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Hunter-gatherers were peaceful proto-feminists before civilization came along and ruined it all? Oh please.

Guy Birchall
Guy Birchall

Guy Birchall, British journalist covering current affairs, politics and free speech issues. Recently published in The Sun and Spiked Online. Follow him on Twitter @guybirchall

Guy Birchall, British journalist covering current affairs, politics and free speech issues. Recently published in The Sun and Spiked Online. Follow him on Twitter @guybirchall

Hunter-gatherers were peaceful proto-feminists before civilization came along and ruined it all? Oh please.
A new book is already adorning the shelves of liberals in London, New York, Amsterdam and Paris, reassuring them that in actual fact humanity has evolved to agree with them – and that some of us are just too ignorant to realise.

Humankind: A Hopeful History, offers an uplifting look at human nature, arguing that our species is, when all is said and done, mostly decent, caring and selfless. It is a well written, accessible, optimistic, an easy read chock full of intriguing tales and anecdotes from the length and breadth of human history. There’s just one problem: it’s bollocks.

The author, Rutger Bregman, essentially takes 400 pages to argue what John Lennon took four minutes to propose in that tedious liberal hymn Imagine. His thesis is a rehashing of one that has been debated back and forth for centuries in philosophy departments at universities around the world: Who was right? Thomas Hobbes or Jean Jacques Rousseau?

The central argument of the Englishman is that before civilisation, human life was “nasty, brutish and short” where humanity existed in a war of “all against all.”

The Swiss Rousseau, however, argued that before this blasted disease of civilisation blighted humanity, we were a race of “Noble Savages.” Given the title, Humankind, there are no prizes for guessing which side of the fence our Dutch author comes down on.

Like the 18th century Genevan, Bregman believes not only that we were once bands of nomadic hunter-gatherers (a fact) but that we were then, and indeed are now, fundamentally good and non-violent (at least towards each other). We were lithe and athletic (from all that hunting and gathering), rarely had cause to fight, didn’t have to toil in the fields and were all essentially proto-feminist communists right up to the point about 10,000 years ago when some bastard between the Tigris and the Euphrates invented agriculture.

Among the sins laid at the door of the civilisation that then started include: inequality, sexually transmitted diseases, bestiality and war. What followed, Bregman contends, was ten millennia of oppression and enslavement that did all it could to beat our former fundamental “goodness” out of us.

Before this time, he says that we had evolved into “homo puppy” (stop giggling at the back). What he means by this is that humanity had effectively domesticated itself from an angry ape into mankind in the same way we would later turn wolves into cocker spaniels. 

To prove this he cites a study that performed in the USSR that selectively bred Siberian foxes for friendliness and which succeeded in turning them from feral beasts into pets in a matter of a few generations. Other physical attributes he cites to back up his claim include that human beings are virtually the only species on the planet that blush and have whites in their eyes, two things that make lying and deceit more difficult.

His arguments that we are innately good also include an incident he terms the “real life Lord of the Flies” When six Tongan schoolboys got stranded on an island in the Pacific for 15 months in 1965, they didn’t split into two tribes and beat the fattest of their number to death.

He also points to the “Blitz Spirit” in 1940s London and indeed the camaraderie found in Dresden after the RAF returned the favour; the Christmas carol singing and football playing truce of 1914; flaws in the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, and the Yale Shock Machine study. In the latter two he points to the fact that subjects involved had to be encouraged or pressured into cruelty. That is true. But they still did it.

It is also the case that while Londoners and Dresdenites may well have shown a spirit of togetherness in the face of bombing, the Holocaust was taking place simultaneously. It is never adequately explained how “innately good” people were persuaded to commit the most heinous act in human history. Similarly, the Great Leap Forward, the Stalinist purges, Pol Pot’s killing fields, the Rwandan Genocide and the savagery that engulfed the collapse of Yugoslavia, to name just a few, were all, if we believe Bregman’s thesis, carried out by people who are fundamentally good. 

He contests that we are drawn away from this analysis because the news and history are drawn towards violent outliers. This may be true. But to suggest that these are aberrations when they have pretty much affected every corner of the globe for most of time suggests that while humanity has an almost unique capacity for good we also have, within all of us, an easy capacity for evil.

Bregman’s book reads like a very well written, well-argued dissertation from a liberal philosophy student. His full-throated support for Rousseau over Hobbes is not uncommon among those leftishly inclined and innately optimistic. The irony that the argument for humanity being intrinsically good is being made by a Genevan womanizer who was chronically incapable of looking after his own children is overlooked in this book, as it is by many people sympathetic to Rousseau’s ideas. As a result of his Rousseauian sympathies, Bregman also has a somewhat rose-tinted view of the French Revolution and its ruthless commitment to reason. 

We then come to the actual argument of the book. There is a criticism levied at Christian thinkers known as “Jesus smuggling,” which holds that no matter how much they attempt to rest on reason and empiricism as the basis for their argument, they will eventually bring Jesus into it.

Bregman, however, appears to be guilty of “Marx smuggling.” After more than 300 pages without really bringing up communism, he then goes on to make the tired argument that we are all innately communist. He points to parents providing for their children, children’s natural inclination to share food and other well-trodden arguments that seek to expand this willingness to share to wider society. And just like all Marxists, he obviously argues that it would be different this time, despite all previous attempts to impose it resulting in summary executions and pet-eating. 

He goes on to predictably argue that Brexit voters and Trump supporters are motivated out of a mixture of ignorance and bigotry for believing in such antiquated and small-minded things like borders. His mawkish optimism eventually reaches a zenith with him quoting Richard Curtis talking about making Love Actually, before signing off with his own Ten Commandments.

The main argument of Humankind? Wouldn’t it be nice if there were more lefty, metropolitan liberals who lived comfortable middle class lives in big multicultural cities. You know, like Rutger does.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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