Ingeborg van Teeseling

Bregman’s Theory: Despite Everything, Humanity Is Actually Decent

(Photo by Mickey O'neil on Unsplash)

In a staggering new theory, historian Rutger Bregman believes that our species is actually a force for good, not ill.


In 1966, fisherman Peter Warner was looking for crayfish many, many dozens of miles south of Tonga, in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean, when he ran into the tiny island of ‘Ata. ‘Ata, he knew, had been uninhabited since 1862, when slavers came and took the whole of the population away.

But waiting for his traps to work, Peter looked through his binoculars and saw something strange: a burnt-out patch on a cliff, a sure sign of human life. When he and his crew got closer to the island, they were startled by the sight of a group of naked boys who looked so fierce that Peter’s men instinctively reached for their guns.

Then one of them addressed him in impeccable English, explaining that they were castaways, who had been trapped on the island for, they estimated, about fifteen months. When Peter used his radio to verify the story, he found out that all that time ago a group of six boys at a Tongan boarding school had stolen a boat, gone on a fishing trip, never to be seen again. The funerals had already been.

In reality, the boys told him, they had been caught in a monster of a storm that had blown them off course and eventually onto the island. They had no food, hardly any tools, and only a modicum of survival skills. But still, here they were more than a year later, all present and accounted for, all fit and healthy and in good spirits. Warner was fascinated, especially because these boys were still very young, 14 to 18 years old. How had they managed to survive? The answer was simple: “We made a pact never to quarrel.”

One of the last things I did when I was in Holland a few weeks ago was read the new book by historian Rutger Bregman. I have introduced him to you before: he is the guy who published a fascinating book called Utopia for Realists: How We Can Build the Ideal World (the case for a universal basic income, open borders, and a 15-hour working week) in 2016. 

Earlier this year, he became an internet sensation by taking on Fox talk show host Tucker Carlson, evoking Carlson’s fury by calmly pointing to the fact that presenting himself as a regular guy while he is “a millionaire, funded by billionaires” was slightly problematic. “Go fuck yourself, you moron,” Carlson screamed.


In the craziness of this world, it is crucial that you start thinking about Bregman’s ideas as soon as possible.


A few weeks before, Bregman had managed to reprimand a room full of rich donors at the World Economic Forum in Davos, also by pointing to some hypocritical behavior. So, the least you can say about Bregman is that he is not afraid.

But more importantly, he thinks big. And wants us to do the same. That is why his new book (Humankind: A Hopeful History) is an even more ambitious project. It is “a new history of the human race,” with one central tenant at its core: the shocking conclusion, substantiated by 500 pages of research from all over the world, is that “most people are basically good.”

Because the book utterly surprised me and it will take a year until you will be able to read it (the English translation will be published in May 2020), I have decided to take three weeks to give you the essence of his argument. There is no time to lose. In the craziness of this world, it is crucial that you start thinking about Bregman’s ideas as soon as possible. Starting with the story above. Boys on a desert island, castaways separated from civilization.

Where have we heard that before?

In 1954, a much-rejected would-be author called William Golding wrote a book that came to be known as Lord of the Flies. Golding had been in the British Navy during WWII and, by the early 1950s, he was an alcoholic who beat his children. He was not a big fan of humanity.

In fact, during an interview, he admitted recognizing “the Nazi” in himself. Lord of the Flies was the result of that black view of the world: a story in which the boys torture and kill each other and violence and cruelty reigns. It was an allegory for the rest of the planet, Golding said.

Underneath our veneer of civilization, we were all bad. Egocentric, aggressive, sadistic, without even the slightest redeeming feature. A murderous animal that pretends to be trustworthy, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Left to our own devices, like the boys on the island, we would slaughter each other. The only reason we didn’t was that we were kept in check by religion, ideologies, and the strong hand of government.

After a slow start, Lord of the Flies became a hit. There were movies, plays, spin-offs. Later on, it became the starting point for the phenomenon we now know as reality television.

But more to the point: the book became shorthand for a particular worldview. Bregman calls it the Nocebo-effect: the fact that we become what we believe and find what we seek. And more and more we have decided to believe that people are bad and that the only “realistic” attitude towards human beings is one of cynicism. If we encounter kindness, we see it as a weakness. If we conclude that people help each other out, especially in times of crisis, we convince ourselves that this only happens in our country, nowhere else. Because we might be bad, but others, of course, are worse.

According to Bregman and his research, the whole premise is bogus. It is a myth that has become our reality because we have been telling it over and over and over again. We are the wolf we feed, the historian writes, and the consequences have been mind-boggling.

Not only has it turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy, but it has also led to oppression in all kinds of ways. On an individual level, we have become depressed and fearful because of it, which is bad enough. But the repercussions for the world are much bigger: wars, incarcerations, rape, torture, Trump.

A theory with the potential to blow up the universe, as it has come close to doing many times in the past. And yet, there is no evidence for it. On the contrary. In real life, not Golding’s version of reality, is actually true. What happens on a daily basis we can see when we look at the Tongan experience, where boys didn’t fight but worked together and remained firm friends throughout.

This, Bregman says, is the actual truth about humanity: we aren’t fighters, we are lovers. Our internal default is to work together. Throughout history, we have shown that, given the chance, what we are is nice. Bregman calls us the Homo Puppy, eager to wag its tail, play, and please as many people as we can find.

Bregman finds part of his proof at the start of humanity. Why, he asks, did we survive and become top of the tree? Why not other animals, other humanoids, for that matter? The Neanderthals, for instance, were much smarter than Homo Sapiens.

They cooked, used fire, wore clothes, played music, made art and tools. They had bigger brains, stronger bodies, and were tough enough to live to tell the tale of two Ice Ages. There were other apes too that were stronger, smarter, faster, more cunning. And yet, they are in cages in zoos that we have built.

The reason for that, Bregman concludes from the evidence, is that we were just better at working together. Because we could, we shared knowledge and the collective became much smarter much quicker. Also, because the friendliest of us were the most connected, they had the most offspring. And so the friendly gene spread. And we did too.

The nicer we were, the bigger our circle became. We were hunters and gatherers, so we had a big network that grew bigger the more we traveled. And wherever we came, we learned something new. This is how we managed to defeat the Neanderthals: we were nicer and, because of that, others shared their knowledge.


The actual truth about humanity: we aren’t fighters, we are lovers. Our internal default is to work together.


Of course, sometimes somebody became a bit too big for his or her boots. That was annoying and upset the share-and-share-alike etiquette. So, most of those people were banned, or in severe cases killed. Rather that than war. Newly interpreted archaeology now shows that that kind of conflict only started when we settled down. Started agriculture, stopped traveling, put fences around blocks of land.

Ownership tore us apart and, in no time at all, the theory was born that all people were bad. Out for my pig, my wife, my land, my house. Mine. Not ours. The Homo Puppy was starting to lose its playfulness.

That was terrible for most of us, but great for the newly formed powers-that-be. Their story is that the world/others/humanity sucks and that we need them to protect us. And we have fallen for it, let ourselves be manipulated. No fear, no power.

And so, here we are. Scared, distrustful, anxious, depressed. For no reason whatsoever.

I will show you why next week.


Ingeborg van Teeseling

After migrating to Australia from Holland ten years ago and being warned by the Immigration Department against doing her job as a journalist, Ingeborg van Teeseling became a historian instead. She is writing a book and runs Lifebooks, telling people's life stories.

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