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Kind by nature: Have faith in humanity
Radical thinker Rutger Bregman paints a new, more beautiful portrait of humanity.
Optimism is what runs the world, and cynicism only serves as an excuse for the lazy.
Evil is not inherent to our nature. We have achieved so much because we are friendly and decent. The radical thinker Rutger Bregman paints a new, more beautiful portrait of humanity.
Try standing in front of the mirror and remember the worst things ever done – by you personally, and by Homo sapiens as a whole. And smile, because history shows that we are doing much better than you think. This subversive idea belongs to a Dutch historian, writer and TED lecturer. In his new book, Humankind: A Hopeful History, he finds out whether the conviction that humans are selfish, hostile and destructive by nature is actually true. And if we turn out to be intrinsically good after all, what would it change?
Rutger Bregman already shook up the minds of politicians, businesspeople and the general public several years ago in his book Utopia for Realists And How We Can Get There, in which he argued that a better world could be built straight away. Bregman's critics consider him a naïve fantast, but many CEOs and national leaders are seriously considering introducing his revolutionary postulates, such as much shorter workdays and universal basic income. In his new book, Bregman goes even further, proposing that we turn the world upside down. More precisely, he wants to put straight the image of humankind as created by philosophy, science and the media. And to change our behaviour for the better.
The author has created a daring, fresh story, filled with fascinating examples, analyses and discoveries, and constructed it as if it were an investigation. The accused was Homo sapiens, a species with alleged murderous tendencies since the dawn of time, seeing his own viciousness reflected in everything and everyone around. Bregman revised the evidence in question and tore the lining of this negative story, reaching deep into the discoveries of archaeologists, historians and biologists. He bursts through the philosophy of Hobbes, who had a defining influence on the image of humans, perceived as warmongering species who must be controlled by a powerful, Leviathan-like government at all times. Bregman uncovers swindles ensconced in the most famous psychological theses of the 20th century, laying bare the manipulations of such celebrities as Philip Zimbardo and Stanley Milgram, whose famous experiments are considered the final evidence that a Nazi and sadist is lurking in every one of us. Yet years later, those claims turned out to be a sham.
Bregman crushes the myths built by bestselling authors such as Nobel Prize laureate William Golding, best known for his novel Lord of the Flies, and by big media like The New York Times. He boldly debates the most popular authors of recent years: Steven Pinker, Yuval Noah Harari and Malcolm Gladwell. With the energy of a young and fearless researcher, he dug through all the critical files, finding new evidence in old cases. The turn of perspective is so surprising that Humankind keeps the reader on their toes. Whatever you think about humans, Bregman will derail your viewpoint. And there's probably nothing as baffling as how much we struggle with accepting the idea that we are better than we thought we were. The thought that most of us are intrinsically good turns out to be a challenge, as if the bar has suddenly gone higher. Such a positive image makes us want to try harder.
Bregman uses the phenomenon we call the Pygmalion effect, meaning that we become what others see in us. Those rats that researchers assumed to be intelligent did better with the tasks they encountered. Children with supportive parents and teachers do better at school and in life. And people who see good in themselves, start to cultivate it. Bergman believes cynicism to be an avoidance strategy.
The belief that people are vicious and that the world is going to the dogs justifies passivity. Optimism, however, has an opposite effect – it requires us to strive for kindness, trust, and generosity in an active way.
The common belief that crisis awakens the most primitive instincts in people is not reflected in the facts, writes Bregman. He calls it the greatest misunderstanding in history. "No, no, you go first…", "Please, you go ahead, I'll follow you," said the people leaving the towers of the World Trade Center, when their offices were ablaze and the building was starting to melt. There was no panic; almost everyone remained polite. This was confirmed by recordings and testimonies from the survivors.
On Christmas Eve of 1914, 100,000 soldiers, mostly German and French, left the trenches to meet. They exchanged gifts and sang carols. For years to come, most of them were shooting high above their enemies' heads, so as not to wound them. The same thing happened at other wars, before and after that one. After the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, 90% of the guns were loaded and unused. The murderous instinct is a myth, Bregman insists.
