Rutger Bregman is (Largely) Right About Human Nature

I appreciated Ben Sixsmith’s (largely) unsuccessful attempt at even-handedness in reviewing Humankind by Rutger Bregman. There were some hits but also a crucial miss.

For example:

  • Sixsmith gave credit to Bregman’s skewering of the Stanford prison experiment. A hit.
  • Yet much credit is also due to Bregman’s debunking of our collective narrative about Easter Island. The research Bregman did around Thor Heyerdahl and Jared Diamond’s roles therein is interesting and relevant to his larger point.

In almost every case, in fact, the conclusions Bregman reaches about major scientific experiments and narratives are insightful, valuable, and amusing.

But you can nitpick some of the smaller points he makes, as reviewers do.

That said, I too reacted with skepticism to some of the clever asides or summaries of anthropological research. Sixsmith was right to call out, for example, the implication that the Yanomami only became violent after being given axes by Chagnon. The conclusion to draw from this is that we can’t trust anthropologists— but that’s relevant to one of the key through lines of Humankind: scientists, philosophers, writers, and other thinkers consistently make non-scientific conclusions about human nature because they are motivated by strong preconceptions.

But yes, perhaps Bregman “over-egged the pudding” in throwing Chagnon’s observations on the Yanomani to the curb.

But this doesn’t constitute, straining “every sinew trying to portray him as an idiot and crook.” That’s a gross over-statement. It was a relevant aside, perhaps carrying a false implication. Let’s not obsess on a minor blemish.

However, the notion of prehistoric man as proto-feminists is problematic, yes. It’s impossible to prove that statement right or wrong. But it’s meant to provoke thinking not to provide a fact. The larger connection between agricultural, large-scale, sky-God religions and the oppression of women is brilliant.

So perhaps it’s Sixsmith who sprinkles himself in the dust of iconoclasm, as he very amusingly accuses Bregman of.

I am sure Bregman is not intentionally trying to be misleading by giving his ideas a false air of iconoclasm

Because Humankind’s claim isn’t that, “human nature is more peaceful and egalitarian than violent and selfish.”? It’s not as though society is convinced of this one way or another; Steven Pinker’s opinion is obscure in the grand scheme of things. Whether human nature is peaceful or violent is an open question; there’s not iconoclasm here, deserved or not.

What if you scope the point of Humankind down to this: veneer theory is not just inaccurate but too influential; recognizing this will help us survive and thrive (as we find win-win’s, assume the best, etc) as a species and planet.

amateur tweets, professional works –pressfield

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