Are humans cruel by nature?
Historian Rutger Bregman argues that the persistent theory that most people are monsters is just wrong.
Rutger Bregman is a historian and author. He has published five books on history, philosophy, and economics. His books Humankind (2020) and Utopia for Realists (2017) were both New York Times bestsellers and have been translated in more than 40 languages. Bregman has twice been nominated for the prestigious European Press Prize for his work at The Correspondent. He lives in Holland.
RUTGER BREGMAN: There's a really old theory in Western culture that scientists call veneer theory. The idea here is that our civilization is only a thin veneer, only a thin layer, and that below that veneer, sort of real raw human nature resides. And that when something small happens—or big, you know we're in a crisis or in a pandemic right now—that humans reveal who they really are, that deep down we're just selfish. We are beasts. We may even be monsters. But luckily, we have this civilization that is basically protecting us from what we really are. Now, this idea, this theory, veneer theory, is very old and very dominant in Western culture. It goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks. You also find it within Christianity, Orthodox Christianity. Think about St. Augustine talking about the notion of original sin, that we're all born as sinners. And you also look at modern capitalism. And again, I think the central dogma of our current capitalist system is that people are selfish. So this veneer theory, it comes back again and again and again in our history. And I think the only problem with it is that it's simply wrong. So in the last 20-25 years, we've seen so much evidence accumulating from anthropology and from archaeology and from biology and from psychology and sociology with one main message which is that basically, deep down, most people are pretty decent and that this capacity for cooperation is actually our true superpower.
Human beings have evolved to cooperate. If you ask the question, what makes us so special? Are we selfish? Are we very smart? Are we very violent or strong or powerful or whatever? What is the reason that we conquered the globe? Why not the bonobos or the chimpanzees? And I think the answer is that we have evolved to work together and to cooperate on a scale that no other species in the whole animal kingdom has been able to do. So, on the one hand, we're the friendliest species in the animal kingdom, but on the other hand, we're also the cruelest species, right? I've never heard of a penguin that says, "Let's exterminate another group of penguins. Let's lock them up in prisons. Let's kill them all." These are singularly human crimes. One of the disturbing things actually if you study the history of warfare and of genocides is that these things are often highly moral phenomena. It's not as if there are a lot of sadists thinking, "Oh, we just enjoy killing other people." You know, those people do exist, but they're very, very rare. Actually most atrocities are committed in the name of loyalty, and in the name of friendship, and in the name of helping your people. That is what's so disturbing. It's really the dark side of friendliness. If you study soldiers, German soldiers in the second world war, and you ask the question, why did they keep on fighting in 1944, in 1945, even though it was clear they were going to lose the war? Well, psychologists back then thought they were all brainwashed. You know, that was their hypothesis. Then they started interviewing prisoners of war and discovered that actually most of the soldiers were fighting because of their friends and they didn't want to let their comrades down. So kameradschaft, comradeship, was the most important thing.
It's very rare that people are being violent or nasty to each other and that their justification is, "You know what? I just enjoy that." So the Joker doesn't really exist in real history. Most, sort of what we call evil people, think they're actually on the right side of history. And that is exactly what is so disturbing. This is actually the very paradoxical finding of scientists over the last 20 years, is that empathy and xenophobia are intimately connected. So, we often feel empathy for those who are like us, you know, our friends, our family members, our colleagues, people who are from the same town or city or nation, but then often parallel to that, we feel more xenophobia for those who are not like us, right? You get this in-group, out-group dynamic. And that is something that is in each and every one of us, right? You can already find it with babies as young as nine months old. They've done these studies where they already see these xenophobia tendencies with people. So that's not all nurture. That is really something that is within our brains. It's sort of a button that can be pushed. I think it's important to be realistic about this and to understand that. That doesn't mean we have to go all the way of arguing and saying that people are naturally evil or anything like that. I think that's clearly not the case. I think that's very important to understand, because it has revolutionary implications for how we organize a society. Once you assume that people are fundamentally selfish, then you are going to design your society around it. Your democracy, your schools, your workplaces, your prisons, and it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we turn it around and if we actually assume that most people are pretty decent, then I think we can create very different kinds of schools and very different kinds of workplaces that will enable us to trust each other more. And yeah, it could help us move to a much more egalitarian and democratic society.
