Rutger Bregman is hopeful for humankind
Rutger Bregman’s Humankind was my favourite book of 2020 and it comes out in paperback next month. A brilliant read (that also works wonderfully as an audiobook) it will appeal to fans of Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens or anyone who wants a provocative, thoughtful summer read.
To mark the paperback release I spoke to him about universal basic income, the way that we’ve worked in lockdown, and why we turn our backs to lots of evidence that humans are innately kind, decent beings.
Rutger’s brilliant book Humankind is out in paperback in May 2021.
Rutger mentions he’s written recently about the end of neoliberalism – you can read that here.
Bruce [00:00:00] Lovely meet you, you’ve had these two books come out in English, have you written more books in Dutch?
Rutger [00:00:06] Yes, but I’m glad they’ve not been translated.
Bruce [00:00:08] Amazing. Amazing. Your first album is hidden from English language. Exactly.
Rutger [00:00:13] Exactly.
Bruce [00:00:15] Wonderful. The first thing, the first impression that anyone gets, I guess reading your stuff is you must be this extraordinarily optimistic person. You just you just radiate a lot of benign positivity. Would you describe yourself as that or is it are you just realistic?
Rutger [00:00:34] Well, I always prefer the word hope instead of optimism, because it seems to me that optimism can come across as a form of complacency, where you say, don’t worry, things will turn out to be all right. You know, everything’s going to be fine. Look at the you know, the big developments of the last 30, 40 years. Extreme poverty has been declining. Child mortality has been going down. So, you know, just just enjoy the ride, things will be OK and. I think that hope is different. Hope is about the possibility of change. It emphasizes that there’s nothing inevitable about the way we’ve structured our society and economy right now, and it can all change. And so to me, the study of history and hope are very much connected because obviously history can make you quite depressed, but it can also show you, you know, again, that things can be different. And they used to be much worse, but that if people come together and they build a movement that sometimes ideas that are first dismissed as completely unrealistic and impossible can move into the mainstream. And yeah, that’s basically how progress happens. So, yeah, long answer short. I prefer hope over optimism.
Bruce [00:01:51] Now you reflected a lot in in your work on jobs and in employment and and how we would best calibrate these things. And you know, you reflected on the fact that by now John Maynard Keynes presumed that we’d be working 15 hours a week and leisure was going to be our biggest problem with all that in context. How have you reflected on the last 12 months? What have you seen about the way that we’ve adapted to this strange situation and the way that work has responded to that?
Rutger [00:02:21] Hmm, that’s a great question. And there’s a lot to say about it. So obviously and the first few weeks, a lot of people asked me, Rutger, do you still believe that most people deep down are pretty decent? Have you watched the news lately? Have you seen people hoarding toilet paper and all that kind of stuff? And yes, I must admit, the hoarding toilet paper is not a very good thing. But then on the other hand, I think that, you know, the headline of, say, the last one and a half year has been this massive co-operation. Millions or billions of people from around the globe have been willing to radically adjust their lifestyle to stop the virus from spreading further. And what crises tend to do is they tend to remind us of some very basic truths. So, for example, at some point, governments from around the globe started to publish these lists of the so-called essential workers. Now, obviously, you know, deep down, we’ve always known what the essential jobs are. You know, the nurses and teachers and the caregivers, if they go on strike, we’re in trouble. Obviously, while if the consultants go on strike or the bankers go on strike, it’s often, you know, not really a problem or it might actually be good news for us. You know, if the telemarketers go on strike, I think that would be that’d be wonderful. So I guess we’ve always sort of known this, but a crisis really reminds you of a very basic truth like that. And I think this could have long term repercussions. I think we can already see something of a political shift. One essay I’ve recently written argues that indeed what we see right now is the end of an ideological era, the end of neoliberalism. For 40 years, we’ve been basically ruled by this ideology that the government needs to get out of the way. And, you know, basically companies need as much freedom to innovate and to spread the wealth, etc. And I think that era is really ending and that now a new sort of status quo is arising. One very telling moment was at the beginning of the pandemic April last year when the Financial Times, which is not exactly a left wing newspaper, they published an editorial in which they said that we need to, quote, reverse the policy direction of the last 40 years and think about things like a universal basic income, you know, for everyone to completely eradicate poverty, a much more ambitious and activist role for the state in combating great challenges like a pandemic or climate change. And finally, higher taxes on the rich, which is also, you know, we always love to talk about. Exactly. So it’s not these ideas that are so original and new. It’s the fact that the Financial Times was now saying it. I mean, this is the newspaper that’s read by elites from around the globe. Right. So it seems to me that there are signs out there that something fundamentally is changing.
