top of page

"Are We Decent Deep Down?": David Livingstone Smith reviews Humankind by Rutger Bregman

Jewish Boy Surrenders in Warsaw (Unknown, 1943)

Homo sapiens are by nature a social species. Sociality – indeed, what biologists call ultrasociality – is built in to human nature. There is no other animal that is as relentlessly sociable as we are, and given this fact, any account of human history, psychology, and society that does not give ultrasociality a central place is at best incomplete and at worst deeply misleading.

This is the core insight that drives the argument in Rutger Bregman’s Humankind: A Hopeful History. As such, the book is part of a growing genre that includes Siep Stuurman’s The Invention of Humanity, Richard Wrangham’s The Goodness Paradox, Peter Turchin’s Ultrasociety, Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods’ Survival of the Friendliest, and Michael E, McCullough’s The Kindness of Strangers. All of these books explore the tension between human sociability and our propensity for violence, selfishness and cruelty, albeit in different ways and sometimes coming to strikingly different conclusions. Because human ultrasociality takes centre stage in my own work on dehumanization, I was excited about what new insights this volume might bring. I was also excited because I had previously heard the widely circulated speech that Bregman made to the bigwigs at Davos, and was delighted by his confrontation with far-right pundit Tucker Carlson on Fox television. I hate to say it, but once I began reading Humankind my enthusiasm rapidly waned. Uplifting though its message is, I found the book to be consistently marred by oversimplifications, assumptions presented as fact, conceptual unclarity, and unwarranted inferential leaps. Bregman begins by announcing that Humankind presents a “radical idea” that is “nothing less than a mind-bending drug that ensures you’ll never look at the world the same again” (p. 2). This radical idea is that “deep down, most people are pretty decent” (p. 4). The hype is off-putting enough, but only a few pages later he states, “To be clear: this book is not a sermon on the goodness of human nature…we’re complex creatures with a good side and a not-so-good side. The question is which side we turn to”. He continues: “My argument is simply this – that we, by nature, as children, on an uninhabited island, when war breaks out, when crisis hits – have a powerful preference for our good side” (p. 10). Perplexity sets in right away, as these are two different claims, and it’s not obvious how they should be squared with one another. On one reading, Bregman means to say that deep down we humans have a good side and a bad side, which is hardly a radical claim. But he equally might mean that the bad side of human nature is not what we are deep down. The question of “which side we turn to” is likewise ambiguous. Bregman might be asking which side we ought to turn to when giving explanations of human behaviour. But if that’s the case, the answer is obviously “both”. Or he might be asking which side we turn to in ourselves in the conduct of our lives. But if that’s the case then we are presented with a peculiar (and, I think, ultimately unintelligible) picture of human psychology in which an autonomous agent chooses which side of itself to form an alliance with. Reading further doesn’t help, as some passages of the book suggest the first interpretation and others suggest the second.

Saying that most people are decent is a descriptive claim. It purports to specify a fact. But it’s also a normative claim, because “decent” is a morally evaluative term.

To understand what Bregman has in mind when he says that human beings are decent deep down, we first need to consider the notion of decency. Saying that most people are decent is a descriptive claim. It purports to specify a fact. But it’s also a normative claim, because “decent” is a morally evaluative term. To make sense of it, our first task is to separate its descriptive from its normative components, and then interrogate each of them in turn. Decency is an essentially contested concept – that is, there is lots of room for disagreement about what is and what isn’t decent. In 1943 Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler told a group of SS officers in his famous Posen speech, “Most of you will know what it means when 100 bodies lie together, when 500 are there or when there are 1000. And…to have seen this through and – with the exception of human weakness – to have remained decent, has made us hard and is a page of glory never mentioned and never to be mentioned”. The “page of glory” to which Himmler referred – the one through which the SS murderers remained decent – was the extermination of Europe’s Jews. Himmler thought that they remained decent while selecting Jews for the gas chambers, beating and abusing them, starving them, and working them to death as slave labourers. That is, he thought that these acts were compatible with human decency. What are we to make of this? Sönke Neitzel and Harald Welzer observe:

Himmler’s speech is often seen as the height of cynicism and the incarnation of moral corruption. But it can be read more productively as evidence of the moral standards Himmler presumed his high-ranking SS officers would maintain and what compromised the ethical frame of reference of national socialism.

