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‘Act normal, that’s crazy enough’: In conversation with Rutger Bregman, author of Humankind

Why have humans survived as the ones to travel to Mars, create artificial intelligence and make use of the world’s resources unlike any other species? Dutch historian and author, Rutger Bregman, author of the pop history book Humankind might have the answers. Through scientific arguments supporting the inherent kindness of Homo Sapiens, Bregman argues that “most people, deep down, are pretty decent.”  

Brian Hare’s theory of a shift in perspective from “survival of the fittest” to “survival of the friendliest” is one supported by Bregman: “I recently became a father. My daughter is 2 and a half years old right now. I love her very dearly, but it’s quite clear to me that she is very stupid. Toddlers are not all that impressive compared to, say, pigs or chimpanzees of a similar age. There is one thing which they really excel at, which psychologists call social learning. They’re really good at imitating us. The way my daughter talks is sometimes quite funny and disturbing, because sometimes she sounds like a little history professor. Our ability to learn from one another is our secret superpower. Loneliness is comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.” On the other hand, humans are also capable of committing terrible atrocities and waging wars that a “penguin could never dream of”. And this is why it took more than a couple, but about 400 pages, to explain Humankind.

Growing up in different environments has a considerable effect on our behavioral patterns and habits, being social creatures. This could include putting the milk or cereal in first, having a jam or clotted cream base on a scone, reading Bregman’s books or watching Love Island. Growing up in the Netherlands, Bregman has experienced the social norms that have led it to rank as one of the happiest countries in the world: “In the book (Humankind), I talk about how nomadic hunter gatherers live their lives. There’s one very striking aspect that they have a reverse hierarchy where the group controls the leaders. It’s very dangerous to be a narcissist in a nomadic hunter gatherer society, because quickly the group will crack down on you. And that often reminds me of the Netherlands actually. So in the Netherlands we call it ‘hayfield culture’. As soon as you think you’re more important than others, people start dunking on you in a pretty massive way. So, it’s sometimes a bit difficult to be ambitious. There’s a famous Dutch saying, “Act normal, that’s crazy enough.”

You are who you surround yourself with. The Plastics from Mean girls or The Nerds from any 2000s movie, you do you. Bregman’s experience at university led him down an unconventional path to finding what is truly cool: “I was initially a very lazy student in the Netherlands. We have a grading system that goes from 1, which is the worst you can get, to 10, which is a perfect score, and for me 5.5 was the best possible grade to get because that was just enough to get a pass. So, for me the most important thing in my first year was drinking enough beer and wasting enough time. But then what happened is that I became a member of a small Student Society in Utrecht, another city in the Netherlands. One of my friends, who was a member, brought me along and I fell completely in love with that student society. I guess it was the way people related to each other. There was such an honest and natural curiosity that most of the members had. It was also the kind of conversations that were much more interesting that what I was used to. So it turns out that curiosity and ambition are not just things that you can be born with but are also highly contagious. My definition of cool really changed during that period.”

How many people grow up dreaming of money? A house made of money and not cheese, or a money themed birthday party instead of princesses? As foundational as it is, how much money do we really need to chase to be happy? : “There’s a famous Daniel Kahneman study and his number was $75,000 a year, and after that there are huge diminishing returns to getting wealthier. I don’t pity those people to be honest. The world is lying at your feet basically. And you’ve got only one life. You’ve got only one career. A career on average lasts 80,000 hours. That’s 10,000 working days. That’s 2000 work weeks, and then you retire and then you die. So time is the most precious thing you have on Earth. Your teens and your 20s are absolutely essential because this is the period in which you’re writing the constitution of your own life. Usually, past the age of 30, people get stuck. So make your 20s really count. Don’t be a sheep. Don’t be a zombie. Don’t follow all those silly people to what my friend (and Oxford University student) Simon van Teutem calls ‘the Bermuda triangle of talent’: banking, corporate law, consultancy. Being really successful is not about buying that big house or owning a boat. Being really successful is helping as many people as possible. That’s what it should be about.”

A few ideas that Bregman advocates for are a universal basic income, open borders and a 15-hour work week in his book Utopia for Realists. Vigilant of being called naive, Bregman has sprinkled the definition of realism with hope. While believing that there is much to learn from Machiavelli to get things done, he holds faith in a world growing into a utopian reality: “A couple of decades from now, three-quarters of all countries are going to have a declining birth rate. We have also seen that the birth rate has plummeted and is plummeting in many rich and middle income countries. And in the end, the most precious capital that countries have are its people, right? And there’s already the global war for talent going on. I think that the countries that will be the most prosperous in the next couple of decades will also be the most tolerant countries. And that is why places like Oxford University can be so inspiring, because of its diversity.”

If you’re struggling to see the benefits of Brexit, Bregman seems to have an optimistic view on it: “Britain has also delivered a service for the rest of Europe, because they have shown us that getting out of the EU is such a bad idea that we don’t have to try it for ourselves in the Netherlands. Even Geert Wilders, the right wing populist, the most racist, xenophobic politician in the Netherlands is also against Nexit. And we really have to thank Britain for that. So thank you for your service, Great Britain. Thank you for proving to the rest of the EU that getting out of the EU is one of the most stupid ideas you can ever come up with.” Sorry if that opener was misleading.

“We live in a world of global apartheid, where the country in which you are born already determines 60% of your income. And I think it would make a lot of sense to abolish all borders. I mean, that’s the utopian end goal. Now, obviously there’s a lot of intermediate steps, but we’ve got a lot of empirical economic research and most of it shows that immigration is both good for immigrants, obviously, they get a massive gain in wages, but it’s also good for receiving countries. Immigrants are less likely to commit crimes and they pay quite a bit in taxes, they contribute much more than they take. That’s just what the evidence shows us, but people find it very hard to follow the evidence when it comes to this and that is one of the dark sides of human nature.” 

Bregman’s upcoming book is about the waste of talent, and here’s what he has to say about the role of Oxford’s talent pool: “So many smart people who go to the best universities get stuck in jobs that don’t add much value to the world. Lots of young physics students, for example, when they’re young, dream about going to Mars or finding a cure for cancer.” And you might not like this if you’re considering selling-out: ”But then they turn 25 and there’s some hedge fund in London that gets them a shitload of money, and then they’re lost. There was this quote that went viral 15 years ago from someone that worked at Facebook, “The greatest minds of my generation think about how to make people click on ads.” And that is so sad, right?” His message: “Don’t go for the big corporates. We owe it to the world.”

Bregman‘s books Utopia for Realists and Humankind are available at Blackwells and Waterstones.

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