Bruce [00:05:24] And you said that you went along the way there in both your books. You talk about this idea that people are at their very heart, I guess, kind individuals. They’re motivated by good things. Do you think we get distracted then by small numbers of things that get an inordinate amount of attention? The things that I immediately think of right now is if you’re asked to reflect on whether humans are good or bad, you often think right now of all these clips of American police officers doing things, there seems to be they seem to permeate my social media timeline all the time or you see research and these big iconic research. It says, oh, you need to be reminded that humans are not good people, and is it because our attention is distracted by these these very emotive and and huge news stories, but they’re not representative. What’s your what’s your assertion on that?
Rutger [00:06:26] Well, the idea that humans are fundamentally selfish is one of the oldest ideas in Western culture. It goes back at least two thousand years all the way back to the the ancient Greeks or the early Christian church fathers. You know, Saint Augustine arguing that deep down we’re all just sinners. Some scientists describe this as Veneer theory, the notion that our civilization is only a thin veneer and that below that lies raw human nature, that deep down people are just nasty and selfish or even monsters. Now, the question is obviously why? Why do we believe this? And, you know, I think you can write libraries full of books about that question, but in a way, it’s a little bit in human nature itself. Psychologists talk about the negativity bias is that the negative just has a bigger impact. It makes a bigger impression on us than the positive. So maybe you you experienced this as a maker of podcasts, is that if someone complains about your podcast, you need at least 10 or maybe 100 nice, warm compliments to to compensate. Right. At least that’s my experience as a writer.
Bruce [00:07:40] Yes.
Rutger [00:07:40] The negative makes a much bigger impression on us. Same is true when we think about violence, for example, or many other, you know, nasty and terrible things that that that happen. There’s probably some evolutionary reason for that. You know, if you are a nomadic hunter gatherer in the jungle or in the savanna, then it’s better to be afraid once too often of a spider or a snake instead of the opposite. Right. Because, yeah, it’s better to be a little bit too afraid to die. But now that that that mechanism or this thing in our psychology that used to, you know, have value and made sense and helped us to survive is now completely backfiring because we’re being bombarded every single day with horrible stuff from around the globe. It seems to be the case that many journalists wake up in the morning with the question, OK, so what is the most horrible thing that has happened today? Let’s tell everyone about it. And so we’ve invented this thing called the news, which is the main source of information about other people that about 90 percent of people in the civilized world consume. And it’s really, really bad for us. They tell us that following the news is, I don’t know. the duty of a good citizen or something like that. But in reality, what it causes is what psychologists call Mean World Syndrome, where you get the feeling that the world is just a nasty, mean place. And so there’s there’s an abundance of evidence that news consumption is associated with the worst mental health and cynicism. If you watch a lot of the news and you think, you know, what’s the point of view of activism or hope or trying to change the world?
Bruce [00:09:34] And a note you’ve opted out of consuming news, but you say that you don’t consume anywhere near as much as you used to. But what would be the alternative there? Because if we’re simultaneously presented with, you know, a climate emergency, if we’re simultaneously presented with malfeasance by the police, then actually people who draw attention to these injustices in the UK at the moment, we’re fixated with with government giving contracts to friends and sort of government corruption. That’s that’s playing a part. Now, it would really suit those people to not have news coverage. It strongly benefits to people who were sort of pursuing their self-interest at all expense. What would you say is the alternative then, if we do downgrade the amount of news we consume?
Rutger [00:10:22] And what we have to do here is make a distinction between the news and journalism. I think that journalism is incredibly important. So if we talk about duties that you have as a citizen, obviously subscribing to a high quality newspaper that does a lot of investigative journalism is, you know, very, very important. I think that good journalism focuses on the structural forces that govern our lives. So endemic corruption, for example, global warming, extinction of species, these are all incredibly important because they happen every day instead of just something that happens today. The news, though, is mostly, you know, the sensationalist reporting on incidents, and they they don’t sort of put it in a broader context. So, yeah, that’s why I think it’s important to make this distinction. Sometimes if you do good journalism work, sometimes it will make you hopeful about the future. Right. I already mentioned this wonderful decline in global poverty that most people don’t know about or the decline of child mortality that also most people don’t know about. Sometimes these structural forces are quite, you know, terrifying, such as global warming. So, yeah, if we think about a newspaper, I think it’s often interesting that people don’t want to read yesterday’s newspaper. Right. And then my question is, how worthless must the information be in the newspaper if you don’t want to read the newspaper from yesterday. But then if we think about Saturday’s or Sunday’s newspaper, people, you know, still want to read it a month later or sometimes even a year later, it can be, you know, quite good. So I always recommend people to start, you know, to read Saturday’s newspaper or to start at the back of the newspaper. That’s often, you know, where the better information is. Just ask yourself the question, do I still want to read this tomorrow, a week from now, a year from now? And if not, then probably the information you’re consuming is pretty worthless.
