30. July 2021

Yes, we can trust in our kind nature

Original Book: Rutger Bregman (2020): Humankind – a hopeful history.

This is a first. I am totally excited and grateful for this first joint book review! Thank you Kelsi Kennedy from MAp Boutique Consultancy, my wonderful consultancy partners, for bringing shared visions to life and for reading and reviewing this book together. After a short summary of what the book is about, you’ll find our lively exchange about impressions, insights and practical reflections. We hope it will inspire you as much as it inspired us!

The book at a glance. The book “Humankind – a hopeful history” is a very careful, deep-dive analysis into our human history from a modern perspective, with the aim to provide an answer to the longstanding question whether human beings are innately “good” or “bad.” Rutger Bregman, the 33 year-old historian, philosopher and bestselling author from the Netherlands, did a great job digging deep enough to bring about some surprising new insights and facts about our history. He analyzed research pieces, reports and historical events that paint the picture of humans being a selfish, aggressive and greedy species. By looking very carefully “behind the scenes” of cannibalistic behaviors, wars, psychological experiments, and criminal scandals, he discovers - even despite utmost cruel behaviors - evidence for our prosocial and cooperative nature. But why do we all tend to believe in a rather dark picture of our species? Ironically, it’s exactly our greatest evolutionary strength - our ability of social learning – that misleads us here and draws a one-sided, dark picture. This in turn evokes in us mistrust and aggression against each other, which leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy. At the end of the book the author details how we can get out of this spiral by consciously designing institutions and individual encounters based on trusting our natural goodness.

What were my three most inspiring insights?


  1. The reason humans exist to this day, as opposed to other species that have died off, is because we’re friendly! Evolutionary biologists call this “survival of the friendliest,” and it’s what has allowed us to survive millennia.
  2. Infants and toddlers, studies suggest, have an innate bias toward fairness and cooperation, which goes to show that we’re hard-wired for good.
  3. There are hopeful examples of institutions that have done away with the culture of greed and selfishness to empower people to follow in the direction of their own instincts and motivations. It sounds utopian and too good to be true - but it’s not!

Eva: There were so many! But I guess the most intriguing ones were those I was not aware of before:

  1. We are born with a moral compass of goodness. Rousseau was right. It’s inevitable in our nature. Babies can seemingly distinguish good from bad already before speaking and walking.
  2. Our evolutionary advantage is – surprise surprise: kindness and blush. Individually, we are a pretty weak species: we are not bigger and don’t have a larger brain than other primates. Only relating, cooperating and learning together make us pretty amazing. So, the ability to be kind, and on the other side, be ashamed if we’re not, is our true hard-wired evolutionary advantage. It guarantees relating and cooperating - our survival.
  3. When switching from a nomad to a more civilized existence, protectionism was born. When traveling around in nomadic times, we naturally accepted sharing natural resources and land with others, treating them and mother nature with respect. Our prosocial and kind nature helped us all to survive. With civilization and property we implanted a feeling of superiority and the need to defend our property, which increasingly disconnected us from our true nature of relating and cooperating.

How does the content relate to today’s times?

Kelsi: I think Humankind is the right book for this moment. There is this narrative that, when a crisis takes shape, the cracks in civilization appear and people devolve into the worst versions of themselves. But this book shows us the opposite is true; when faced with a crisis, humans are indeed more cooperative, altruistic and caring. And when you look at the pandemic through this “rose-colored” lens, you find that poignant examples of people coming together to help each other out – delivering food to those home bound, donating supplies to frontline workers – far outweigh any negative stories out there in the world.

Eva: Bregman indirectly provides us with the reason for today’s increasing rates of burnout, depression, addiction, loneliness and other psychological diseases: Due to our underlying competitive economic system, in the past 100 years we were trained only to compete. This me-or-you paradigm has been an exceptional motor for welfare, innovation and growth, but at the price of disconnecting our true human nature of being relational and cooperative. Bregman helps us understand the hard way what we all have experienced during the pandemic: We are relational and cooperative creatures but hard-wired for a me-and-you paradigm. I personally think if we trust this core and play out our cooperative and kind strengths, there is much hope that we can master all the burning societal issues of our times.

How did the book change my thinking?

Kelsi: It completely changed my perspective on history. The history books teach us it’s all “doom-and-gloom,” that history is marked by nothing but turbulent times and horrific events. And while I’m certainly not denying our (very) dark chapters, history has predominantly and overwhelmingly been peaceful and good – it’s just that “feel good” stories and events don’t make it into the history books.

