The world found out about Rutger Bregman in 2019 when, on a panel organized by TIME at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the Dutch historian lambasted businesspeople in the audience for trying to fix the world economy without talking about taxation. “It feels like I’m at a firefighters’ conference and no one is allowed to speak about water,” he said.
Now, he has a new book out, titled Humankind, in which the unconventional historian tries to unravel even more of the conventional wisdom that, he says, actually stands on empirically shaky ground. Bregman spoke to TIME in March, while the coronavirus pandemic was spreading rapidly around the world.
In your new book, Humankind, you make the argument that, humans are not as intrinsically selfish as much literature would have us believe. Since you wrote it, the coronavirus pandemic has changed everything. Do you stand by your argument?
Obviously I think I’m right! The old fashioned “realist” position has been to assume that civilization is only a thin veneer, and that the moment there’s a crisis we reveal our true selves, and it turns out that we’re all selfish animals. What I’m trying to do in this book is to turn this narrative around, to show that actually, over thousands of years, people have actually evolved to be friendly.
There’s always selfish behavior. There are lots of examples of people hoarding. But we’ve seen in this pandemic that the vast majority of behavior from normal citizens is actually pro-social in nature. People are willing to help their neighbors. That is the bigger picture that we’re seeing right now.