Bruce [00:12:24] Tell me tell me this. I was I was really interested whether the argument you make is that human beings are innately good. And actually, you know, we’re often distracted to the extent to this, but there’s really strong evidence that we are we’ve all got a good motivation inside of us and sometimes systematically we’re distracted from it or were given artificial incentives. I was really struck with the the importance of certain big individuals that might be disruptors to that, because, you know, there’s a feeling since there’s been a change of presidents in the US and it might be one of the two factors you’ve talked about here. It might be the fact that actually this guy wasn’t as big a daily threat, but the news was presenting it in such a way that I couldn’t help but see Donald Trump as this monstrous spectre that was sort of domineering us and possibly the second is that actually since Donald Trump has gone, the the cycle of news just seems to be less toxic. And he seems to be one singular individual, seems to have have had an inordinate effect on the toxicity of dialog. And I just wonder, is it either of those or none of those? The single individuals do seem to sometimes disrupt this march towards us, actually realizing the fact that we’re all benign individuals working together.
Rutger [00:13:54] Well, from the perspective of evolutionary psychology, Donald Trump is a very, very weird, strange phenomenon. I mean, why or how did he become the most powerful man in the world? Basically, how does that happen? Because for the biggest part of our history, we humans, we live in quite egalitarian societies as nomadic hunter gatherers. And these societies were basically ruled by shame. Shame was very important. It’s no coincidence that we’re the only species in the whole animal kingdom with the ability to blush. You know, we involuntarily give away our feelings to other members of our species in order to establish trust. And so there are some biologists who talk about survival of the friendless, which means that indeed for millennia it was actually the friendliest among us who had the most kids and so had the biggest chance of passing on their genes to the next generation. If you were like Donald Trump in prehistory, you know, a bit of a narcissist, you could say or quite arrogant, at least you wouldn’t have survived for a long time. People didn’t like, you know, narcissist leaders or pretenders, kicked them out of the group. And if you were alone, you would die basically, you know, if you were expelled or kicked out of the group, that was basically a death sentence because you couldn’t survive on your own. You really needed your friends. Your friends were your insurance. And then the question is obviously. How how did we end up in a world where it’s not survival of the friendliest anymore, but survival of the shameless, because somehow it seems to have become an advantage, at least in some political systems, not everywhere. I mean, you can see it in India, you can see it in Brazil. You can see it in the US where, you know, this narcissism or shamelessness can actually be a political advantage. It enables you to do things that other people just, you know, couldn’t do, like physically can’t do because they just be too ashamed of themselves. But somehow that has become an advantage in those systems. As I said, not everywhere. So I think in Sweden or in Denmark, the phenomenon of a political leader like Trump, you know, really becoming the prime minister is is quite unimaginable because still there you have a much more egalitarian culture where people really dislike narcissism and there’s a high price that you pay if you become too much of a narcissist, which is, I think, a quite healthy thing in a in a good society. But somehow in these these places that we that we call democracies but are actually more, you know, like elective aristocracies. Right. We sort of we allowed to choose our own aristocrats there. It can become an advantage to be to be someone like like Donald Trump or those people tend to rise to the top, which is really, I think, an indictment of the system we have built and should really cause some major soul searching. Right. How is it possible that that, you know, the people who we can’t imagine them blushing anymore, which is one of the quintessential, things that we humans do, we can blush, although animals don’t do it? Well, there’s some evidence for some parrots who do it, but I think the evidence is not convincing. Yeah, how does that happen? I think that’s that’s one of the main questions. Now, obviously, Joe Biden is a very different kind of person who makes a lot less noise, but meanwhile is doing incredibly ambitious policy. So it seems sort of the situation has reversed itself. No more no more Twitter fights, but a huge amount of ambitious policy, whereas under Trump it was a lot of noise, while not much happened apart from, you know, tax breaks for the rich.
Bruce [00:17:51] When you set about trying to prove this hypothesis. When you set about writing Humankind, where did you start? What was the what was the single motivating thought that got you going? Because it takes you on an extensive journey. But I was just interested in what set you off on it.