Himmler’s conception of decency (Anständigkeit) was – we can assume – rather different from that espoused by you and me and Rutger Bregman. I raise this point to show that it is unhelpful to use terms like “decent” and “good” when giving accounts of human nature. To say that most people are fundamentally decent sounds straightforward because of its generality, but complications arise when we get down to details. Bregman offers various examples of human decency. Sometimes, he seems to be saying that being decent is behaving cooperatively with others. Sometimes he sees it as being disinclined to inflict pain or harm. Sometimes he sees it as egalitarianism. And sometimes he understands decency as having pro-social motives. The problem is that all of these things can come apart from, and conflict with, one another.

Take the relationship between cooperativeness and inflicting harm. Can human beings behave cooperatively to inflict harm? Obviously, yes, they can and often do. This point is beautifully made in the first pages of Robert Bigelow’s book The Dawn Warriors, a pioneering study of the sources of mass violence. He wrote:

A hydrogen bomb is an example of mankind’s enormous capacity for friendly cooperation. Its construction requires an intricate network of human teams, all working with single-minded devotion to a common goal. Let us pause and savour the glow of self-congratulation we deserve for belonging to such an intelligent and sociable species.

Collective atrocities are cooperative endeavours. Auschwitz required a high level of cooperation, and when White Americans gathered in their thousands to watch Black men being tortured, mutilated, and burned alive in the spectacle lynchings of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century they were likewise engaged in highly cooperative projects.

To take another example, consider the situation of virtuous motives producing heinous acts – something that has been all too common in human history. This shows up quite clearly in Bregman’s discussion of German soldiers during the Third Reich. He notes, “In the second world war, the soldiers of the Wehrmacht fought first and foremost for each other. Most were motivated not by sadism or a thirst for blood, but by comradeship”. If this is correct, it shows that having good intentions is entirely compatible with some of the worst things that human beings have perpetrated upon one another. On Bregman’s account, comradeship is an aspect of the “good” side of human nature, even though it facilitated what the Germans themselves called a “war of extermination” against the Soviet Union that took the lives of twenty-seven million.

A further example of the relationship between pro-social motives and horrific actions is the fact that the Nazis’ development of gas chambers to exterminate the Jews of Europe was motivated in part by an attitude of caring concern. The mass shootings of Jews by German Einsatzgruppen were psychologically devastating for many of the killers, resulting in what they called Seelenbelastung (burdening of the soul). When Heinrich Himmler witnessed a mass execution at Minsk, he found it unbearable. According to SS General Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, Himmler “was extremely nervous. He couldn’t stand still. His face was white as cheese, his eyes went wild and with each burst of gunfire he always looked at the ground”. On this occasion, two women were forced to lay down on the ground to be shot in the back of the head, but the shooters were so shaken that even at close range they missed and injured them. Himmler panicked and screamed, “Don’t torture these women! Fire! Hurry up and kill them!” Bach-Zelewski then said to him, “Look at the men, how deeply shaken they are! Such men are finished for the rest of their lives!” It was the horror of this form of killing that led Himmler to explore what he referred to as “humane” methods of mass murder. Guided by the techniques that they had earlier developed for killing handicapped people, the Nazis developed other means for mass extermination, beginning with carbon monoxide vans and terminating with Zyklon B gas. Perhaps people like Himmler are exceptions to the rule. After all, Bregman’s claim is that most people are pretty decent deep down. Or perhaps Himmler’s decency was so deep down that it is difficult to discern. This brings us to the second component of the claim that most people are deep down pretty decent. What does it mean to say that a person is decent deep down?


The depth metaphor is beguiling. Saying that a characteristic is deep carries connotations of its being an innate feature of the human psyche that is somehow more fundamental, weightier, more real than other features of us that lie on the metaphorical surface. The depth metaphor nudges us to distinguish between appearance and reality, and it leads us to the view that how human beings appear need not correspond to what they truly are. Further, it suggests that what we are deep down is something we share with every other member of our species: a universal human nature.

The idea that all human beings share a deep nature that underlies the differences produced by learning and culture is known as “folk essentialism” or “psychological essentialism”. The term “essence” has a long and confusing pedigree, and has various meanings both in the philosophical literature and in the vernacular. In this context the term “essence” straightforwardly refers to the idea that things have a deep, unalterable nature that makes them the kinds of things that they are and that is causally responsible for their manifest attributes. This is close to John Locke’s notion of “real essence”, which he described as “the very being of anything, whereby it is what it is. And thus the real internal but generally… unknown constitution of things, whereon their discoverable qualities depend”. Put simply, to understand what kind of thing a thing is, we must look not to its observable properties but rather to something deep inside.

