Are We Really Built for Prejudice and Violence? The New Book Challenging the Preconceptions of Human BehaviourHistorians in the News
Books are a long time in the making: seven years, to be precise, in the case of Dutch historian Rutger Bregman’s fascinating new doorstop, Humankind: A Hopeful History. It is unlikely that he precisely managed its publication to coincide with a pandemic and mass protests sparked by racist police brutality, but the timing is nonetheless striking. These two events go to the heart of the arguments he explores in his book: are people basically decent, predisposed to draw rainbows, shop for their neighbours and protect the vulnerable by somehow resisting the charms of Barnard Castle? Or are we built for prejudice and violence?
These are huge and highly sensitive questions, which the historian attacks with his usual brand of vim, vigour and intellectual nuance. Instead of dry academic prose, we get a sort of Dutch Sherlock Holmes, furiously prodding at the sacred cows of psychological research and laying out his counter-arguments with the breathless pace of a thriller. The main assumption that he sets out to debunk is “veneer theory”: the Hobbesian idea that civilisation is a thin layer that keeps our nasty, brutish instincts in check. Take away our laws and hot showers, and what do you get? Lord of the Flies.
Except Bregman tracked down a real-life example of ship-wrecked kids, and what transpired had little in common with William Golding’s gloriously grim novel. As he recounts, in 1965, six boys aged between 13 and 16 were so fed up with their boarding school in Tonga that they stole a fishing boat to escape to Fiji. They ended up marooned for over a year on a small rocky island. But instead of descending into chaos and bloodshed, “The boys had set up a small commune with a food garden, hollowed-out tree trunks to store rainwater, a gymnasium with curious weights, a badminton court, chicken pens and a permanent fire.” One boy fell and broke his leg but his friends managed to set it with sticks; there was a rota to share tasks and any arguments were solved by sending the opponents off to cool down at opposite ends of the island.
This is, of course, one incident rather than social science. But as Bregman argues, it says something about our negativity bias that Lord of the Flies rings out as hauntingly true, whereas this upbeat story is barely a footnote in our collective consciousness. And when it comes to actual research, Bregman also aims a well-placed kick at “one of the most notorious scientific studies ever”: the Stanford prison experiment of 1971, which asked students to play the roles of guards and prisoners. Infamously, a uniform and a smattering of power was all it took to turn wholesome undergraduates into tyrants, forcing their peers to strip and chaining them by the ankle.
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