Rutger [00:18:07] Well, it actually started with my previous book, Utopia For Realists. One of the main ideas in Utopia for Realists was the idea of eradicating poverty by giving everyone a basic income, a guaranteed basic income. It’s a very simple idea. You just give people a monthly grant that is enough to pay for your basic needs food, shelter, education. And in that way, yeah, people have the freedom to decide for themselves what they want to do in their lives. When I first wrote about it in 2013, it was pretty much forgotten idea. It’s actually a really old idea that goes back 200 years, but back then almost no one was talking about it. Now it’s really interesting. It has really moved into the mainstream. So politicians and policymakers from around the globe are thinking about it. And in a way, the world is moving in the direction of basic income. So if you look at what Joe Biden is doing in the US, the American rescue plan is much more basic income ish than anything we’ve we’ve seen before. So, for example, there is a basic income for children in there. But what I experienced while, you know, talking about this book to readers is that they found the concept interesting. You know, Utopia For Realists was full of scientific evidence, experiments that have happened around the globe in the past 40 years. But many of them said, look, this is really interesting. And that story of, you know, giving money to homeless men in London, I love it. Or that story of the experiment in Canada in 1970s. Fascinating. But you know what? If you scale this up, it’s probably not going to work anymore because human nature, you know, people deep down are just selfish. And if you give a free ride to people, they’re just going to basically do nothing. They’re going to watch Netflix all day. They’re they’re going to consume a lot of drugs or something like that, because that is what human nature is, is like. At that point, I started to realize that I needed to dig a bit deeper and to sort of examine this view of human nature that has become so influential in Western culture that comes back again and again. And what I discovered is that both people on the left and on the right, both religious people and atheists, you know, young and old. Pretty much all of us had bought into this view that people deep down in the end are just selfish. And I started to realize that this was holding us back because many of the most exciting and most promising ideas, whether it’s universal basic income or, you know, a participatory, genuine democracy that really distributes power, all of these sort of exciting new ideas that I deeply cared about assumed a more hopeful view of human nature. But then I realized they didn’t have that view of human nature myself. So that’s when I started this journey.
Bruce [00:21:06] And it’s really interesting. The thing you relate, you relate so much of the research that reaches us. Let’s work on the basis that 0.01 percent of psychology that is done ever reaches a popular mainstream audience. But there’s some iconic bits of psychology along the way. Stanley Milgrim’s electric shock treatment, for example. Or quite a few of us have heard about the Stanford prison experiment. And so we hear these iconic episodes of psychology that seem to be in service of us believing that either it’s human nature to follow orders to kill someone or that civilization, a group of civilization trends towards tyranny over time. And these are things that have been major newspaper headlines have never really been any sort of subsequent re-evaluation of them. In fact, the Stanford prison experiment, even the guy who did it, and Zimbardo, he was pretty insistent that no one should ever repeat these experiments again, his argument for that was that because it was of such deeply conflicted, moralistic quality to subject people to this. But as a consequence, we’ve had all of these lessons passed down to us that say humans are bad and it’s unarguable. And I guess alongside that, there’s been a lot of that, as you said, the neo liberal environment in the US, which is as has strongly supported the idea as the individual is selfish and that selfishness is helpful. And in aggregate, it’s sort of this unarguable idea that humans are selfish and that’s good. Is that right?
Rutger [00:22:56] [00:22:56]Oh, absolutely. You know, at the end of the Second World War, people were obviously wondering how could we have been so horrible to each other? You know, how do we explain the concentration camps, the ethnic cleansing, how do we explain Auschwitz? And so in the 50s, in the 60s, there was a new generation of scientists and basically a new discipline, discipline at that time, social psychology, who came up with an answer. But it was basically a new version of an old idea. So, again, it was Veneer theory. How do we explain the atrocities of the Second World War? Well, because human nature, this is just what people are. If you strip away civilization, then we go back to our deeper, more base instincts and reveal who we really are. And one of the two most famous experiments that seem to show this indeed was the Stanley Milgram experiment with the shock machine in which, you know, normal, healthy people who just, you know, normal civilized lives were willing to give electric shocks, potentially lethal electric shocks of up to 450 volts to someone else who was in reality just, you know, an accomplice of the researcher, Stanley Milgram in this case. But they didn’t know that. And this experiment became incredibly famous just as the Stanford prison experiment became really, really famous. This was an experiment with students at the University of Stanford and Philip Zimbardo, who a really young guy trying to make his mark had this idea of creating a fake prison. And his story was that he yeah, he had basically recruited these students who, you know, were really nice and warm and friendly. They were pacifist hippies, basically, but he put them in a prison and and and divided them into guards and prisoners. And very quickly, the guards started to show horrible, sadistic behavior. So, again, the message here was that if we give people the freedom to do what they want, they will show that they’re really, really horrible deep down. Now, I’ll be honest, you know, these experiments had a big impact on me. I wrote about them in previous books, books that I’m glad I have not been translated. And, you know, especially when I was a student, I thought, well, this is basically it, you know, this explains so much of all the atrocities in history. It was much, much later that I did some deeper research and actually discovered that both of these experiments are basically hoaxes. You know, the real message of the Stanford prison experiment, for example, is, well, it’s pretty much the opposite. We now know