Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | Why it doesn’t matter that humans are basically good

Were there lovers in prehistoric times? And did fathers put their little girls on their shoulders to show them things far away? If early men were so barbaric, as nicer men now claim, how did women and children survive the epochs? Were the weak always the slaves of stronger men? If sati was as prevalent in India as historians claim, why weren’t all widows burned on the pyres of their husbands? Did millions of Indians, even as recently as the 18th century, simply accept that their girls could be burnt alive? Or, was sati merely a rare anomaly that some Colonials charlatans magnified? Why do you think people in olden days did not have the same feelings that you have?

Are humans innately good, or are they drawn to cruelty if they can get away? Why is there love, community, altruism, sacrifice and modern Scandinavia?

You know that there are scholarly answers to these questions, most of which emerge from what I suspect is the most spurious part of science—anthropology. These days, when I hear “hunter-gatherer", or “our tribal instincts", I know some nonsense is coming. The most influential and popular answer for decades has been that if humans had complete freedom to do what they wanted, there would be mayhem and barbarity.

But in an almost persuasive book, Humankind: A Hopeful History, the Dutch historian Rutger Bregman tries to dismantle this notion. He argues that people will instead coexist in great harmony. “We had evolved to gather berries and chill out."

If you are tired of Caucasians telling us what we have evolved to do, the book is absorbing for its demolition of what other Caucasians have been telling us we have evolved to do. In the process, Bregman exposes as farce some of the most celebrated “historical accounts" of human cruelty, often involving tribals on remote islands eating each other, or at least slaughtering. He also brings up a famous experiment of 1971 in a Stanford University basement. Readers of popular anthropology may have quoted this experiment to their friends to hold forth on the barbaric instinct of humans. In that experiment, a psychologist named Philip Zimbardo hired volunteers to assume roles of prison guards and prisoners. After a few days, Zimbardo claimed, the “guards" had become monsters even though the whole exercise was play-acting. The world was fascinated by yet another reminder that humans are drawn to barbarity. But Bregman says that the experiment was “a hoax". Most “guards" had refused to play sadistic games with their “prisoners", and many in fact treated the captives with kindness. The few “guards" who had behaved poorly had been tutored and coerced by Zimbardo to act in that manner.

In the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, during the American Civil War, records show that most soldiers refused to fire at other humans, or only pretended to. They kept loading their already loaded guns with ammunition to satisfy their superiors. Bregman relishes this fact. Also that, “In the US Air Force, less than 1% of fighter pilots were responsible for almost 40% of the planes brought down."

All this gives Bregman the confidence to posit that in the history of war, soldiers may have killed far less than people think.

In demolishing many of the famous experiments and theories of anthropologists as well as historians who had earlier argued that humans were innately barbarians, Bregman inevitably assails or at least embarrasses popular figures like Jared Diamond, Steven Pinker, Malcolm Gladwell, Richard Dawkins, and literary works like William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

It appears that there is much rubbish about human nature peddled by three vaunted fields of human intellect—anthropology, psychology and literature.

It’s not that Bregman himself doesn’t bring in “hunter-gatherers". He does, a lot. He argues that Neanderthals were smarter than Homo sapiens, but were doomed because they were not nice or social enough to transmit great ideas among themselves the way sapiens could. Human intelligence, he says, was a “coincidental by-product of friendliness".

Even though I feel only someone from a rich nation can offer such a naive assessment, I do not think an idea is flawed just because it is naive. If, far back, all our tribes were a bit like Holland, a modern Dutchman will be in a good position to see this more clearly than a present-day Indian or Iraqi. So, I have no quarrel with his hypothesis that we are fundamentally, inescapably and helplessly good. But I think it does not matter.

Most people might be good, sort of. But it does not matter because evil needs just a few to triumph. Over a billion Indians can be hardwired to be good, but it takes just a few dozen to commit unspeakable acts of cruelty. That is why people lean towards rules and order and civilization—to be protected from a handful of dangerous characters

Bregman’s explanation of most evil is that it is an aberration, a rare anomaly. He is right, but that is enough to alter the world. That is the power that the abnormal has over the normal, and that is the reason abnormality has survived in a species that otherwise has so much love and joy in its heart.

Also, the strongmen of the modern world are not islands of authority who have usurped power by force. Rather, they are powerful because they reflect the sentiments of large numbers. So, most humans may not be barbarians, but they often outsource evil to one who might be.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’

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