We're all beasts at heart. Credit: Leon Neal/Getty Images

May 12, 2020   6 mins

Every Thursday at precisely 8pm I perform a sacred ritual.

It is ‘The Ace Of Spades’, by Motörhead, and, played at maximum volume inside a sealed bedroom, it can just about drown out the tinkling of wooden spoons on saucepans at the windows.    

When it comes to the Health Service pot-bashers, I’m torn. On the one hand, there is something creepy about the party line we’re being squeezed into. Praising Our Beautiful NHS seems a mania: an all-too-convenient distraction from deeper, messier questions. On the other, I recognise the instinct. We all want to help. Many seem to have been waiting their whole lives to know what they would have done during the Blitz. Now we have our answer: 750,000 NHS volunteers inside a week, ungrumbling financial hara-kiri by small businesses, and fistfuls of notes shoved down the negligée of Captain Tom. Were amazing. But in our heightened state, were also at the whim of various madnesses of any number of crowds.

It is this paradox that Rutger Bregman stumbles into in his new book, Human Kind: A Hopeful History. It’s not clear he makes it out alive.

We are basically nice”, is Bregman’s big idea. Just this weekend, Bregman went viral on the Guardian website with a story from Human Kind about a real life Lord Of The Flies, arguing that the book was more a product of William Golding’s own abberant, alcoholic psychology than any model for human nature.  When six real boys became stranded near Tonga, he points out, they made a pledge never to quarrel, and shared out their scant water supplies equally, initially at a cup a day.

As ideas go, Bregman’s is a whopper. After all, “What is fundamental human nature?” is the bedrock of all politics — you don’t need Jonathan Haidt to tell you that much of how we each dispense justice in the world goes back to a deeper view of who we are, which nests in our childhoods and even our genes. It’s certainly nice to find someone who is willing to have a go at a question this big. Academia has a tendency only to offer us  A+ answers to C+ questions. Human Kind addresses an A++ question, but even at 400 pages, it can only really gesture towards answers; Bregman is like a man with a pen knife cutting chunks off a blue whale. 

Far from being rapacious apes, Bregman says, humans have been bred to be the most pro-social species. He introduces what he calls Homo Puppy — the idea that it was the most sociable — those who could count on their neighbours — not the most aggressive who ended up winning the evolutionary race. Weve been told were like chimpanzees — violent and territorial. But in fact were more like bonobos — co-operative, mild, fans of delicious free love. He cites the work of Dmitri Belyaevs Soviet scientists who turned snarly wild silver foxes into cuddly domestic tail-waggers in thirty generations. We are those foxes.

As his thesis advances, we learn that Rousseau had it spot on, Hobbes was a dismal cynic. Even the Holocaust can’t hold back Bregman. He points to research suggesting that Germans in the Second World War fought hard for the love of their comrades, their own band of brothers. He quotes a German serviceman, who quipped: “Nazism begins 25 miles behind the front lines”. So long as the shock troops pounding mortar shells into Warsaw flower markets werent particularly keen on the whole Reich thingy, his theory checks out. Like a humanist Gok Wan, Queer Eye for an entire species, Bregman would like to take the soul of man and say: Hey. Look at yourself in the mirror. Youre beautiful! Now go out there and slay, queen.

Maybe we do need a bit of a pick-me-up. There are things we forget, and things we’ve mis-remembered. Bregman is at his best when exposing some shoddy psych experiments that have left a watermark on public policy.

As he points out, new evidence shows that the Stanford Prison Experiment — in which the randomly-selected ‘guards’ in a mock jail transformed into brutal sadists — was more an early stab at experiential theatre than anything with scientific rigour. The 1957 Robbers Cave trials — in which groups of small boys were split into tribes and began to attack each other — flunked its first reproduction test when the new boys had singsongs instead. And the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese that gave us the entire notion of the bystander effect’ has since crumbled into little more than shoddy reporting from the New York Times.


After our basic goodness — even if we grass on our neighbours — is firmly established by Bregman, it is perhaps deflating for the reader to realise that much of what comes next is basically ‘90s management theory — the sort of stuff Tom Peters was writing about as far back as In Search Of Excellence (1982). Trust the people. Cut the middle managers. Democratise. Decentralise. Devolve. Or “Management by objectives,” as Peter Drucker had it.

