Human Kind: A Hopeful History
By Rutger Bregman 

Published by Bloomsbury
Review by ‘MW’

Human Kind a Hopeful History, by Rutger Bregman, has been my choice during the quarantine. I find myself in the fortunate number of the furloughed, therefore salaried, at the promised 80% of income. Many have not been granted this helping hand in these unprecedented times. For many, visiting a bookshop is the last thing on their mind. But, if moments of peace may be achieved, no matter where you find yourself, a book offers a possibility of engagement with a story. Each story carries a point of view. Human Kind, as the title suggests, is about the trait of kindness.

Bregman is known to many as the Davos’ speech person, ‘Taxes, taxes, taxes’. This speech was followed by another, equally delightfully unprecedented and much admired attack on the media millionaires in the pockets of media mogul billionaires.  In Human Kind, Bregman, with his winning and concise style of getting straight to the point, produced a book laying out his belief that humans, largely, aspire to be good.

Bregman tries to unravel humanity’s evolutionary journey. As the quality most useful for survival, he singles out the trait of friendliness. However, he also outlines the pitfalls of ‘Homo Puppy’ – this is what he says we have become. A percentage of the population will manifest what may be termed unfavourable qualities and will go to great lengths to conceal them. In psychology they have been given different terms: narcissists, Machiavellians. With succinct simplicity Bregman points out why those devoid ‘of sterling qualities’ are reaching for positions of influence and often, under the guise of good intentions, are granted leadership: ‘They have the ultimate secret weapon to defeat the competition. They’re shameless’ (Bregman, p. 238).

The book is divided into five parts and 18 chapters, each chapter simply titled with the themes they speak about, and includes an epilogue, ‘Ten Rules to Live By’. Bregman has an authoritative style of writing. However, it is important to take from it what suits you personally and to remain questioning. What may be retained, most safely, is his enthusiasm – in which direction, you may rightly ask, because cruel doings are performed with enthusiasm, too. So ask yourself, of which kind? Part Four of the book, titled ‘New Realism’, with a quote by Viktor Frankl, ‘So we have to be idealists in a way, because then we wind up as the true, the real realists’, nails down the book’s credo.

YouTube offers interviews with Bregman about this book, which are definitely worth watching. He muses over what else might have been included in the book. He also explains why he chooses what might be deemed a rather colloquial manner of language. He tries to steer away from an academic format, in the hope of being as communicative as possible to as many people as possible.

In the book he also touches on education. Free will in students is not always encouraged. But, some educators are of the opinion that it is the most vital propelling force in any task set. For me, the BBC production Animals at Play springs to mind. Recent scientific studies of animals show their young spend most of their time playing. Play is so important: without it, survival skills would not be accomplished. It has been proposed that the importance of play time for children has been massively underestimated.

I hugely enjoyed reading the book. Its chapters, like colourful blocks, are being incorporated into my mental construction of reasons to remain optimistic. I bought my copy from Bookbusters (nudge, nudge…). I have a sneaky feeling even the Bookbusters’ proprietor has found the book greatly cheering. I cannot vouch that he will disclose that.

Note from ‘Bookbuster’s proprietor’, Tim Barton: Yes, indeed I do sometimes come across as ‘pessimistic’. In fact, I agree that positive traits are at least as much our ‘nature’ as are negative ones. Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution has long been a significant touchstone in my intellectual development. What drives me to despair is the cultural choice made by our hierarchical capitalist society to nurture us in the most negative manner, and sell the result as our ‘human nature’, as if it could not be otherwise. The self-serving elites promulgating this, ‘Hobbesian’, view of our ‘nature’ are winning. It seems to me that Bregman’s book may, perhaps, offer the ‘cure’, and I look forward to reading it!

Available now from Bookbuster and Printed Matter Bookshop (both in Queens Road).

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