Eva: Reading the book broadened, of course, my view on our hard-wired cooperative roots. But maybe more importantly, it changed how I categorize my own thinking. Up to now I always thought I must live with the label of being a helpless “idealist” when believing that human beings are prosocial and good in their nature. Reading the book I realized that all who trust in the human nature to be “good” are rather the “realists” among us. It inspired me wherever I can to support such a thinking, to stand up for it and to promote all empirical evidence around it.

What did I appreciate most reading?

Kelsi: I appreciated that Bregman deconstructed and presented counter-narratives to studies and events we thought we knew. Take, for example, the Stanford Prison Experiment. Recent discoveries and evidence suggest that the experiment was a hoax, with the guards being coached on how to mistreat the prisoners as opposed to being driven by their hunger for power. These anecdotes and case studies - there are over 700 in the book (!) – not only present compelling evidence in favor of his argument that humans are actually pretty decent (puncturing the Veneer Theory that we’re all brutes), but reassure me that some things are not always as bad as they seem.

Eva: I must admit I normally stay away from historical books. But this one I truly loved reading. Bregman writes in a very catchy storytelling manner, artfully weaving in all research evidence. What I appreciated is that Bregman offers not only reasons for his thesis; in the last chapters he offers as well institutional examples where it paid-off and worked to build upon a positive view of human beings. He outlines a school, a company and a prison where building upon a trust to our cooperative and prosocial core helped grow humanity plus efficiency by reducing costs.

What wisdom in this book will I use in my daily life?

Eva: At the very end of the book, Bregman outlines 10 very concrete rules for everybody who would like to more consciously live-up our prosocial nature, which I find all very helpful: (1) When in doubt, assume the best 2) Think in win-win scenarios 3) Ask more questions 4) Temper your empathy, train your compassion 5) Try to understand the other, even if you don’t get where they’re coming from 6) Love your own as others love their own 7) Avoid the news 8) Don’t punch Nazis 9) Come out of the closet: don’t be ashamed to do good 10) Be realistic. Personally, No. 1 – when in doubt, assume the best - sang particularly to me. I would say it is the most important one of the 10. So whatever happens, if we assume everybody has good intentions, our minds, lives and our world becomes radically much more peaceful as self-fulfilling prophecy power is put at work.

Kelsi: I hail from the land of the 24-hour news cycle, from FOX News to CNN, where we are constantly bombarded with sensationalist stories that stoke fear and spread misinformation. It’s so easy to get sucked in and feel depressed, anxious and cynical. To adopt this bleak view of human nature. But it’s important to know that these news organizations have their own agendas, and it’s not to report on world events, but to get more eyeballs. So my take-away for daily life is simple: turn off the TV! And believe in the generosity and kindness of my fellow humans.

My most inspiring quote

Kelsi: “An old man says to his grandson: ‘There’s a fight going on inside me. It’s a terrible fight between two wolves. One is evil–angry, greedy, jealous, arrogant, and cowardly. The other is good–peaceful, loving, modest, generous, honest, and trustworthy. These two wolves are also fighting within you, and inside every other person too.’ After a moment, the boy asks, ‘Which wolf will win?’ The old man smiles. ‘The one you feed.’”

Eva: “What is truth? Some things are true whether you believe in them or not. Water boils at 100 degree Celsius. Smoking kills. President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on 22 November 1963. Other things have the potential to be true, if we believe in them. Our belief becomes what sociologists dub a self-fulfilling-prophecy: if you predict a bank will go bust and that convinces lots of people to close their accounts, then, sure enough, the bank will go bust.”

Who should read this book?

Kelsi: The simple answer is: everyone. But it’s especially suited for those who are feeling down or finding themselves in a rut, thanks to the pandemic and life’s other challenges. You will walk away feeling inspired and – to borrow a term from the title – hopeful.

Eva: Everybody who is interested to understand the evidence for why we are rather a kind and prosocial species – despite all we hear in contrary. And particularly those, who once believed that but somehow have given up this belief due to the desperate news surrounding us. Above all, I would wish that teachers, journalists and IT-programmers read this book in order to NOT generate an ill-induced perspective about our nature, understanding their responsibility for the self-fulfilling prophecy dynamic as a consequence of it.

Those who have no time to read the whole book might be interested in an inspiring podcast and interview about Humankind to get a taste of both the book and the author, recorded in 2020 in the U.S.

Dr. Eva Bilhuber
Human Facts
Kelsi Kennedy
MAp Boutique Consultancy
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