Bregman focuses on a charmingly iconoclastic Dutch healthcare provider, Buurtzog, who run 14,000 nurses with only 50 administrators by grouping them into self-organising teams with their own budgets. He mentions a radical school, Agora, that allows its children to bugger around all the live-long day, with no curriculum and great results. And the new generation of Norwegian prisons, which treat inmates with more courtesy than most Premier Inns.

These are examples of real success, of the soul of man singing in the right cirumstances. But are they examples of the soul of man being good? For instance, if there is a lesson in Buurtzog’s de-centralisation, it might also be that middle-management rent-seekers are the barnacles who must be eternally scraped off the boat of any organisation. Is that a hopeful history? Or a cynical view? Depends on how full your glass is. Or whether you’re hoping to do some rent-seeking later. 

To sell socialism with a side-serve of freedom is definitely a step up on its pre-1989 marketing strategy. As Bregman gladly points out, people have a deep aversion to being micro-managed. It’s the same sexy freewheeling world that Aaron Bastani describes in Fully Automated Luxury Communism. But none of this wave of new young Left thinkers have gotten close to untangling the contradictions of a messy, hyper-open society. This is why it often seems as though the ideal Novara Media prison would be ping-pong for rapists and The Hole for hate speech.

Bregman, whose last book argued strongly for Open Borders, of course explains Brexit as being a result of whites who have no non-white neighbours voting Leave because they had  limited contact with ‘the other’. The happy conclusion he proposes is that we all need contact therapy to get closer to his view of society. Likewise, Bregman is glad that Britain has left the EU, precisely because it allows for swifter integration of the remaining bloc. So, is a superstate of technocrats also about trusting people? Or is it about trusting the right people? Perhaps all animals are good — but some animals are more good than others?

What he gets right is that modern economies — with their abstruse GDP calculations, endless atomisations, their Gradgrindian welfare grants and ghastly Nudge Units — have weaponised our moral instincts against us, and thereby ground down the soft bonds that used to keep us all in a more fluid relationship with each other and society. In other words, he finds himself on the exact same terrain as Charles Murray did in Coming Apart (2012), which charted how that kind of neighbourly community-centred social capital has declined in America since the 1950s — though as Murray is  an arch-conservative, it is perhaps not a lift either would wish to get stuck in

The diffence between Bregman and Murray’s views comes down to something even more fundamental. Both see an optimism in the self-organising community. But Bregman doesn’t see that this has any limits. In his world, you could parachute any 300 people together, and they’d start to co-operate just as well. The idea that social capital is something that often accrues over long periods of time is lost to his particular idealised state of nature. Deep in his dream of Rousseau, he seems to feel it all went tits up the moment we lost the hunter-gatherer band. Once we had the tribe with its chief, then the settled village — once our leaders had tributes paid and manufactured gods to keep their political economy rolling — well then things were really down the pisser, and we were forever turfed out of Eden.


He doesn’t mention Dunbar’s Number — the idea that the quantity of people whose moral debits and credits I can keep track of caps at around 150, a tribe’s worth. Small groups work best precisely because we’re all flesh-covered moral calculators, audibly tutting at defectors. What he observes as spontaneous goodness only works because, if the group is coherent enough, if the game is long-term enough, then somewhere underneath, everyone knows the score, and punishment only needs to be implied, not stated.  

This is exactly why being socially-minded is not the same as being good. Shame works. And starting the shaming — being at the top of a temporary shaming hierarchy — is its own kind of social capital. It’s why clapping for the NHS might be a fine example of our innate goodness. Or it might equally be an example of another famous psychology experiment — the Ascht conformity experiments.  

The Ascht experiments measured the vast capacity of ordinary people to take their beliefs about reality from those around them — even in the face of bald, bang-to-rights physical evidence to the contrary. A literal 2 + 2 = 5 phenomenon that links social disasters from Covington to Salem to, yes, that loving band of brothers, the Nazis. Homo Puppy or otherwise, we may just as well have been selected precisely not to disagree with each other. It’s why divergence, stating the uncomfortable or nuanced, has become such a prickly act in a hyper-networked world, and why groupthink has become more and more paralysing to our progress.  

Even with his big brown eyes and his soft wet tongue, Homo Puppy could still smother us all.

Gavin Haynes is a journalist and former editor-at-large at Vice.