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Humankind Read-Along Part 4: Survival of the Friendliest and the Curse of Civilization

Ava Beanie Boo Ty Cat and Humankind book by Rutger Bregman
Ava’s eyes go perfectly with the book cover!

Hello and welcome to part 4 of the Humankind Read-Along! I’ve now read up to page 134 which marks the end of Part 1: The State of Nature. Here’s the discussion question for this section: 

At the end of this section, how in support of Bregman’s concept of New Realism are you?

Bregman begins this section with the arguments of two philosophers, Rousseau and Hobbes, and asks which one is right. Rousseau posits that humans are good, but that liberty is essential for that good nature to thrive, and the development of civilization mucked that up and sullied our natural tendency for good. Hobbes takes the opposite view, arguing instead that we need civilization to control our evil instincts, and that having a leader (a “leviathan” as he calls it) may diminish our personal liberty but is necessary to keep us in line. 

To determine which philosopher is right, Bregman then digs into human prehistory. He argues that we are the single hominid species to survive because of our friendliness. More specifically, we are essentially a domesticated version of the Neanderthals. And when animals are selectively bred based on friendliness alone, that process leads to the development of other traits you see in domestication of a species. 

Excerpt from Humankind by Rutger Bregman page 65

Our friendliness is related to another trait that sets us apart from other primates: a knack for social learning. That, combined with friendliness and intelligence, led us to develop language ability, and we flourished. He calls this argument survival of the friendliest, a refinement of Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest. 

While our friendliness is apparent from our beginnings as a species, human warfare began much more recently. Bregman uses evidence of warfare as a marker for human evils and goes so far as to call civilization a curse. He explains that conditions after the Ice Age set us up for the establishment of civilization. First, Because food was plentiful, the population increased and formed permanent settlements in which farming began. Then these settlements led to the concept of owning property, property that required protection. This also led to inequality within groups, where certain individuals rose to power, and kingdoms were established. 

Bregman goes on to explain how farming and permanent settlement worsened life for humans, and eventually led to the occurrence of war and violence. The transatlantic slave trade was established, women were oppressed as the patriarchy solidified, and so forth. 

This section covering the curse of civilization gives me pause. I question the picture he paints because it requires so much guesswork. The argument for civilization sparking human evil is plausible, but I remain skeptical. I want more evidence and I want more nuance. Bregman’s argument is too vague and too clean. 

I suppose another way to put Bregman’s argument is that he believes within our genes is our goodness, as evidenced by our friendliness and capability for social learning. For a long while the world we lived in fostered that goodness, but as we interacted with the environment to alter our living conditions, it suppressed that goodness and caused evil to emerge. Then I wonder, does it really matter to know that we are innately good if we can be so easily manipulated by our environment to be evil? 

However civilization developed, whatever the step-by-step sequence, we can see that whether in prehistory or the contemporary era, the environment within which we exist trains us to think and act in certain ways, good or bad, but are still not hardwired in our DNA. I wonder if Bregman is fixated on an idea that is ultimately irrelevant, that is, whether we are genetically predisposed to goodness. If we were to simply manipulate our environment to encourage the good side of humanity to re-emerge and flourish, then does it even matter what’s in our genes? 

I think Bregman would argue that yes, what’s in our genes does matter, especially if we want to say whether Hobbes or Rousseau got it right. If we were really evil, then the constraints of civilization would have forced us into better behavior than before. Instead what we see with the rise of civilization is that humans behave worse. The process of civilizing humans reduces their liberty, and as a result they act with greed and selfishness. Rousseau wins. 

According to Bregman, if we know the state of human nature, then we can know what kind of civilization to build. If we know that humans are inherently good, then we can establish a society that honors and expects that tendency from its citizens so that it thrives. Bregman writes,

There’s no reason to be fatalistic about civil society. We can choose to organise our cities and states in new ways that benefit everyone. The curse of civilization can be lifted (112). 

While I may quibble with the details, I have to say I’m compelled to agree with Bregman, and with Rousseau by extension, when it comes to looking at humanity on such a large scale. If it’s in our genes to be friendly and social, and that’s what led to our survival over other hominid species, then it only makes sense to build society in a way that lifts up those good-natured traits. I’m curious to see how Bregman expands on this idea and applies it on a smaller scale or in more specific situations. 

What do you think? Has civilization brought out the best or the worst in us? Which influence is more relevant, our genes or our environment? What needs to be done to lift the “curse” of civilization? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Part 2 of Humankind is entitled “After Auschwitz”, and the chapters cover topics often taught in Intro Psychology courses: the Stanford University prison experiment, the Milgram shock experiment, and the death of Kitty Genovese and the bystander effect. 

On Monday, after reading Part 2, I’ll address the discussion question below. 

Discuss Bregman’s observations of Kitty Genovese’s story and what it teaches us. How do you feel at the end of this section? What have you learned?



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