that these students were specifically instructed by Philip Zimbardo to behave as nasty and sadistic as possible. Many of them said that they didn’t want to do it. You know, they said, you know, that’s not who I am. It’s not what I want to do here. If it were up to me, we just have a good time, make some music and play cards or something like that. But then Zimbardo said and one of his assistants, research assistant, said, well, you got to do this because we need these results. You know, we need to show that prisons are horrible environments because if we have that result, then we can publish it and we can go to the press and say, look, we need to reform the whole prison system in the United States. We got to abolish prisons because they’re toxic environments. Then some of the students went along, you know, around a third of them went along because they thought, you know what, let’s give the researcher what he really wants, what he really needs. I don’t know. And that’s that’s that’s how it happened. That’s how Philip Zimbardo became one of the most famous psychologists still alive today. Now, he’s really a legend. He he speaks for audiences of thousands and thousands of people. Stanford Prison Experiment has ended up in all the textbooks of psychology students because there’s something incredibly seductive about it. It seems to give us some this is very simple explanation for why really horrible things can happen. The thing is, though, is that it’s utterly, utterly wrong. The experiment itself is, in my mind, it’s a form of scientific fraud. Maybe, maybe Zimbardo has come to believe the lie at some point. But, you know, the main book that has been published about this, sadly, only in French by a French sociologist called Thibault Le Texier, the title of that book is The History of a Lie. And I think that pretty much sums it up. [292.4s]
Bruce [00:27:49] It’s really interesting because you do mention the BBC prison experiment. And and I’ve been to Alex Haslam, who’s done that experiment, and actually he’s and he allowed that to run. And you mentioned that in contrast to Zimbardo’s experiment, it makes for less fireworks. But these are really interesting lessons that he draws from it, that actually human beings have got this desire to form groups of affinity with shared identity. And actually, in his experiment, the prisoners who had this pride in their identity that they created, they were significantly less stressed. They described themselves as in a state of happiness. We actually really enjoy forming bonds with other human beings. And it and like you say, the grand lie of those experiments is has been a huge distraction from us discovering that truth.
Rutger [00:28:41] [00:28:41]Yeah. The present experiment is it’s really funny. You know, this was in, what is it, two thousand and two. It’s the beginning of reality television. So basically television producers from around the globe were wondering, you know, what’s going to be the next big thing? And it seemed like a great idea. Let’s do another prison experiment. We know what happened in the early 70s with this Zimbardo experiment that became so hugely famous. Let’s do it again, you know, but then prime time, you know, with a lot of cameras around, this is going to be great. And so there was a huge amount of controversy before the filming started. You know, newspapers like The Guardian and The Times, they wrote all kinds of published all kinds of Op Ed which said, you know, you can’t really do this. And this is an ethical and blah, blah, blah. But so then then they started and it basically was a total disaster for the producers for for my book, you know, for the research, for my book. I’ve had to watch all the episodes, you know, I think four episodes and I’ll never get that time back. You know, it’s it’s one of the most boring things I’ve ever seen. It’s really, really boring. It’s already in the first episode that, you know, one of the prisoners or one of the guards says, you know, can’t we just be friends? And at the end of at the end of it, they’re all sitting together in the cantina drinking tea and playing cards. So that’s the horrible truth of of this prison experiment, is that if you just put people in a fake prison and you let them govern their own affairs, you know, they’re starting some pacifist commune. That’s what they do. It’s a very dark truth about human nature. [98.5s]
Bruce [00:30:20] Yeah. And like you say, you know, I click bait, sensitive minds. We’re looking for the pop of revelation or this pop of conflict. And when it’s not there, like you say, our instinct is, well, this mundanity is boring. You know, give us give give us some fireworks.
Rutger [00:30:39] Yeah. Yeah. That’s often the problem with with television. Right. So in the 90s, there was also an interesting show on British television called The People’s Parliament in which they experimented with participatory democracy. Can’t we just bring together citizens, you know, from the left to the right, young, old, rich, poor, and let them discuss really controversial issues, you know, whether it’s gay marriage or drug laws or taxation or whatever. Let’s see what happens. It turns out that it worked really, really well. Even The Economist at that time wrote, you know, maybe it’s better to just, you know, let these citizens discuss our political issues instead of those people in parliament, because the quality of the discussion is much, much higher. But then after just one season channel, I think Channel seven, Channel six, what is it anyway? They pulled the plug on the whole program. Because it was boring, right? That’s the problem with human decency. It’s really boring. It’s just people having a reasonable discussion and coming up with reasonable compromises. I mean, there are a few things as boring as that. All right.
Bruce [00:31:54] Now, the interesting thing that you account for, which is the logical extension of this, is that in a globe that’s constantly beset or has historically been beset with conflict, we might see some playing out at of this and you give some really eye opening stats about how few guns and how few bullets were actually fired when we’ve been able to measure it in war. And I guess one of the interesting things, firstly, you know, I’d love you to describe precisely what you heard there, but I guess one of the things that immediately makes you think is that as we’re going to move to an era where Microsoft are doing work for the the US military, as we’re going to move to an era where war no longer has the human component to it, might we be falsely optimistic to believe that the this is going to be an era of without bloodiness or actually by removing the flaw in the hardware, which was the human component, aren’t we going to end up with the world being worse rather than rather than better?