- How have humans managed to accomplish significantly more than any other species on the planet? Historian Rutger Bregman believes the quality that makes us special is that we "evolved to work together and to cooperate on a scale that no other species in the whole animal kingdom has been able to do."
- Pushing back against the millennia-old idea that humans are inherently evil beneath their civilized surface, which is known as 'veneer theory', Bregman says that it's humanity's cooperative spirit and sense of brotherhood that leads us to do cruel deeds. "Most atrocities are committed in the name of loyalty, and in the name of friendship, and in the name of helping your people," he tells Big Think. "That is what's so disturbing."
- The false assumption that people are evil or inherently selfish has an effect on the way we design various elements of our societies and structures. If we designed on the assumption that we are collaborative instead, we could avoid the "self-fulfilling prophecy" of selfishness.
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What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
We’ve mapped a million previously undiscovered galaxies beyond the Milky Way. Take the virtual tour here.
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Credit: NAOJ<p><em>Arrows on this map show position and velocity data for the 224 objects utilized to model the Milky Way Galaxy. The solid black lines point to the positions of the spiral arms of the Galaxy. Colors reflect groups of objects that are part of the same arm, while the background is a simulation image.</em></p>
With just a few strategical tweaks, the Nazis could have won one of World War II's most decisive battles.
- The Battle of Britain is widely recognized as one of the most significant battles that occurred during World War II. It marked the first major victory of the Allied forces and shifted the tide of the war.
- Historians, however, have long debated the deciding factor in the British victory and German defeat.
- A new mathematical model took into account numerous alternative tactics that the German's could have made and found that just two tweaks stood between them and victory over Britain.
Two strategic blunders<p>Now, historians and mathematicians from York St. John University have collaborated to produce <a href="http://www-users.york.ac.uk/~nm15/bootstrapBoB%20AAMS.docx" target="_blank">a statistical model (docx download)</a> capable of calculating what the likely outcomes of the Battle of Britain would have been had the circumstances been different. </p><p>Would the German war effort have fared better had they not bombed Britain at all? What if Hitler had begun his bombing campaign earlier, even by just a few weeks? What if they had focused their targets on RAF airfields for the entire course of the battle? Using a statistical technique called weighted bootstrapping, the researchers studied these and other alternatives.</p><p>"The weighted bootstrap technique allowed us to model alternative campaigns in which the Luftwaffe prolongs or contracts the different phases of the battle and varies its targets," said co-author Dr. Jaime Wood in a <a href="https://www.york.ac.uk/news-and-events/news/2020/research/mathematicians-battle-britain-what-if-scenarios/" target="_blank">statement</a>. Based on the different strategic decisions that the German forces could have made, the researchers' model enabled them to predict the likelihood that the events of a given day of fighting would or would not occur.</p><p>"The Luftwaffe would only have been able to make the necessary bases in France available to launch an air attack on Britain in June at the earliest, so our alternative campaign brings forward the air campaign by three weeks," continued Wood. "We tested the impact of this and the other counterfactuals by varying the probabilities with which we choose individual days."</p><p>Ultimately, two strategic tweaks shifted the odds significantly towards the Germans' favor. Had the German forces started their campaign earlier in the year and had they consistently targeted RAF airfields, an Allied victory would have been extremely unlikely.</p><p>Say the odds of a British victory in the real-world Battle of Britain stood at 50-50 (there's no real way of knowing what the actual odds are, so we'll just have to select an arbitrary figure). If this were the case, changing the start date of the campaign and focusing only on airfields would have reduced British chances at victory to just 10 percent. Even if a British victory stood at 98 percent, these changes would have cut them down to just 34 percent.</p>
A tool for understanding history<p>This technique, said co-author Niall Mackay, "demonstrates just how finely-balanced the outcomes of some of the biggest moments of history were. Even when we use the actual days' events of the battle, make a small change of timing or emphasis to the arrangement of those days and things might have turned out very differently."</p><p>The researchers also claimed that their technique could be applied to other uncertain historical events. "Weighted bootstrapping can provide a natural and intuitive tool for historians to investigate unrealized possibilities, informing historical controversies and debates," said Mackay.</p><p>Using this technique, researchers can evaluate other what-ifs and gain insight into how differently influential events could have turned out if only the slightest things had changed. For now, at least, we can all be thankful that Hitler underestimated Britain's grit.</p>
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