TSElosophers meeting 23.9.2020. Toni Ahlqvist, Mohamed Farhoud, Elina Järvinen, Kai Kimppa, Erkki Lassila, Kari Lukka, Maija-Riitta Ollila, Ekaterina Panina, Otto Rosendahl, Morgan Shaw, Milla Wirén.

Rutger Bregman: Humankind – A hopeful history


Humankind is a world-explaining opus aimed at wide audiences in the style of Neil Diamond or Yuval Harari. While Bregman draws from research, the book is not academic, but unashamedly popular, with the mission of making one point. In addition to making his point, Bregman also discusses its implication and concludes by an easily digestible list of suggestions for all readers to consume at a glance.

The key point of the book is that while we’ve (as a humanity) learned to view us humans through the “veneer theory” proposing that underneath a thin veneer of civilization we’re all selfish savages, the very contrary is true. Fundamentally the homo sapiens is a kind creature that has accomplished all its collective efforts through the collaboration enabling power of that kindness.

To prove his point, Bregman showcases some of the most notable examples used to argue for the underlying savagery of the human, takes them apart, and shows how completely different outcomes would be at least equally possible. In discussing the implications of his key point, he draws from the power of performativity – claiming that should we consider each other as trustworthy and kind, we would be able to create a society where trustworthiness and kindness reign.

Our discussion

To begin with the main point of the book, the inherent nature of human, the tselosophers represented three standing points, however none of them subscribing to the veneer theory view. First, part of us represented the choir to which Bregman preached: yes, humans are good and when in doubt, should first and foremost be treated as such – even when in some contexts positivity and kindness are viewed as naivete. Secondly, some of us pointed out that good and bad are constructed and highly context specific: none of us are ever either-or, but depending on the combination of setting, actions and underlying traits, either better or worse outcomes follow. Thirdly, there was also the view that humans are good but sinful, meaning that regardless of our aims to strive for goodness, we are fundamentally imperfect.

In terms of the technicalities of the book, the tselosophers agreed that Bregman developed his argument through sampling certain cases, not building a logically or statistically iron-clad theoretical argument. Some of us liked and accepted the bigger picture that emerged as a result of this eclectic and case-bound effort, whereas some of us had difficulties in swallowing a) the eclecticism resulting in superficiality instead of depth, b) the lack of solid theorizing sometimes visible in circular logic, or c) the seemingly thin understanding of some of the building blocks (like the writings of Hobbes, Rousseau or Dawkins) arguing that while the effort is laudable, can such a bigger picture be trusted where the connected dots are not rightly positioned (understood)?

One of the themes at the forefront in our discussions was the problem of micro-macro, also discussed as the problem of “us vs them”, or the problem of aggregation. As we’re all in agreement that there are notable societal level problems afoot, to what extent is it possible to try to fix them through attempting to change the individual? While certain problems can be solved with kindness extended to the “us” near me, can the scope of “us” be extended to encompass such a number of both human and non-human actors and entities as to actually nudge things towards a better constellation?

As a spin-off of the micro-macro theme, the previous tselosophers’ discussion around the concept of psychopolitics (in the book of that name by Han) was brought to the fore: in rolling down the responsibility of kindness on the shoulders of the individual, are we ultimately just contributing to the trend of internalizing the social governance mechanisms? Can kindness become the type of a “superficial goodness” that the individuals internalize and the ones in power harness to continue suppressing the individual into a mere source of revenues upholding the capitalist power structures? (See also tselosophers’ discussions on Zuboff.)

However, this line of thought was clearly not the one on Bregman’s mind: we detected nuances of anarcho-syndicalism in his writing. To us it seemed that Bregman tackled any macro level problems through proposing less structure, less organizing, more grass roots democracy and power to the little people. We tselosophers were somewhat doubtful whether the macro level problems can be solved only through erasing all structures, and chatted about the ‘iron law of oligarchy’ – as there are more people (and non-people) on the planet that can be accommodated in any setting of compassion-based us, some structures are (unfortunately) needed, and as long as there are structures, there are hierarchies, and as long as there are hierarchies, there are those with more power than others, and as long as some have power, they do not want to give it up.

Nevertheless, the book awoke several individually valuable insights: first of all, the power of performativity coupled with the power of us as teachers and researchers. In our teaching, do we continue to channel such old theories which are built on the assumption of humans as inherently lazy and self-advantage seeking? If we continue to do so, are we just passing along ‘truths’ or actually contributing to upholding a world where such individuals reign? The taking apart of the famous Stanford experiment, or the findings of Milgram raised thoughts about how important it is for us researchers to strive for ethical research, to ensure the validity of whatever we offer for the building blocks of the next knowledge creation efforts – and to be self-reflective of our own basic assumptions that bleed into the findings we thus offer.

Additionally, a note and concern about the role of psychology was raised: it seems that currently many of the theories in several fields governing our societal operations are grounded on the findings from psychology without questioning the validity of such findings. Maybe it would be the time to both question the role of psychology and be more critical about its findings, especially when aggregated into the principles governing society level structures, such as economics.

To conclude, we saw the value of these types of popular books as they can help seed beneficial discussions also among such people who do not spend their time perusing the (sometimes obscure, but) profound and nigh flawlessly argued academic texts. Some of us also felt that the importance of this book emerged from the very personal level feelings we had after reading the book: to some of us, the book read as a beacon of hope, regardless of its shortcomings as a watertight bundle of theoretical and logical argumentation. Such feelings of hope are welcome, also to us researchers.