Rutger [00:33:02] So if you if you’ve watched a lot of Hollywood movies or great series like Game of Thrones, for example, you’ll probably get the impression that humans are pretty violent and that also we find it quite easy to be violent, that we are sort of killer apes. Right. That it is in our nature to to basically be violent, to shoot to kill when we are in the circumstances where that is necessary. The lessons from psychology is pretty much the opposite. So we have got a lot of evidence from from historical wars that if you draft soldiers and you send them to the front, that most of them just can’t do it. They just can’t shoot to kill, the first person to discover this was an American historian and someone also high up in the American military called SLA Marshall. And he discovered while touring both the Pacific Front and, you know, the the fighting in Europe, in Europe, that in his estimate, only around 15 to 25 percent of American soldiers were actually shooting at the enemy. So the vast majority of soldiers when the moment was there and they had to pull the trigger, they couldn’t do it. They, you know, came up with some excuse, you know, suddenly remembered an urgent appointment elsewhere or shot a shot in the air, you know, over the enemy. And this is actually a phenomenon that has been documented many, many times in history. So, for example, after the Battle of Gettysburg, there were a huge amount of muskets found and thousands and thousands of these muskets were loaded twice, which is a very strange thing. These soldiers were very well trained. They knew you don’t put two bullets in the musket. But then there were even muskets, you know, with three bullets in them or ten. And there was one case with more than 20 bullets in there. And so for a long time, historians couldn’t really understand this. Were they all drunk or what were these idiots doing? Right. You don’t put two bullets and it doesn’t work anymore. What was going on? And at some point they realized, hey, wait a minute. But this was probably a way of of trying to avoid the moment that you actually have to shoot at the enemy, because back then it took a lot of time to actually load the gun. Right. That was like 95 percent of all of the work as a as a soldier back then was loading the gun, took a lot of time. So so what do you do? You just load it again and you load it again and you load it again. And that way you can sort of get away with not shooting at the enemy without your superiors actually noticing that, which is again, something they never taught me in school. And it’s pretty much the opposite of what they’ve they’ve told us for such a long time. And what you see in the movies, you know, they’ll get me wrong. [00:36:08]I’ve enjoyed watching Game of Thrones as well, but it’s pretty much the opposite of real human psychology. Most normal, healthy human beings find it incredibly hard to be to be violent. We just can’t do it. And I mean, if you think about it, you don’t need to to understand it. Right? We humans, we enjoy sex. And there’s a quite straightforward reason for that evolutionary reason. You know, if we don’t do that, then we go extinct. We enjoy food, and again, there’s a straightforward reason if we don’t eat food, then we basically die again, but then if we are violent, in the case of soldiers, for example, who went to Vietnam and then killed enemy combatants there and then came back, they’re very often traumatized. You know, they develop PTSD, which is very strange. Right? If we’re really killer apes, then why do we become traumatized by killing someone else? I think the reality is that we’ve not evolved to be killer apes and not evolved to be violent. Instead, the opposite of true, there is a strong inhibition in us? There’s something that really holds us back in this respect, which doesn’t mean that we can’t be incredibly violent. Right. Because there are ways to overcome to overcome this. Right. Where distance is is especially important, you know, modern technologies. If the distance between people increases, for example, we know that during the First World War, around 80 percent of casualties was caused by artillery because obviously it’s much easier, psychologically easier to push a button and kill hundreds of people far away and assume that the people who dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, you know, they they didn’t have big psychological issues with that. Well, if you would have to shelve a bayonet through someone, well, most people can’t do it. And most bayonet throughout history have never been used. I mean, just to think about that, if you go to some military museum and you see a bayonet you can you can be pretty sure that’s been never been used because most people just can’t do it. Maybe if you brainwash them and if you condition them and indeed modern armies have become much better at that. But, you know, for most soldiers who were just drafted, you know, who were just average, normal, healthy young man, most of them just couldn’t do it. [144.9s]
Bruce [00:38:34] It’s such a challenge to what we’re led to believe. And I guess what you’re saying, though, is you’re saying, you know, in the way that those are their evolutionary instincts are in place. This evolutionary instincts to be kind and welcoming and social with other people is by its very nature. That was that was the reason why we we evolved to to be here today. Then it just seems so strange that modern media and the political establishment have so intently tried to demonstrate to us and try to convince us that this isn’t the case, that we shouldn’t trust our fellow man, that we shouldn’t have a social safety net that has got any degree of generosity in it because because people will be lazy. And and actually, this distrust of our fellow man seems incredibly toxic when when all of the evidence is laid out. And based on that, it’s just extraordinary that that toxicity has persisted.
