Book Review: The ‘New Realism’ of Eternal Faith in Humanity

Book Review: The ‘New Realism’ of Eternal Faith in Humanity

Bregman declares that the law of nature is “survival of the friendliest”, not “survival of the fittest”

Is human nature inherently good or evil? Are humans predisposed to destroy or is the nature of our being good at its core? This is the question that has been contemplated through the ages by almost every person bestowed with the ability to reason. Thomas Hobbes’s pessimistic view and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s optimistic view of human nature have remained at odds as a matter of profound disagreement among philosophers and social scientists.

Human Kind: A Hopeful History
by Rutger Bregman
London, UK, 2020
Price: Rs 699

But over the past two centuries, through intermittent wars around the globe, colonial occupation, and a general growth of individualism/ consumerism, Thomas Hobbes’ view has acquired predominance through deceptively well-crafted narratives by those in power. Thus, humans have been constantly painted as selfish, deceptive, and savage by nature. Acts of compassion, sympathy and friendship are only interpreted as means to achieve self-interest. Consequently, the foundations of social, political and economic models are laid upon a cynical view of human nature, which justifies strict regulations, censorship, and control by the State.
In this deep-dark night of bleakness that blinds our vision from seeing anything in humans but savagery, Rutger Bregman’s book Human-Kind: A Hopeful History is a ray of hope. While showing immense confidence in the innate goodness of human nature, Bregman makes the reader believe that a bright beautiful dawn is not a distant reality, if only we pay attention to the positive aspects of human nature.
The author has drawn evidence for his optimistic thesis from historical records, real life stories, and scientific studies. At the same time, he has pronounced as fragile and deceptive the evidence for the pessimistic thesis of human nature, because such evidence has been mostly drawn from philosophical speculations, fictional stories, and managed psychological experiments.
Propagating literature, both fictional and non-fictional, that supports narratives of the regime in power, and suppressing counterviews, have become articles of faith of establishments. William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies, a story of shipwrecked British schoolboys on an unknown island who are accompanied by an unconscious ship captain, is considered as gospel to understand human nature and as the epitome of political realism. In absence of any guardian, one of the boys’ factions descends into barbarism and compels others to obey or be silenced and killed. The novel displays the naked barbaric human nature at its worst. The story subtly rationalises the curbing of freedom and imposing of strict regulations, lest humans create anarchy and disorder.
In sharp contrast, Bregman asserts that this story is an intrigue against common masses and its subtle conclusions are fraudulent and irrational. Proclaiming that in real life we act in a rational and friendlier manner in times of catastrophes and calamities, he has cited the example of six schoolboys from Tonga who were shipwrecked on an unknown island in 1977. Contrary to the fictional story of Lord of the Flies, these schoolboys had resolved on the first day that they shall not fight with each other, and throughout the six years on the island they acted in a humane and compassionate manner. They formed a lifelong bond of friendship after being rescued. This real story of humanity and friendship has been ignored both in literature and mainstream media, while the fictional story has been turned into movies and given coverage everywhere, because the story of the Real Lords of Flies, as Bregman calls it, invalidates the justification for strict control and censorship.
The fascination with the psychology of humans began with two prominent experiments in 1960s known as: Basement of Stanford University and Stanley Milger and the Shock Machine experiments. Both the experiments concluded that humans when provided opportunity and power become sadistic, savage, and beasts. However, Bregman has called the conclusion of both tests as “staged production”. Diving deep into the manner and methods of both the experiments, he has found that the experiments cannot be called objective research because participants were forced and manipulated to act in predetermined ways so as to support and confirm the popular narrative of political realism.
Darwin’s thesis “survival of the fittest” is now considered as “fundamental law” of survival and progress. Karl Marx, the prophet of communism, had praised Darwin and acknowledged that his own thesis of “class struggle” was inspired from Darwin’s thesis. Similarly, Adam Smith, the “Father of Economics”, echoes the same thesis of ruthless competition while proclaiming that pursuing one’s “self-interest” is imperative for a prosperous economy. Without denying the evolutionary process, Bregman has called Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” thesis as a capitalist’s plot. Citing scientific studies and fossil records of vanished powerful species and the survival of less powerful species, Bregman declares that the law of nature is “survival of the friendliest”, not “survival of the fittest”. He asserts that it is the friendlier and the most cooperative species that have survived through time, while the ruthless and competitive have been vanquished.
So, why do humans act in a devilish manner if they possess innate goodness? Bregman postulates that empathy and power are the two reasons for humans to act like savages. He says that love for one’s fellow countrymen, ideology, and religion blinds one from seeing others’ perspectives. Power disrupts mirroring and bars the powerful from feeling connected to their fellow human beings.
The book, though a hopeful study of humanity, does suffer from limitations. To list a few, the conclusions arrived at by the author can be cynically labeled as far-fetched. Though Bregman calls his idea “New Realism”, the author has still acted more as an idealist while drawing conclusions from the evidence presented in the book. No satisfactory answer has been provided by the author for the corruption of human nature, and more importantly, the author has, probably unintentionally, subscribed to the popular theory of power as a reason for devilish activities. The role of religion, whether good or bad, in society has been completely ignored, except for a few passing references to it playing a negative role. Given the overwhelming role of religion, the author should have mentioned the role and contribution of religion in building a good society. Or, at least, elucidated properly on why it is not so.
Given the fact that the basic premise of the book – the inherent goodness of human nature – has been actively neglected and suppressed for more than two centuries, the appearance of this book under the prevailing atmosphere of hatred and enmity is a noble step towards dreaming of and building towards a better future. The book is by no means a complete treatise, and a lot of work still needs to be carried out in properly elucidating the vision laid out, but with such an exciting central premise, regardless of its deficiencies, the book is appealing enough to be read widely and be pondered over. A stepping stone for more work in this direction.

The writer teaches at Department of Commerce, University of Kashmir.

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