Hitler's air force raided London in 1940 to break the spirit of the British. Instead, people put messages in their windows, such as: "More open than usual" or "Windows broken, booze still strong!" The English kept calm. Churchill was proud, but soon he made the same mistake, assuming he could break the Germans with air raids instead. After the bombing, Dresden responded in the same spirit as London – with acts of everyday kindness, help and optimism.
After the war and annihilation, many sought an answer to what made the German soldiers so persistent and determined. The reasons were said to be blind obedience and fanaticism. And yet, Bregman reveals data that was previously omitted and passed-over in silence: the main force keeping the soldiers going was the sense of solidarity and camaraderie. They didn't want to abandon their mates, with whom they grew up and trained. When presented in such light, those alleged beasts suddenly start looking a lot like boys from the yard. Like ourselves, even.
Think again, insists the Dutch historian, and see how tragedy brings out the best in people. Evil only exists in us when it masks as good and nestles in our system of beliefs as a sense of righteousness, something important to the world. And don't believe the media, he warns, because they feed on extremes. The media distort reality and teach us to believe in evil. For example, take the famous story of the New York woman named Kitty who was stabbed and died alone in front of her house in 1964, watched by her 38 indifferent neighbours, out of whom just one called the police, the rest declining to get involved. That's the version promoted by The New York Times, with alarming words about an "epidemic of callousness". The facts, as shown by Bregman, are very different. Most of the witnesses didn't see the attack – they just heard the noise. Half of them called the police, and Kitty died in her friend's arms. What happened to the perpetrator? He was caught soon later when he was leaving someone's apartment carrying a TV, and an alarmed neighbour stopped him. People can feel, express concern, and help others – those are the facts on which the media rarely report. There are over a dozen such spectacular deconstructions in Bregman's book, using new evidence he pulls out like trump cards, one after another.
We follow the rules of kindness and cooperation not only in times of crisis, but also in everyday life. Bregman echoes other researchers who describe the phenomenon of ordinariness as the dominant truth about the world. He refrains from promoting naïve theses, and the strength of his reasoning lies in returning to the right proportions. There is more good in the world, so much of it that we take it for granted and forget to define it. In his view, society is not founded on obedience to the government, which makes us aggressive and insensitive, but on the human trust. That's why real democracy (as opposed to the current rule of sociopath elites over the sensitive majority) is possible. More examples? In Venezuela and Brazil, budget management in many cities was passed over to the inhabitants. As a result, they saw an increase in social investments and education, while poverty and crime plummeted. In Norwegian prisons, guards and inmates spend time together, share duties and wear no uniforms. The outcomes were shorter times of imprisonment, fewer re-offenders, and a lot of savings. And so on.
Humankind rearranges the mind like no other book published over the past few years. It should be mandatory reading in the 21st century, as it gives some balance to another milestone in the human autobiography, the bestselling Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari from 2014. Bregman insists that optimism is solidly founded on facts. It is not a dream, just a new realism.
Translated from the Polish by Aga Zano
- Apparently, what separates man from beast is kindness. - Big Think ›
- 10 Psychology Findings That Reveal The Worst Of Human Nature ›
A Harvard professor's study discovers the worst year to be alive.
- Harvard professor Michael McCormick argues the worst year to be alive was 536 AD.
- The year was terrible due to cataclysmic eruptions that blocked out the sun and the spread of the plague.
- 536 ushered in the coldest decade in thousands of years and started a century of economic devastation.
The past year has been nothing but the worst in the lives of many people around the globe. A rampaging pandemic, dangerous political instability, weather catastrophes, and a profound change in lifestyle that most have never experienced or imagined.
But was it the worst year ever?
Nope. Not even close. In the eyes of the historian and archaeologist Michael McCormick, the absolute "worst year to be alive" was 536.
Why was 536 so bad? You could certainly argue that 1918, the last year of World War I when the Spanish Flu killed up to 100 million people around the world, was a terrible year by all accounts. 1349 could also be considered on this morbid list as the year when the Black Death wiped out half of Europe, with up to 20 million dead from the plague. Most of the years of World War II could probably lay claim to the "worst year" title as well. But 536 was in a category of its own, argues the historian.
It all began with an eruption...
