A Hopeful History of Humankind by Rutger Bregman: A Review by Dane Bowman

A Hopeful History of Humankind by Rutger Bregman: A Review by Dane Bowman


Today is something a bit different. It’s a guest review from Dane Bowman (my significant other). This book came into our house and captivated him, distracting him from all household chores. This book had to be great, right, to get you out of dishes. (ha!). It’s a book that we have both become extremely passionate about, so thank you to the lovely people at Jonathan Ball Publishers for this book, it’s been a beacon of light through some dark lockdown days.


About the Book:

cover of HumankindIf one basic principle has served as the bedrock of bestselling author Rutger Bregman’s thinking, it is that every progressive idea — whether it was the abolition of slavery, the advent of democracy, women’s suffrage, or the ratification of marriage equality — was once considered radical and dangerous by the mainstream opinion of its time. With Humankind, he brings that mentality to bear against one of our most entrenched ideas: namely, that human beings are by nature selfish and self-interested.

By providing a new historical perspective of the last 200,000 years of human history, Bregman sets out to prove that we are in fact evolutionarily wired for cooperation rather than competition, and that our instinct to trust each other has a firm evolutionary basis going back to the beginning of Homo sapiens. Bregman systematically debunks our understanding of the Milgram electrical-shock experiment, the Zimbardo prison experiment, and the Kitty Genovese “bystander effect.”

In place of these, he offers little-known true stories: the tale of twin brothers on opposing sides of apartheid in South Africa who came together with Nelson Mandela to create peace; a group of six shipwrecked children who survived for a year and a half on a deserted island by working together; a study done after World War II that found that as few as 15% of American soldiers were actually capable of firing at the enemy.

The ultimate goal of Humankind is to demonstrate that while neither capitalism nor communism has on its own been proven to be a workable social system, there is a third option: giving “citizens and professionals the means (left) to make their own choices (right).” Reorienting our thinking toward positive and high expectations of our fellow man, Bregman argues, will reap lasting success. Bregman presents this idea with his signature wit and frankness, once again making history, social science and economic theory accessible and enjoyable for lay readers.



Humankind’s subtitle of ‘A Hopeful History’ is, I feel, entirely well deserved. 2020 was a year populated with nine-times-out-of-ten negative news and a really noticeable uptick in doomscrolling and, for a book to release during the stretch of time that’s a watershed of positivity about human history, is refreshing in a way that non-fiction books sometimes fail to be.

When our newsfeeds aren’t overrun by negative or nasty reading, there’s this risk of ‘fake news’ or, as it’s now also known: ‘alternative’ facts; to have Humankind — a title that’s thoroughly researched, soundly constructed, rigorously referenced and sourced (and also just beautifully written) — fall into my reading range is akin to an unmasked breath of fresh air.

Bregman has, through his research, created an account of our history which succeeds, I feel, at highlighting our inherent ‘goodness’ as a species — even sparing a few paragraphs here and there to discuss how media (traditional, social, you name it) has an almost unwavering pessimistic ‘focus’ — reporting, most of the time, on negative events. Throughout the course of Humankind, Bregman dispels many of these anecdotal and/or apocryphal ‘stories’ which fuel our humans-are-just-plain-horrible narrative. The book pretty much opens on Bregman detailing an actual account of a stranded-on-an-island group of kids who simply didn’t Lord of the Flies each other — much to Golding’s chagrin, I’m guessing — and only dives deeper into our intrinsic ‘niceness’ from there. If you’re looking for a title to clear out a couple cognitive cobwebs, it’s likely that Humankind will do that spring cleaning for you.

Thoroughly accessible, Bregman’s written a book that doesn’t land as dense or dry. His writing is somehow both fresh and refreshing and, like Bill Bryson or Malcolm Gladwell, he takes a seemingly uninteresting topic and, by applying his creative lens to it, writes something story-ish and compelling which, come the final page and the book’s closure, you’re better for having read.

To my mind, Humankind is well worth your time. It served me as a much-needed reminder of the fact that, regardless of whatever’s being whispered into your ear, your fellow human being isn’t as bad as the world at large would like you to believe.


4.5 out of 5 stars


Tell us if you have read this book – we’d be so keen to hear what you thought!


* * * *


Happy Reading!