Psychologists and cognitive anthropologists argue that we have a powerful disposition to think about living things – including human beings – in an essentialist way.

Psychologists and cognitive anthropologists argue that we have a powerful disposition to think about living things – including human beings – in an essentialist way. In the past, the human essence was often imagined to reside in the depths of the human soul. In today’s secular societies, it is imagined to reside in the depths of the human genome. But genetic essentialism is every bit as false as soul essentialism. Science teaches us that living things do not have hidden essences. We therefore need to be very careful to prevent the essentialist bias from distorting our efforts to understand human psychology. Bregman’s thinking about human nature, however, is infected with the essentialist bias.

Bregman’s main target in Humankind is what he calls veneer theory, a term coined by primatologist Frans de Waal. Veneer theory is the view that human decency is, in the words of historian Timothy Garton Ash, quoted in Humankind, “the thin crust we lay across the seething magma of nature, including human nature” (p. 5). Veneer theory is an essentialist account of human nature that proposes that we are, deep down, immoral or amoral, and that it is only the repressive forces of civilization that keep our inherent nastiness in check. As much as he disagrees with veneer theory (as de Waal describes it), Bregman’s account is also a kind of veneer theory – albeit an inverted one. For Bregman, our apparent nastiness is a thin crust covering our deep down, essential goodness.

Once you realize that Bregman’s account is rooted in folk-essentialism, otherwise perplexing features of the book fall into place. One of these is his neglect of the causal role of culture as anything more than a constraint on human nature. Essentialism accords cultural influences, individual differences, and contingent circumstances relatively little weight because they pertain only to the “thin crust” covering human nature rather than human nature itself. This way of thinking is apparent in Bregman’s discussion of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, a fable about a group of English public-school boys who, stranded on an uninhabited island, revert to murder and savagery. He contrasts this fictional account with a real-life account of a group of Tongan boys who ran away from their Catholic boarding school, stole a boat, and ended up marooned on an uninhabited island for more than a year before being rescued. Unlike the English boys in Golding’s tale, the Tongan boys all pulled together to ensure their collective survival. Bregman writes:

“By the time we arrived”, Captain Warner wrote in his memoirs, “the boys had set up a small commune with food garden, hollowed-out tree trunks to store rainwater, a gymnasium with curious weights, a badminton court, chicken pens and a permanent fire, all from handiwork, an old knife blade and much determination” (p. 32)

Bregman concludes that the lesson of Lord of the Flies is misleading, and that when faced with a crisis of this sort, human beings rise to the challenge. But he ignores the fact that in Golding’s story the boys are English public-school choir boys whereas in the real example they are Tongan. And in Golding’s novel the boys are the only survivors of an airplane crash while being evacuated from a war zone, while the Tongan kids were already friends with one another and had undertaken a seafaring adventure of their own free will. Nobody knows how relevant these differences are (Lord of the Flies is, after all, a work of fiction), but it is striking that Bregman does not even consider them. Rather, he wants to say that the Tongan case says something about human beings generally, so he needs to assume that any group of youngsters, from any cultural background, under any circumstances, would behave as the Tongan boys did. This is unwarranted and, frankly, pretty implausible.

Another topic where Bregman wears his essentialism on his sleeve is in his discussion of humanity’s hunter-gatherer past. The idea that our prehistoric ancestors displayed pristine human nature because they had not yet had to shoulder the oppressive yoke of civilization is rife with essentialist assumptions. After briefly warning us not to romanticize prehistoric hunter-gatherers, Bregman tells us a great deal about our ancient ancestors’ way of life, and it all sounds pretty good. He tells us that:

Basically, our ancestors were allergic to inequality. Decisions were group affairs requiring long deliberation in which everyone got to have their say… Power distinctions between people were…temporary and served a purpose… For most of human history men and women were more or less equal. Contrary to our stereotype…our male ancestors were probably not machos. More like proto-feminists (pp. 95–97).