According to McCormick, Professor of Medieval History at Harvard University, 536 was the precursor year to one of the worst periods of human history. It featured a volcanic eruption early in the year that took place in Iceland, as established by a study of a Swiss glacier carried out by McCormick and the glaciologist Paul Mayewski from the Climate Change Institute of The University of Maine (UM) in Orono.
The ash spewed out by the volcano likely led to a fog that brought an 18-month-long stretch of daytime darkness across Europe, the Middle East, and portions of Asia. As wrote the Byzantine historian Procopius, "For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during the whole year." He also recounted that it looked like the sun was always in eclipse.
Cassiodorus, a Roman politician of that time, wrote that the sun had a "bluish" color, the moon had no luster, and "seasons seem to be all jumbled up together." What's even creepier, he described, "We marvel to see no shadows of our bodies at noon."
...that led to famine...
The dark days also brought a period of coldness, with summer temperatures falling by 1.5° C. to 2.5° C. This started the coldest decade in the past 2300 years, reports Science, leading to the devastation of crops and worldwide hunger.
...and the fall of an empire
In 541, the bubonic plague added considerably to the world's misery. Spreading from the Roman port of Pelusium in Egypt, the so-called Plague of Justinian caused the deaths of up to one half of the population of the eastern Roman Empire. This, in turn, sped up its eventual collapse, writes McCormick.
Between the environmental cataclysms, with massive volcanic eruptions also in 540 and 547, and the devastation brought on by the plague, Europe was in for an economic downturn for nearly all of the next century, until 640 when silver mining gave it a boost.
Was that the worst time in history?
Of course, the absolute worst time in history depends on who you were and where you lived.
Native Americans can easily point to 1520, when smallpox, brought over by the Spanish, killed millions of indigenous people. By 1600, up to 90 percent of the population of the Americas (about 55 million people) was wiped out by various European pathogens.
Like all things, the grisly title of "worst year ever" comes down to historical perspective.
A machine learning system lets visitors at a Kandinsky exhibition hear the artwork.
Have you ever heard colors?
As part of a new exhibition, the worlds of culture and technology collide, bringing sound to the colors of abstract art pioneer Wassily Kandinsky.
Kandinsky had synesthesia, where looking at colors and shapes causes some with the condition to hear associated sounds. With the help of machine learning, virtual visitors to the Sounds Like Kandinsky exhibition, a partnership project by Centre Pompidou in Paris and Google Arts & Culture, can have an aural experience of his art.
An eye for music
Kandinsky's synesthesia is thought to have heavily influenced his painting. Seeing yellow summoned up trumpets, evoking emotions like cheekiness; reds produced violins portraying restlessness; while organs representing heavenliness he associated with blues, according to the exhibition notes.
Virtual visitors are invited to take part in an experiment called Play a Kandinsky, which allows them to see and hear the world through the artist's eyes.
Kandinsky's synesthesia is thought to have heavily influenced his 1925 painting Yellow, Red, Blue.Image: Guillaume Piolle/Wikimedia Commons
In 1925, the artist's masterpiece, "Yellow, Red, Blue", broke new ground in the world of abstract art, guiding the viewer from left to right with shifting shapes and shades. Almost a century after it was painted, Google's interactive tool lets visitors click different parts of the artwork to journey through the artist's description of the colors, associated sounds and moods that inspired the work.
But Google's new toy is not the only tool developed to enhance the artistic experience.
Artist Neil Harbisson has developed an artificial way to emulate Kandinsky by turning colors into sounds. He has a rare form of color blindness and sees the world in greyscale. But a smart antenna attached to his head translates dominant colors into musical notes, creating a real-world soundtrack of what's in front of him. The invention could open up a new world for people who are color blind.
A new study suggests that private prisons hold prisoners for a longer period of time, wasting the cost savings that private prisons are supposed to provide over public ones.
- Private prisons in Mississippi tend to hold prisoners 90 days longer than public ones.
- The extra days eat up half of the expected cost savings of a private prison.
- The study leaves several open questions, such as what affect these extra days have on recidivism rates.
The United States of America, land of the free, is home to 5 percent of the world's population but 25 percent of its prisoners. The cost of having so many people in the penal system adds up to $80 billion per year, more than three times the budget for NASA. This massive system exploded in size relatively recently, with the prison population increasing by six-fold in the last four decades.