Rutger [00:39:34] [00:39:34]This is obviously the question that you have to come back to again and again. You know, if the evidence is really so clear that we humans have evolved to be decent and if over evolutionary psychologists, you know, we’ve got an abundance of evidence that there was this phenomenon of survival of the friendliest and that it may even be the case that this friendliness is our secret superpower. You know, what distinguishes from other animals in the animal kingdom and the reason why we conquered the globe, because we can just cooperate on a scale that no other animal can, then why do we still so often believe that people deep down are nasty and selfish? Well, we’ve already talked about the news. We’ve talked about the negativity bias, but we haven’t talked about the most fundamental, deepest reason I think yet, which is that it’s in the interests of those at the top of those in power to believe that for us to believe that people are just nasty and selfish. Because if you and I cannot trust each other, if people cannot trust each other, then they need hierarchy, then they need someone to be in control. [66.5s] They need a CEO. They need a manager. They need a prime minister, a president. They probably need the police. They need an army. Because if people are just free to do what they want, then what you get is a war of all against all. You know, in the famous words of Thomas Hoppes, the British philosopher, um, if people can actually trust each other. So if the opposite is true and people are actually fundamentally pretty decent, then the question is obviously, well, why do we have all these career politicians? Why do we have do we have all these companies that are structured like a pyramid, you know, with strict hierarchies? Why don’t we just trust people themselves to do their job? Why don’t we rely on their natural curiosity and intrinsic motivation and their playfulness and their willingness to work together? Why don’t we do just that? So people may think, oh, this guy has written this nice and warm book. About human kindness, but actually it’s it’s a quite subversive idea that people are fundamentally decent, because once you really think it through, it means that we can totally revolutionize everything, how we organize our schools, how we organize the workplace, how we organize our criminal justice system, how we organize our democracy. I mean, everything changes once you update your view of human nature. And that is exactly obviously why I wanted to write this book, because on the one hand, we’ve seen this huge and silent scientific revolution where so many scientists have moved to a more hopeful view of human nature. But we’re just on the verge of realizing what that actually means. It has massive implications for everything.
Bruce [00:42:24] You mentioned politicians along the way. I know Andrew Yang, when he was running for the US presidency, was talking about a universal basic income. And and you mentioned that President Biden’s policies are far more moving towards it. Have you had politicians around the world get in touch with you or do they just steal your ideas?
Rutger [00:42:43] Well, that occasionally happens. But, you know, I never really that interested in politicians because in my view, real change just doesn’t start in the center. It almost always starts at the fringes with people who are first dismissed as unrealistic and reasonable, impossible, and then their ideas start moving toward the center. So in the case of basic income, you know, the first talks I gave about basic income seven years ago was in front of small groups of anarchists with long hair, and they were a bit smelly. But that’s how it often starts. Right. And then you’re invited to go to Davos. But it would be a mistake to think that the change starts there in Davos. You know, it starts it starts somewhere else. I’d say.
Rutger [00:43:35] I so loved – listened to it first, actually, and then I read the book and you do the audio book, a tiny little bit of the introduction you definitely should have carried on. It was great to hear.
Rutger [00:43:45] Yeah.
Bruce [00:43:45] It in your voice.
Rutger [00:43:47] Oh, my English is just not good enough. And I pronounce the words all in the wrong way.
Bruce [00:43:51] So I can I can I ask what are your what are you thinking about what you’re writing next.