There are a couple of problems with these claims. One is that they are necessarily speculative, based on inferences from the few foraging societies that have managed to withstand the encroachment of the modern world. We don’t know and can’t know if the foraging societies that have been studied by anthropologists are representative of the way most people lived two hundred thousand years ago (imagine the result of reconstructing the lives of residents of the Thames Valley a mere ten thousand years ago on the basis of how Londoners live today). But Bregman is not tentative at all. He makes these claims as though they are close to certain. The other problem is that this way of talking about the prehistoric societies suggests that they were not only static but also very similar to one another. But what justification is there for claiming that hunter-gatherer societies have not changed over hundreds of thousands of years and that they were in all significant respects the same? Why assume that ancient nomadic foragers did not have a diverse array of cultures and lifestyles? Understanding the essentialist mindset helps us make sense of these assumptions. If prehistoric people embodied the human essence (because it had not yet been suppressed by the rules and regulations imposed by complex societies) then of course such societies would all be basically the same. Essences are metaphysical cookie cutters. And, on essentialist assumptions, they would not have changed until crushed by the burden of civilization. I do not have to labour how implausible and demeaning such assumptions are.

Just as some authors look to the infancy of our species to discern the essence of human nature, they also look to the infancy of the individual to understand human nature. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this was the basis of the scientific theory of recapitulationism – the idea that the development of the human embryo repeats the evolution of our species, and the development of the child recapitulates the evolution of human culture. Young children were “savages” and the constraints placed upon them through discipline, education, and socialization were thought to correspond to the emergence of civilized societies. The psychosocial development of individuals was supposed to be the development of humanity writ small.

Drawing on studies purporting to show that even babies have moral sensibilities, Bregman concludes that human beings possess an innate moral compass.

Recapitulation theory appeals to essentialist proclivities. The idea that studying infants reveals what is fundamental in human nature is predicated on the idea that young children have not yet been socialized. It’s not surprising, then, that Bregman looks to infant research to support his position. Drawing on studies purporting to show that even babies have moral sensibilities, Bregman concludes that human beings possess an innate moral compass.

The fly in the ointment, of course, is that we Homo sapiens have a lot of blood on our hands. This is an issue that Bregman returns to repeatedly, if briefly, throughout the book. At one point, about a third of the way through, he asks: “How do you explain Auschwitz? How do you explain the raids and the pogroms, the genocide and concentration camps?” (p. 137). He then answers his question with two other questions: “Could it be that civil society is not a protective veneer after all? That Rousseau was right and civilization an insidious rot?” These are purely rhetorical questions as Bregman clearly thinks that Rousseau was right, and that human nature served us well prior the invention of agriculture and the establishment of sedentary, hierarchically structured societies. At that point, he says, things went terribly wrong. We created a social world that we were not suited to. This “mismatch” between human nature and human society is the source of our social maladies.


I think that Bregman’s project is well-intentioned, and that it contains more than a grain of truth. But it is poorly executed. In my most recent book, On Inhumanity, I argue that we Homo sapiens are ultrasocial animals. Because we are ultrasocial we are disinclined to do violence to others. But we are also very clever animals that recognize the instrumental value of killing and exploiting others, and have developed cultural practices for short-circuiting our gut-level inhibitions against perpetrating such acts. Culture is decisive here. A large part of human nature is our capacity to use culture to engineer human nature itself, for good or for ill. We are to a great extent the architects of our own nature. Both our evolutionary legacy as ultrasocial primates and our ability to transcend the limits that this legacy imposes on us are aspects of what it is to be human, and both deserve consideration in an assessment of human nature.

A large part of human nature is our capacity to use culture to engineer human nature itself, for good or for ill. We are to a great extent the architects of our own nature.

Shorn of its essentialism, its blurring of the difference between normative and descriptive claims, its huge inferential leaps and unwarranted assertions, Bregman’s project might have made a useful contribution to moral psychology. But as it stands, sadly, the book does not succeed.

David Livingstone Smith is Professor of Philosophy at the University of New England in Biddeford, Maine. He has written or edited nine books, including On Inhumanity: Dehumanization and How to Resist It (2020) and Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave and Exterminate Others (2011), which won the 2012 Anisfield-Wolf award for nonfiction. His next book Making Monsters: The Uncanny Power of Dehumanization will by published by Harvard University Press later this year.

Twitter: davidlsmith_iam


From The Philosopher, vol. 109, no. 1 ('Nothing').

If you enjoyed reading this, please consider making a small donation.

We are unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.

1 Comment

Erik Buys
Erik Buys
Aug 10, 2023

Thank you for your insightful review. The thought of René Girard might also be helpful to resolve some of the ambiguity and lack of conceptual clarity in Bregman's discourse:

bottom of page