cover image Humankind: A Hopeful History

Humankind: A Hopeful History

Rutger Bregman, trans. from the Dutch by Elizabeth Manton and Erica Moore. Little, Brown, $28 (480p) ISBN 978-0-316-41853-9

Dutch historian Bregman (Utopia for Realists) puts a positive spin on human behavior in this intriguing survey of politics, literature, psychology, sociology, and philosophy. To prove his hypothesis that humankind is basically good, Bregman reevaluates some of the most entrenched cultural narratives suggesting otherwise. For example, six Tongan boys shipwrecked on an island in the 1960s didn’t beat each other senseless—à la William Golding’s characters in The Lord of the Flies—but lived harmoniously until their rescue a year later. Bregman also revisits the Stanford Prison Experiment (researchers muddled the study by ensuring that students chosen as guards would be cruel to those posing as prisoners) and the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese, in which 37 bystanders supposedly heard her cries for help but failed to intervene (Bregman offers evidence that several people actually did call the police, and that one of Kitty’s neighbors ran directly to her aid). He even attempts to fold the Holocaust into his theory, but his explanation that the Nazis “believed they were on the right side of history” fails to either hearten or persuade. Overall, however, this intelligent and reassuring chronicle disproves much received wisdom about the dark side of human nature. Readers looking for solace in uncertain times will find it here. (June)