I have always assumed that human evolution was brutal, a matter of the survival of the fittest, with only the meanest and strongest among us getting to reproduce. What do you know? According to Rutger Bregman in Humankind: a Hopeful History,* it’s not that way at all. Instead of evolving to be ferocious, we have evolved to be loveable. Here is a useful outline of Bregman’s theory that we have evolved as Homo Puppy.
- “Our brains are smaller than those of some of our predecessors, our teeth and jaws are more childlike and partly because of that we have become great in cooperating: we have become hypersocial learning machines,
- We are born to learn, connect and play and that makes us strong as a species.
- The Homo Puppy has an antenna that is continuously tuned to others. We are good in connecting to other people and we enjoy doing it, consciously as well as subconsciously; emotions are leaking out of our bodies all the time, waiting to be picked up by the other puppies.
- Our minds need contact in the same way as our bodies need food.”
Bregman prefers Rousseau’s theory that we were better off in “a state of nature” to Hobbes’ and Machiavelli’s belief in an existential human nastiness that is only kept in check by a thin veneer of “civilization.” He is skeptical “of the notion that human beings are inherently selfish, or worse, a plague upon the earth. I’m skeptical when this notion is peddled as ‘realistic,’ and I’m skeptical that there’s no way out.”
He demonstrates the “way out” in historical examples when, instead of acting at our very worst in times of great danger, we act out of community-mindedness, kindness, and mutual cooperation. Agreeing with Gustave Le Bon’s theory in The Psychology of the Masses that civilized behavior crumbles in the face of catastrophe, Hitler thought he bombing the hell out of their cities would easily undermine British morale.
However, the cooperative behavior of Londoners, accomplished in a mood of mutuality, courage and care for each other in the face of horrific danger, proved the opposite. Nevertheless, both Churchill and Eisenhower bought Le Bon’s argument, though their carpet-bombing of German cities produced the same result of deepening community ties, morale, and solidarity. (And, then, consider Putin’s “ten-days-and-it’s-over” presumptions about Ukraine).
William Golding, in his 1954 Lord of the Flies, adheres to belief in our propensity to social evil, a personal bias that Bregman refutes in telling what actually happened when six boarding-school boys survived on an island for a year in 1966: they cared for each other, invented fair rules for dividing up chores, and came up with reasonable punishments for misconduct while devising cooperative methods for hunting, fishing, and gathering fresh water.
Humankind is structured on a series of similar examples that demonstrate how our puppy-like geniality (manifest in the evolution of our appealingly rounded eyes, our ability to make eye contact with each other, and the distinctly human tendency to blush with shame) result in a complex social wiring enhanced through our development of language and our delight in learning things from each other.
Bergman hypothesizes that their (puppyish) eagerness to trade with and even leave their bands to join others, enhanced by their curiosity and copycat propensities, are the reasons why our hunting and gathering ancestors prevailed. Although Neanderthals had much bigger brains than ours, our social/linguistic skills and propensity for learning from each other may have been the key to how we lived through the onset of harsher climate conditions.
The problem with civilization is that it brought ownership, then rivalry over what was owned, and then misery for those who owned less or were cut out of owning anything. Bregman finds operating on a hierarchical power/over rather than the community power/with basis tragically corruptive: People in power “literally act like someone with brain damage. Not only are they more impulsive, self-centered, reckless, arrogant and rude than average,” they cheat and are shameless and loose the capacity to blush. . .Power works like an anaesthetic that makes you insensate to other people” and see them “in a negative light.”
When sociopathic autocrats call the shots, puppy-like communities can morph into ferocious packs. By the time a regime’s propaganda machines have done their work on us, along with threats of torture and execution at the least appearance of dissent, it is no wonder that we do what we are told. Bregman, however, sees the “just following orders” argument, as used at the Eichmann trials, as a short-sighted iteration of the veneer theory; he posits something more (tragically) puppy-like as the motivation which made high level Nazi officials devise, and then carry out, the precise, viciously evil workings of the Holocaust.
Bregman suggests that, though his psychopathic antisemitism was searingly evident, Hitler’s orders were actually so vague that officers like Eichmann chose to act within “a culture of one-upmanship in which increasingly radical Nazis devised increasingly radical measures to get in Hitler’s good graces.” In other words, years and years of the propaganda machine had brainwashed the German military into thinking that killing Jews was an act of personal virtue. Bregman argues that Hannah Arendt’s understanding of “just obeying orders” has been misinterpreted: she “was one of those rare philosophers who believe that most people, deep down, are decent. She argued that our need for love and friendship is more human than any inclination towards hate or violence. And when we do choose the path of evil, we feel compelled to hide behind lies and cliches that give us a semblance of virtue. Eichmann was a prime example: he’d convinced himself he’d done a good deed, something historic for which he’d be admired by future generations.” In other words, he was so eager to wag his tail for Hitler that he did profoundly evil things in order to please him. Clearly, homo-puppyness does not always lead to a good outcome: it can embroil us into a “negative spiral [that] can also factor into deeper societal evils like racism, gang rape, honor killings, support for terrorists and dictatorial regimes, even genocide.” And so, our evolution as tail-waggers has its dark side if we copycat ourselves into conformity with systems of injustice.
During the years of the Weimer Republic, Hitler had replaced the Rule of Law with a despotic antisemitism and diktats against dissent. As a remedy, the nations that won World War II used the Nuremberg trials to establish international standards to prohibit crimes against humanity, including “murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population.”
Shamefully, both the United States and the USSR left their ongoing crimes against humanity out of the new international formula: “The final version of the charter limited the tribunal’s jurisdiction over crimes against humanity to those committed as part of a war of aggression.” Both the United States—concerned that its “Jim Crow” system of racial segregation not be labeled a crime against humanity, and the Soviet Union, wanted to avoid giving an international court jurisdiction over a government’s treatment of its own citizens.”
The problem for Homo Sapiens today is that, if such self-interested, piecemeal compliance prevents out adhering to environmental covenants like the Paris Agreement, we may not be able to save the human race from global warming. In order to prevail, we will have to undertake an unnaturally swift evolutionary leap to a global homo-puppyhood that accepts the whole planet as our commons. Is this too much to hope? Or will our devotion to charismatic dictators and their propaganda appeals to a narrow and destructive self-interest lead to a far more tragic outcome?
Here’s Rutger Bregman’s take: “There is no reason to be fatalistic about civil society. We can choose to organize our cities and states in new ways that will benefit everyone. The curse of civilization can be lifted. Will we manage to do so? Can we survive and thrive in the long run? Nobody knows.”
*Rutger Bregman, Humankind: A Hopeful History. Little Brown & Co: NY 2019