Are humans evil? Rutger Bregman on ‘veneer theory’ | Big Think

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Are humans evil? Rutger Bregman on 'veneer theory'
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How have humans managed to accomplish significantly more than any other species on the planet? Historian Rutger Bregman believes the quality that makes us special is that we "evolved to work together and to cooperate on a scale that no other species in the whole animal kingdom has been able to do."

Pushing back against the millennia-old idea that humans are inherently evil beneath their civilized surface, which is known as 'veneer theory', Bregman says that it's humanity's cooperative spirit and sense of brotherhood that leads us to do cruel deeds. "Most atrocities are committed in the name of loyalty, and in the name of friendship, and in the name of helping your people," he tells Big Think. "That is what's so disturbing."

The false assumption that people are evil or inherently selfish has an effect on the way we design various elements of our societies and structures. If we designed on the assumption that we are collaborative instead, we could avoid the "self-fulfilling prophecy" of selfishness.

Rutger Bregman is a historian and author. He has published five books on history, philosophy, and economics. His books Humankind (2020) and Utopia for Realists (2017) were both New York Times bestsellers and have been translated in more than 40 languages. Bregman has twice been nominated for the prestigious European Press Prize for his work at The Correspondent. He lives in Holland.

Check his latest book Humankind: A Hopeful History at

RUTGER BREGMAN: There's a really old theory in Western culture that scientists call veneer theory. The idea here is that our civilization is only a thin veneer, only a thin layer, and that below that veneer, sort of real raw human nature resides. And that when something small happens—or big, you know we're in a crisis or in a pandemic right now—that humans reveal who they really are, that deep down we're just selfish. We are beasts. We may even be monsters. But luckily, we have this civilization that is basically protecting us from what we really are. Now, this idea, this theory, veneer theory, is very old and very dominant in Western culture. It goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks. You also find it within Christianity, Orthodox Christianity. Think about St. Augustine talking about the notion of original sin, that we're all born as sinners. And you also look at modern capitalism. And again, I think the central dogma of our current capitalist system is that people are selfish. So this veneer theory, it comes back again and again and again in our history. And I think the only problem with it is that it's simply wrong. So in the last 20-25 years, we've seen so much evidence accumulating from anthropology and from archaeology and from biology and from psychology and sociology with one main message which is that basically, deep down, most people are pretty decent and that this capacity for cooperation is actually our true superpower.

Human beings have evolved to cooperate. If you ask the question, what makes us so special? Are we selfish? Are we very smart? Are we very violent or strong or powerful or whatever? What is the reason that we conquered the globe? Why not the bonobos or the chimpanzees? And I think the answer is that we have evolved to work together and to cooperate on a scale that no other species in the whole animal kingdom has been able to do. So, on the one hand, we're the friendliest species in the animal kingdom, but on the other hand, we're also the cruelest species, right? I've never heard of a penguin that says, ""Let's exterminate another group of penguins. Let's lock them up in prisons. Let's kill them all."" These are singularly human crimes. One of the disturbing things actually if you study the history of warfare and of genocides is that these things are often highly moral phenomena. It's not as if there are a lot of sadists thinking, ""Oh, we just enjoy killing other people."" You know, those people do exist, but they're very, very rare. Actually most atrocities are committed in the name of loyalty, and in the name of friendship, and in the name of helping your people. That is what's so disturbing. It's really the dark side of friendliness. If you study soldiers, German soldiers in the second world war, and you ask the question, why did they keep on fighting in 1944, in 1945, even though it was clear they were going to lose the war? Well, psychologists back…

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  1. At right time and at right environment humans are capable of causing greatest harm to their fellow humans…

  2. I just started my channel to teach life skills and personal development. Hope I become successful like you! Thank you for inspiring me! keep this up!

  3. Not by definition, yes we are evil and good.
    Depends on rules defined.
    In general we r combination of both

  4. an arm wrestle in the minds of the connected many, between the dolphin brain, rational with the ability to flow, but fresh and exposed, against the monkey brain, deeper and embedded, with the weight of information, and a veto ability to trigger fight or flight reactions, while the lizard at the core, keeps beating the drum, at whatever tempo, the monkey wants to dance to…

  5. Ants in an ant colony are much better at cooperating than humans are. And ant colonies engage in genocidal warfare against other ant colonies of the same species. Chimpanzees sometimes do this too. We are not so unique after all.

    • Humans are “unique” in the sense that we have the highest intelligence. However, all the tendencies of animals still apply to us.

    • Ants cooperation is a very low basic level. He is talking about our evolved cooperation that created everything we have. Humans have beaten literally every other species both extinct and non extinct to the optimized cooperation goal. Typing on youtube is evidence.

