassured by Bregman’s thesis. He seemed so sure that, deep down, most of us are good and care about others and want to help everyone and treat each other fairly. Nice right?

As an over-thinker I was hopeful. If he can reshape the darker side of our history then maybe I can stress less next time the lady at the bus stop looks at me funny. Unfortunately, I’m not sure I’ve been convinced – especially when it came to his argument over the Holocaust where his explanation for the, whilst interesting, felt lacking.

Bregman’s explanation didn’t really focus on those inciting the segregation, violence and other unspeakable actions, but suggested that those on the front line were there because of society’s instinct to conform, and the camaraderie between soldiers. Can I really be led to believe that something so fundamentally evil occurred because we humans do as we are told? Hmm.

Critics of Bregman suggest that he cherry picks the things that support his argument, making wild assertions about our ancestry, and maybe I’m inclined to agree. I can’t see a neat and tidy way to account for wars, genocide, and other crimes committed every single day on innocent victims and bystanders.

I think it is nice that he can run around in circles to try and prove we are all good, but it is not always easy to explain away certain atrocities and injustices we face in the world. Surely it is better to face our faults, and know that there is work to be done. If we ignore it, then who will take responsibility?

I’d like to think I see the good in people, but I’m tentative. I’m sure there are a lot of genuinely good and wholesome people in the world (I certainly work with a lot of lovely folks that help me believe in that). And along came Covid-19 which actually strengthened that argument (in my opinion), seeing communities come together to clap for carers and shop for their vulnerable neighbours was genuinely very wholesome.

Realistically though, Humans are complicated. Life is complicated. Whilst Bregman’s words are in black and white, I don’t think human nature is. It’s a grey area. We capable of being good, compassionate and showing kindness, BUT I also believe that we are capable of the opposite. I think a part of what makes us human is the battle between our philanthropic side and our egos, and whether we choose to be thoughtful of others or protect our own interests.

I genuinely enjoyed the book. It’s bold. It’s though-provoking and I learnt a lot and despite not being entirely convinced by the end, Bregman’s of wealth of knowledge and evidence made this a must-read. If nothing else, the book will encourage you to think about the world in a different way (much like that friend of mine that continues to keep me looking on the bright side.)

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Contributed by Lucy Robinson,
Fundraising, Marketing and Communications Manager