I just finished Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman which tackles the most basic question “Are human beings inherently good or evil?” I no longer have the time, confidence, or attention span to write a fully-considered review, but here are a few related thoughts and observations:

  • When I was about 10 years old, my parents “exiled” me to a garage that had been converted into a spare bedroom at the cottage where our family spent summers. I was allowed to have friends for sleepovers. Before long, four or five other kids my age were also hanging out regularly. Because this was a small, tightly-knit community there was no need for strict adult supervision, nor was there any need. We played, we joked, we squabbled, we plotted, and we got along. If we disagreed (and we did), we worked things out. We were a tribe, and it’s as close as I’ve been in my life to feeling complete freedom. Without school, without authorities, without rules we were free. This, author Bregman would say, is humankind’s natural state of being. This is how we evolved.
  • Agriculture upset this harmony. It enabled the species to proliferate, but at an enormous cost. We could feed more people, but paid a potentially lethal price. People stratified and specialized. More than anything, the consequences of becoming an agricultural special has wreaked havoc with our evolved animal nature.

Bregman does a wonderful job of exposing the many ways in which our worldview has been influenced by various myths, lies, and deliberate falsifications. A novel such as Lord of the Rings, for instance, depicts a situation when the outcome of our uninhibited natures is heartbreak and disaster. In reality, Bregman says, it would be more like the rollicking self-government that our boy-tribe experienced in my unsupervised summers.

Photo by Isabella Mendes on

While positive rules, negative sells. Anyone who has ever worked in sales or customer relations knows this. Ten positive comments or responses will be outweighed by a single offsetting negative. Unfortunately this principle seems to work equally well in the arts, sciences, politics and social media as well. Bregman presents many well-documented cases where prevailing ideas of conventional wisdom are founded on incorrect or even deception assumptions or information. Some of the most disheartening theories of law enforcement and prison design, for instance are based on conclusions by prominent social scientists that were later exposed to be self-serving, deceptive, or even fraudulent.

PS– I highly recommend this book!

Not surprisingly, the good vs. evil debate provides a common backdrop to the dramas portrayed on the silver screen. It is central, for example, in Robert Altman’s film The Player.

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