Ten percent of these prisoners are kept in private prisons, which are owned and operated for the sake of profit by contractors. In theory, these operations cost less than public prisons and jails, and states can save money by contracting them to incarcerate people. They have a long history in the United States and are used in many other countries as well.
However, despite the pervasiveness of private contractors in the American prison system, there is not much research into how well they live up to their promise to provide similar services at a lower cost to the state. The little research that is available often encounters difficulties in trying to compare the costs and benefits of facilities with vastly different operations and occasionally produces results suggesting there are few benefits to privatization.
A new study by Dr. Anita Mukherjee and published in the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy joins the debate with a robust consideration of the costs and benefits of private prisons. Its findings suggest that some private prisons keep people incarcerated longer and save less money than advertised.
The study focuses on prisons in Mississippi. Despite its comparatively high rate of incarceration, Mississippi's prison system is very similar to that of other states that also use private prisons. Demographically, its system is representative of the rest of the U.S. prison system, and its inmates are sentenced for similar amounts of time.
The state attempts to get the most out of its privatization efforts, as a 1994 law requires all contracts for private prisons in Mississippi to provide at least a 10 percent cost savings over public prisons while providing similar services. As a result, the state seeks to maximize its savings by sending prisoners to private institutions first if space if available.
While public and private prisons in Mississippi are quite similar, there are a few differences that allow for the possibility of cost savings by private operators — not the least of which is that the guards are paid 30 percent less and have fewer benefits than their publicly employed counterparts.
The results of privatization
The graph depicts the likelihood of release for public (dotted line) vs. private (solid line) prison inmates. At every level of time served, public prisoners were more likely to be released than private prisoners.Dr. Anita Mukherjee
The study relied on administrative records of the Mississippi prison system between 1996 and 2013. The data included information on prisoner demographics, the crimes committed, sentence lengths, time served, infractions while incarcerated, and prisoner relocation while in the system, including between public and private jails. For this study, the sample examined was limited to those serving between one and six years and those who served at least a quarter of their sentence. This created a primary sample of 26,563 bookings.
Analysis revealed that prisoners in private prisons were behind bars for four to seven percent longer than those in public prisons, which translates to roughly 85 to 90 extra days per prisoner. This is, in part, because those in private prison serve a greater portion of their sentences (73 percent) than those in public institutions (70 percent).
This in turn might be due to the much higher infraction rate in private prisons compared to public ones. While only 18 percent of prisoners in a public prison commit an infraction, such as disobeying a guard or possessing contraband, the number jumps to 46 percent in a private prison. Infractions can reduce the probability of early release or cause time to be added to a sentence.
It's unclear why there are so many more infractions in private prisons. Dr. Mukherjee suggests it could be the result of "harsher prison conditions in private prisons," better monitoring techniques, incentives to report more of them to the state before contract renewals, or even a lackadaisical attitude on the part of public prison employees.
What does all this cost Mississippi?
The extra time served eats 48 percent of the cost savings of keeping prisoners in a private facility. For example, it costs about $135,000 to house a prisoner in a private prison for three years and $150,000 in the public system. But longer stays in private prisons reduce the savings from $15,000 to only $7,800.
As Dr. Mukherjee remarks, this cost is also just the finance. Some things are a little harder to measure:
"There are, of course, other costs that are difficult to quantify — e.g., the cost of injustice to society (if private prison inmates systematically serve more time), the inmate's individual value of freedom, and impacts of the additional incarceration on future employment. Abrams and Rohlfs (2011) estimates a prisoner's value of freedom for 90 days at about $1,100 using experimental variation in bail setting. Mueller-Smith (2017) estimates that 90 days of marginal incarceration costs about $15,000 in reduced wages and increased reliance on welfare. If these social costs were to exceed $7,800 in the example stated, private prisons would no longer offer a bargain in terms of welfare-adjusted cost savings."
It is possible that the extra time in jail provides benefits that counter these costs, such as a reduced recidivism rate, but this proved difficult to determine. Though it was not statistically significant, there was some evidence that the added time actually increased the rate of recidivism. If that's true, then private prisons could be counterproductive.