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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 ›
How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
It's hard to stop looking back and forth between these faces and the busts they came from.
- A quarantine project gone wild produces the possibly realistic faces of ancient Roman rulers.
- A designer worked with a machine learning app to produce the images.
- It's impossible to know if they're accurate, but they sure look plausible.
How the Roman emperors got faced<a href="https://payload.cargocollective.com/1/6/201108/14127595/2K-ENGLISH-24x36-Educational_v8_WATERMARKED_2000.jpg" ><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2NDk2MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyOTUzMzIxMX0.OwHMrgKu4pzu0eCsmOUjybdkTcSlJpL_uWDCF2djRfc/img.jpg?width=980" id="775ca" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="436000b6976931b8320313478c624c82" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="lineup of emperor faces" data-width="1440" data-height="963" /></a>
Credit: Daniel Voshart<p>Voshart's imaginings began with an AI/neural-net program called <a href="https://www.artbreeder.com" target="_blank">Artbreeder</a>. The freemium online app intelligently generates new images from existing ones and can combine multiple images into…well, who knows. It's addictive — people have so far used it to generate nearly 72.7 million images, says the site — and it's easy to see how Voshart fell down the rabbit hole.</p><p>The Roman emperor project began with Voshart feeding Artbreeder images of 800 busts. Obviously, not all busts have weathered the centuries equally. Voshart told <a href="https://www.livescience.com/ai-roman-emperor-portraits.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Live Science</a>, "There is a rule of thumb in computer programming called 'garbage in garbage out,' and it applies to Artbreeder. A well-lit, well-sculpted bust with little damage and standard face features is going to be quite easy to get a result." Fortunately, there were multiple busts for some of the emperors, and different angles of busts captured in different photographs.</p><p>For the renderings Artbreeder produced, each face required some 15-16 hours of additional input from Voshart, who was left to deduce/guess such details as hair and skin coloring, though in many cases, an individual's features suggested likely pigmentations. Voshart was also aided by written descriptions of some of the rulers.</p><p>There's no way to know for sure how frequently Voshart's guesses hit their marks. It is obviously the case, though, that his interpretations look incredibly plausible when you compare one of his emperors to the sculpture(s) from which it was derived.</p><p>For an in-depth description of Voshart's process, check out his posts on <a href="https://medium.com/@voshart/photoreal-roman-emperor-project-236be7f06c8f" target="_blank">Medium</a> or on his <a href="https://voshart.com/ROMAN-EMPEROR-PROJECT" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">website</a>.</p><p>It's fascinating to feel like you're face-to-face with these ancient and sometimes notorious figures. Here are two examples, along with some of what we think we know about the men behind the faces.</p>
Caligula<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2NDk4Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY3MzQ1NTE5NX0.LiTmhPQlygl9Fa9lxay8PFPCSqShv4ELxbBRFkOW_qM/img.jpg?width=980" id="7bae0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ce795c554490fe0a36a8714b86f55b16" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="992" data-height="558" />
One of numerous sculptures of Caligula, left
Nero<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2NTAwMC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1NTQ2ODU0NX0.AgYuQZzRQCanqehSI5UeakpxU8fwLagMc_POH7xB3-M/img.jpg?width=980" id="a8825" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9e0593d79c591c97af4bd70f3423885e" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="992" data-height="558" />
One of numerous sculptures of Nero, left
Scientists use new methods to discover what's inside drug containers used by ancient Mayan people.
- Archaeologists used new methods to identify contents of Mayan drug containers.
- They were able to discover a non-tobacco plant that was mixed in by the smoking Mayans.
- The approach promises to open up new frontiers in the knowledge of substances ancient people consumed.
PARME staff archaeologists excavating a burial site at the Tamanache site, Mérida, Yucatan.
To understand ourselves and our place in the universe, "we should have humility but also self-respect," Frank Wilczek writes in a new book.