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Although one of the most contested concepts in political philosophy, human nature is something on which most people seem to agree. By and large, according to Rutger Bregman in his new book Humankind, we have a rather pessimistic view – not of ourselves exactly, but of everyone else. We see other people as selfish, untrustworthy and dangerous and therefore we behave towards them with defensiveness and suspicion. This was how the $17 \text{th} – \text{century}$ philosopher Thomas Hobbes conceived our natural state to be, believing that all that stood between us and violent anarchy was a strong state and firm leadership.

But in following Hobbes, argues Bregman, we ensure that the negative view we have of human nature is reflected back at us. He instead puts his faith in Jean – Jacques Rousseau, the $18 \text{th} – \text{century}$ French thinker, who famously declared that man was born free and it was civilisation – with its coercive powers, social classes and restrictive laws – that put him in chains. 

Hobbes and Rousseau are seen as the two poles of the human nature argument and it’s no surprise that Bregman strongly sides with the Frenchman. He takes Rousseau’s intuition and paints a picture of a prelapsarian idyll in which, for the better part of $300,000 \; \text{years},$ Homo sapiens lived a fulfilling life in harmony with nature $\dots$ Then we discovered agriculture and for the next $10,000 \; \text{years}$ it was all property, war, greed and injustice$\dots$

It was abandoning our nomadic lifestyle and then domesticating animals, says Bregman, that brought about infectious diseases such as measles, smallpox, tuberculosis, syphilis, malaria, cholera and plague. This may be true, but what Bregman never really seems to get to grips with is that pathogens were not the only things that grew with agriculture – so did the number of humans. It’s one thing to maintain friendly relations and a property-less mode of living when you’re $30$ or $40$ hunter-gatherers following the food. But life becomes a great deal more complex and knowledge far more extensive when there are settlements of many thousands.

“Civilisation has become synonymous with peace and progress and wilderness with war and decline,” writes Bregman. “In reality, for most of human existence, it was the other way around.” Whereas traditional history depicts the collapse of civilisations as “dark ages” in which everything gets worse, modern scholars, he claims, see them more as a reprieve, in which the enslaved gain their freedom and culture flourishes. Like much else in this book, the truth is probably somewhere between the two stated positions.

In any case, the fear of civilisational collapse, Bregman believes, is unfounded. It’s the result of what the Dutch biologist Frans de Waal calls “veneer theory” – the idea that just below the surface, our bestial nature is waiting to break out$\dots$ There’s a great deal of reassuring human decency to be taken from this bold and though-provoking book and a wealth of evidence in support of the contention that the sense of who we are as a species has been deleteriously distorted. But it seems equally misleading to offer the false choice of Rousseau and Hobbes when, clearly, humanity encompasses both.

The author has differing views from Bregman regarding:

  1. the role of pathogens in the spread of infectious diseases.
  2. a property-less mode of living being socially harmonious.
  3. the role of agriculture in the advancement of knowledge.
  4. a civilised society being coercive and unjust.
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