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Are we good at the bottom?

Most people are good. A new story about human nature
PSYCHOLOGY / How has a thoroughly pessimistic view of humanity arisen? That man must be fundamentally sinful is a cornerstone of Western thinking. Or?


Only a bit of civilizational veneer, a handful of laws and authorities prevent us from betraying our fellow human beings. This view of life has also been given a name: 'Facade Theory'.

The Dutch historian Rutger Bregman argues in the book Most people are good. A new story about human nature for something completely different. His bold thesis reads: It is not suspicion, selfishness and the right of the strongest that have made human progress possible, but on the contrary trust and cooperation.

But naivety is a dangerous quality, which has led people and nations down disastrous paths. Bregman knows that his optimistic theory needs strong evidence, and he has devoted himself to this in the book, with almost exhausting thoroughness.

Report on rape and shooting

He illustrates with many examples how a thoroughly pessimistic view of humanity has arisen: Katrina is one of them, the hurricane that struck New Orleans in 2005. At least 1836 people died. The newspapers were full of reports of rapes and shootings – for example, of someone who opened fire on a rescue helicopter. In the Superdome stadium, the main refuge, 25 000 people sat as if in a rat trap. Without electricity or water. Someone allegedly slit the throats of two babies, and a seven-year-old girl was meant to be raped and killed. The police chief and the governor of Louisiana agreed that "such disasters often bring out the worst in people". The facade theory at work.

The media comes off badly from these stories.

Several months later, after the reporters were gone, investigators found out what had really happened in New Orleans. The shots at the helicopter were in reality the clatter of a gas tank valve. There were no confirmed reports of murder or rape. Six people had died in the Superdome: four naturally, one from an overdose, and one by suicide. An armada of ships from Texas had come to rescue as many as possible.

The media comes off particularly poorly from these stories. And in general: A narcotic we are all dangerously addicted to, according to Bregman, is the daily news. The sadder or more terrifying they are, the more space they get. The fact that these news stories describe the exceptions to the rule disappears in the drama. And the reporters really don't have time to be in a live broadcast where they declare: "I am now standing just outside Lutjebroek, where to-day again no war has broken out."

lord of the Flies

Likewise, Charles Darwin receives little support from Bregman – the assumption that Homo sapiensmust have developed by driving away the weaker ones. He supports his hypothesis, among other things, with the experiments of a Russian researcher, Dmitri Belyaev. In the 1970s and 80s, he succeeded in breeding silver foxes that wagged their tails, barked and behaved more like dogs than wild foxes. He did this only by selecting the most sociable animals. He was sure that the theory was also valid for humans, that we are actually domesticated monkeys. Beljayev meant to show that over tens of thousands of years the friendliest people have had the most children. The survival of the friendliest. We are 'Homo Puppy', the puppy man.

Bregman also presents us with a special piece of detective work. It starts with the story of the author William Golding. He gave the title to his first, famous novel lord of the Flies, which stands for Beelzebub, another name for the devil. The plot describes a group of boys who are shipwrecked and end up on a deserted island. It starts well and good, they organize themselves, distribute tasks in anticipation of rescue. But soon rules are broken, violent conflicts break out. A few weeks later, a British officer sets foot on land. He finds a corrupting chaos. Three boys are dead. What is the conclusion? The end of innocence and "the darkness in the heart of men." Golding receives the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Bregman reads rather lord of the Flies as a prime example of the facade theory. With meticulous patience, he begins to unravel threads. In an antiquarian bookshop he finds some words about six boys from Tonga who went fishing, landed in a storm and ended up on a small, uninhabited island. Further unraveling confirms the true story: In 1966, the Australian skipper Peter Warner discovered the boys on the island of Ata. By then they had been there for over a year. They had grown vegetables, built themselves a guitar, kept warm in a fire day and night, so the smoke could attract rescuers. Everyone was in good shape.

But there were no confirmed reports of murder or rape.

Rutger Bregman made another startling discovery. He tracked down two friends. The eldest was 83 years old and the son of a wealthy entrepreneur. The youngest was 67 years old, a child of nature. They knew each other from an uninhabited island: skipper Warner and one of the six castaways, Mano Totau. Bregman visited them, interviewed them and photographed them for his book. He had found the real Lord of the Flies.

Easter Island's mysterious downfall

Of course, the industrious author is aware that scattered stories can never replace science. On the other hand, science must be convincing. In the official account of Easter Islands mysterious downfall, there is, for example, for Bregmana a lot of questionable issues. The world famous geographer Jared Diamond established some 'facts'. Some of them have to do with the enigmatic moai statues. The shipping of them required wooden logs. In the end there was not a single tree left on the island. The soil eroded, agriculture stagnated, the inhabitants starved. Civil war broke out. The parties resorted to the last source of sustenance – each other.

When explorer Jacob Roggeveen disembarked on Easter Island on April 5, 1722, in search of a southern continent, he met, according to reports that were later found, “a sympathetic people. They looked healthy, with their muscular bodies and chalky white teeth. The islanders did not beg, but on the contrary offered food". The soil was fertile. Weapons were conspicuously absent. Four years later, the next explorers arrived, the English, led by James Cook. He described the islanders, on the other hand, as "small, thin, nervous and miserable". This quote proved impossible to find. However, it later appeared with another celebrity: Thor Heyerdahl. In a bestseller he explained that the island was first populated by long-eared Incas, then overrun by short-eared cannibals from Polynesia. The end for Easter Island.

It is easier to spread conspiracy theories than solid science. Bregman sticks to the latter and presents completely different, well-researched explanations for Easter Island's depopulation. For in depth explanations, turn to the book.

Arendt and Eichmann

Even Rutger Bregman, however, has to ask: How does one explain Auschwitz? Is it still the case that only a thin layer of 'civilization' prevents us from mutating into full-blooded Nazis?

Philosopher Hannah Arendtis among those philosophers who – if you interpret her in Bregman's spirit – believe that most people are good. That our need for love and friendshipis closer to us than hatred and violence. And that when people decide to do evil, they always need to hide behind lies and clichés meant to turn evil into good.

One who spoke clearly in this respect was the German war criminal Adolf Eichmann. "I don't regret anything," he assured. "I shall jump into the grave laughing, knowing that I have chased six million enemies into the afterlife."

Rutger Bregman, born in XNUMX, inspires the following either-or choices, which are open to everyone: XNUMX) agree with the church and other systemic dictatorships in that we are born with sin, i.e. with malice, and that this must be controlled by external authorities. Or XNUMX) know that 'Homo Puppy' can be fed lies, brainwashing and manipulation – and that this must be combated through own thinking, own responsibility and inner authority.

Ranveig Eckhoff
Ranveig Eckhoff
Eckhoff is a regular reviewer for Ny Tid.

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