Are People Basically Good or Evil? Pt. 1

By Robert Bernstein   |   May 3, 2022

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is the latest situation that might lead us to think that people under the surface are evil and only a thin veneer of civilization protects us.

My college lady friend recently introduced me to the book Humankind that takes this on. Many issues are raised, and this will be the first of several articles gleaned from it.

In a nutshell, author Rutger Bregman says that our species is a self-domesticated ape – “Homo puppy.” We aim to please. This is good when harnessed for humanitarian purposes. But this desire to be “helpful” can produce the worst horrors when we are trying to be helpful to a brutal dictator. Or to an imagined sky god.

We may have heard of oxytocin as the “love hormone.” But it really is more about tribal bonding with “people like us.”

Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, meant to present an optimistic view that modern times are the least violent period in human history. But Bregman challenges his data. Bregman notes that there are no cave paintings depicting war. Ancient bones do not bear marks of violence. War is relatively recent. And even in the throes of war, almost all killing is done by a minority. Even in war, most people find it impossible to kill someone they can see.

Do we need sociopath leaders for complex society? Bregman talks of an ancient structure Göbekli Tepe in what is now Turkey. Built by nomads! A “collective work event” that brought people together with no leader.

Bregman claims it is property and ownership that created inequality and conflict.

WWII made people wonder if we are all just Nazis waiting to be triggered to evil. Two infamous experiments after the war were meant to demonstrate this. One was the Zimbardo Stanford Prison Experiment. This seemed to show that people spontaneously would take on the role of cruel guards. Bregman carefully goes through the evidence and shows it was really a scientific fraud.

The BBC re-did it as a reality TV show The Experiment in 2002. Without the devious manipulations of Zimbardo, the guards and prisoners all got along well and proposed creating a commune!

The other infamous case was the Milgram Electric Shock Experiment. People were recruited under the false claim that they were participants in a memory experiment. Their job was to shock “subjects” who forgot things to see if they would learn better. The world was horrified to learn that most of the participants were willing to deliver lethal voltages. In fact, it was more complex. The shocks were not real, and half realized this. Most of the other half quit.

The claim that people do harm because they are “just following orders” is not correct. Those who were pressured to obey dropped out. Those who complied thought they were being helpful with important research.

This was true for many Nazis as well. They often went above and beyond what was asked by their superiors. To be “helpful.”

Bregman described 150,000 pages of German POW documents discovered in 2001. There was very little anti-Jewish talk or ideology in the transcripts. It was mostly talk of loyalty, camaraderie, self-sacrifice. The German military leveraged this by keeping soldiers together to form powerful bonds. The Allies missed this and kept re-assigning soldiers to different units.

The Nazis rained Blitzkrieg terror on England from above, destroying homes to break morale. It had the opposite effect, as we see now in Ukraine. Disasters actually bring out the best in people.

We think of empathy as caring for others. But, as with oxytocin, it is really a spotlight that singles out one person as you ignore the rest. Humans can cuddle a puppy and eat a mistreated farm animal at the very same time.

Bregman told a story from WWI. The war was utterly pointless. Over the course of four years, the 500-mile front line hardly moved. But the Christmas Truce of 1914 was very revealing. On Christmas Eve, each side took turns playing Christmas carols and they joined together with “Come Ye Faithful” and “Silent Night.” On Christmas Day, the Germans and British met up and shook hands. They played soccer and shared food.

The next day the war resumed, and millions were killed. The truce was considered a myth until a 1981 BBC special documented it. The truce was so popular among the soldiers that the generals had to make it illegal. But secret letters were passed between the sides warning of attacks. “We will shoot too high.”  

My next article will deal with some positive lessons of Humankind.


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