Rutger [00:43:56] Yeah. So Utopia for Realists, my first book that was published in English was about how utopian ideas can become reality, about this process, because if we look back on say The Middle Ages, we see a lot of things that horrify us, you know, burning of witches in other societies or slavery in a lot of stuff that we see is completely barbaric right now. And every society, thinks of itself that it has, you know, the moral high ground or that it’s basically not improvable anymore. You know, I’m skeptical about that. One of the interesting questions is obviously how the historians of the future will look back on us. You know, what will be the things that we do right now that they will be horrified by? You know, will it be the global poverty that’s still there, the way we treat refugees or this bizarre system of work that we have created where, you know, there’s this strange ideology that you have to work for your money, which is ended up in a situation where 25 percent of people in the modern workforce have beautiful LinkedIn profiles and have great resumes and went to great universities, but secretly think their own job is basically complete B.S. You know, they don’t contribute anything to society. Or maybe historians will look at the way we treat animals and say, well, that is actually the greatest atrocity in world history that has ever happened. I think that’s that’s the way we’ve got to learn how to think. And so in Utopia for Realists I try to expand our horizon and to throw up the windows of thought and to start with things that may seem completely crazy now, but may become reality in the future, as I mentioned while I was promoting the book, I realized that we probably need a different view of human nature if anything like this is going to happen. So that became the second book, Humankind. I am now interested not just in the ideas that seem completely unrealistic and unreasonable, but I’m interested in the people who bring them forward and who first argue in favor of them. And this is sort of the paradox, because Humankind is obviously about, you know, human nature in general, about the way most of us behave. It’s also about the dark side of human nature. So on the one hand or one of the friendly species in the animal kingdom, on the other hand, we’re very groupish and tribal and we often do the most terrible things in the name of loyalty and friendship. This is the problem with humans. We just want to be liked. And if you just want to be like there, there’s going to be a certain bias in favor of the status quo, because those people who disrupt the status quo, well, you don’t like them. We don’t like the vegans, for example, who make us feel guilty and make us feel bad and are just annoying or a pain in the ass. And they just are these do gooders who want to feel good about themselves, etc.. Now, for this new book, I’m exactly I’m interested in exactly those kind of people because that’s where progress starts. And so the irony of that book is that the people I’m studying right now are not exactly representative of human nature because they’re are willing to make their lives more difficult. So I’m sort of thinking about writing a self-help book that you that people wish they hadn’t read after I finished it, because now they’ll they’ll have to make their own lives much more difficult. There’s a you know, there’s there’s the standard criticism of conservatives and people on the right. You know, they often say, well, we got to start with the individual right. We we teach people some character. Right. Then they’ll be able to to pull themselves up by the bootstraps. And then people on the left say, no, no, no, no. We got to talk about the structural issues. We want to talk about the multinationals who avoid their taxes and pollute the environment and they’ll pay their employees a living wage. That’s what we got to focus on. Not this moralistic B.S., you know, focus on the on the structural stuff. And I largely agree with that. But then at some point, all this talking about the system becomes a way of avoiding your own responsibility. Right. And we’ve got to keep remembering that the personal is political and the political is personal. And you don’t want to be a hypocrite. And what I think is that the most effective reformers and activists have basically done what they set. You know, they put their ideas into practice. Many of us don’t, right. Most of us, we believe a huge amount of things that in daily life we just ignore and we say we love animals and we, you know, we are all complicit or many of us are complicit in this horrific industry of industrial farming. You know, we say we care about the poor and then we spend huge amounts of money on things we don’t need to impress people like instead of doting, donating it to effective charities that can save a lot of lives. Right. So we’re all hypocrites. And I’m interested in those people who are trying to make their own lives a little bit more difficult. You know, one step at a time to be seen to be more than just a sociable, fairly decent creature, but to be actually good. And that’s the distinction I’m interested in right now. It’s been a bit of a miscommunication about my book is that is that people believe that I argue that that the humans are naturally good. And that’s been a mistake on my side, I guess, as well. Or how am I think it has developed. Obviously, we’re not angels, right? So being actually good is different. It’s so much more difficult. I’m just saying that, I mean, we’re not we’re not the selfish, evil monsters that the elites often argue that we are and that therefore we have to be controlled. But we’re also not angels and we’re never you know, most of us can never be saints, but we can at least try and make life a little bit more difficult for ourselves. And I’m just fascinated by people, by those people who do that, who went into the resistance during the Second World War, you know, who already said we got to stop eating animals in the 70s when that was completely dismissed as crazy who give a huge percentage of their income, sometimes 40 or 50 percent, to highly effective charities? Yeah, I’m really interested in those kind of people and I’m trying to see what we can learn from them.
Bruce [00:50:34] Look, fascinating group, intriguing who you can track down I suspect. There’s lots of hidden gems in that sort of field to look out for. I do hope you managed to get some vaccine there in the Netherlands soon.
Rutger [00:50:47] Yeah, yeah, Well, maybe once you guys have all been vaccinated then maybe it’s our turn. No, no, no, it’s not too it’s not too bad actually.
Bruce [00:51:00] Oh good.
Rutger [00:51:01] Yeah, my parents are already being vaccinated right now. And I mean I wonder I mean there’s so much energy and frustration around this, but I sometimes wonder if the historians of the future will or even know and care about this. I mean, obviously, the main I don’t know, moral failure is, is that, you know, many of the poor countries in the world are not getting their vaccines. It’s not Europeans or people in the European Union as we get into or the main victims here. And and what really worries me is that indeed, you know, the stop of vaccinating with AstraZeneca and Johnson and Johnson is now causing this vaccine hesitancy in and different part of the global world. While they are so reliant on exactly these vaccines, because Pfizer and Moderna, are too expensive to use. So I don’t know. That’s that’s something I think the historians of the future will be interested in again, which is a very good way to to read the newspaper again. You know, will this hold up? Is this still interesting, 10 years or 50 years from now? And it saves you a lot of time because you can skip a lot of the nonsense that is the in the news every day.
Bruce [00:52:16] Rutger, I’m so grateful for your time. Thank you.
Rutger [00:52:18] So I really enjoyed this. Thanks.