Preview Mode Links will not work in preview mode

Astral Codex Ten Podcast

May 29, 2021


[This is the twelfth of many finalists in the book review contest. It’s not by me - it’s by an ACX reader who will remain anonymous until after voting is done, to prevent their identity from influencing your decisions. I’ll be posting about two of these a week for several months. When you’ve read all of them, I’ll ask you to vote for your favorite, so remember which ones you liked. If you like reading these reviews, check out point 3 here for a way you can help move the contest forward by reading lots more of them - SA]

Human nature is usually said to be basically selfish and sinful, but Rutger Bregman begs to differ. In Humankind he argues that human nature is basically kind and decent. Unfortunately, his approach seems to have been inspired by Monty Python: in the introduction he builds a sparkling argument, then in section one he accidentally sets it on fire, knocks it over, and then watches it sink into the swamp. Then in section two he rebuilds it, only to douse it in petrol, and then leave the chip pan on in section three. By the end of this review we'll have unearthed some important truths. None of them will be "we can trust Bregman for logical consistency and factual accuracy".

Introduction - Good arguments that crises bring out the best in people
If at first you don't succeed, call in an airstrike.
Before the Blitz the consensus was that a little light bombing was all it took to make the wheels come off civilisation. This is based on veneer theory - our good behaviour is a thin veneer laid on our fundamentally selfish, violent nature, and that under pressure our true nature will out.

This turned out not to be true. So spectacularly untrue that we still talk about the Blitz Spirit. With our trademark humility, the British concluded that this was due to our exceptional moral fibre and, with help from the Americans, set about bombing German civilians to hell and back. Regrettably the Germans too responded by pulling together, and working harder in the war effort. Literally no one thinks this was due to their exceptional moral fibre. Instead, it seemed that crisis led to teamwork. Bregman is able to quote similar behaviour on the Titanic, on September 11th and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Despite this mountain of evidence, veneer theory is still overwhelmingly believed. In 1951 William Golding wrote Lord of the Flies - a book about how a group of British boys crash-landed on a Pacific island would really behave. They start with ideals of co-operation, but quickly descend to violence and anarchy. Weeks later when they're rescued half of them are dead. The book became a massive best seller, and a much-studied classic. For those who lived through World War I, World War II, and were now watching communism demonstrate that you didn't even need an enemy to slaughter tens of millions, you can see the appeal of a cynical view of human nature. However it is pure fiction. In 1966 Lord of the Flies happened for real - 6 teenagers went for a joy ride in a fishing boat, got swept out by a storm and washed up on an inhospitable island in the Pacific. When they were found 11 months later, they were all alive and healthy. They had survived by fortitude, resourcefulness and above all, teamwork.

If you think people are screwed up, you will screw up
You can do surveys asking people how they will behave in certain situations, and how they think people in general will behave, and the answers are very consistent: people say they will behave well, as will the people they know well, but they expect people in general to behave badly. When shown people behaving altruistically subjects assume they have ulterior motives. When shown data about how often humans are altruistic, they come up with increasingly elaborate theories about how the behaviour is cynical really. "Cynicism is a theory of everything" writes Bregman. We live in a world of people who pull together in a crisis, but we believe we live in a world where people turn nasty in a crisis. Bregman blames the media for this (but in case that wasn't original enough on the next page he will blame scientists and religion) - the news serves us up the sensational and appalling, and because it serves it up every day it's easy to mistake it for the representative. He goes on to share studies that find watching the news is addictive and bad for you (at least, that's my excuse next time I'm found ignorant of current affairs). 'Reality TV' turns out to involve massive manipulation to get the conte