    • Nature is the manifestation, the incarnation, the mirrored reflection, of mans consciousness… humans have the DNA of every single species on earth … that is why every other natural life form has characteristics that are ‘like’ Man

  6. Good and evil are too simplistic terms to put on complex beings, nevermind that they are also completely subjective in the end.
    But if humans are evil, then we deserve no compassion, and it would be morally right to destroy us. And that includes a lot of “evil” starving children in the world.
    Replace “evil” with hedonistic and irresponsible, and I think things get more interesting.

  7. We evolved as herd animals, only being able to survive if the entire group thrived. When humans lived in Eastern Africa we needed each other to survive, we hunted together, searched for food together, cared for our children together, we even cared for the sick and the elderly. Eventually this small group of max 150 individuals started to grow, and it started to encompass villages, cities, regions, nations and eventually the entire world. It’s in our nature to cooperate with and care for other humans.

    • Except that these countries/nations or groups of people are now against each other and don’t falter to some xenophobic tendencies towards each other

  8. Humans are not evil for the most part, Humans are survivors. Its the environment that causes the negative motivations and behavioral patterns we see. Despite what people tend to believe, there no such thing as ( Humans Nature). From before we are born, we are effected by the stresses, the environment in which our mothers, are experiencing. Then we grow and are compounded by those stresses and systemic ideologies, which in-turn shape our thoughts, opinions, behaviors and motivations. If we were to change the environment, to say one more beneficial to all people. You would see a change in behavior, among the people in that new environment. The first generation, of a new environment may hold some old tendencies form the previous system but as time progress they too will adapt to the new environment. Subsequent generation would be completely adapted to the new environment.

    • @Mr.SunShine but yet no one can imagine and existence without money… it’s seriously pathetic!

    • @cameron taylor
      Sad but true. All the issues that people, fight so hard and protest for, could be solved by removing, that outdated concept in exchange for using Automation and autonomous technology as the new medium of providing goods and services.

      Let’s face it the older generation will not change it’s up to millennials and gen z to make the world the way we want it to be to end the outdated concepts of the past and move forward. which one turn will allow us to solve the problems that were previously “unfixable” just on the basis of the older generation not wanting to change.

    • You have said a behavioral pattern is formed by the stressors in the environment. It’s “human nature” that takes the stressors and produce the behavioral patterns. That’s why it’s very predictable.

    • @videomakville
      the concept of human nature in our society is advertised as if no matter what environment a human is placed in a human will act with that same behavior without change, and that is simply not the case.

      So for example imagine a world of abundance there’s no need for money you have access to education any good or service that you need without cost

      people who promote the idea of human nature state that people in such a society will still have a motivation to steal even though there is abundance or to gain power and greed and control when there is no societal basis for those behaviors or motivations for those behaviors.

  9. People only want to feel like this theory is wrong and that theyre good people because selfishly it feels good to feel like youre a good person

    • No, people want to feel like this theory is wright, because accepting reality science shows means all their religion, their ideological dogma, their economic system, their individualistic and empty lifestyle… are based on bullshit and their lives are a lie. And that is unbearable. That’s why people prefer to stay believing economists, priests and ideologues instead of scientists.

    • The main theme of “Lord of the Flies” by William Golding is exactly that: are human inherently evil by nature? Would we, if not for ethos and pathos of social interaction, be ruthless monsters?
      😎 Good question.
      Next question? 😏

    • There is nothing in the modern sciences of evolution or in archeology that would suggest that we are or could be, so no.
      But 2,500 years ago, a group of Middle-eastern desert-dwelling goat herders said we are, so yes.

    • @ProtonCannon Irony: referring to a fantasy land of reward for accepting an assumption of inherent human evil as a defense for the assumption of inherent human evil

    • Objectively speaking humans are not inherently evil we’re just inherently amoral and selfish, because we’re capable of helping others and reframing from needlessly harming others when it suits our self-interest.

    • Yes, I think humans are evil, every human is evil. There are the most humans who are selfish. You will find rare people helping the roadside dogs and cats,very rare also don’t kill mosquitos. We must think about our animal friends. Humans are bad, in schools if you have leather boots as uniform, that’s so bad. Leather is made by killing cows do you know that, so many cows are killed. People don’t even help the poor, only rare help the poor. People cut trees, plunder,devastate the environment for their good. Do you think it’s right?
      So many trees being cut. Humans also burn the trees as fuel, in return give us pollution. There are so many types of pollution nowadays, air,water,sound,etc. If there were no factories,there would have so less pollution. Huh, what to say. Mobiles are the most bad, they are connected to towers which possess so much of radiation, that kills birds……. I only prey that one day’s humans might not kill animals for their usage, stop killing animals,stop cutting trees. If you see a roadside dog or cat fainted, help him…. Recycle items. Don’t spit them on the road……🙏🙏🙏🙏🙏🙏🙏🙏

  10. I’m reminded of a quotation from Art Spiegelman’s MAUS*:
    “Friends? Lock them together in a room without food for a week – then you would see what it is, friends!”

    * One of the best graphic novels yet written. Get it out of the library!

    (edited for footnote)

  11. Define evil? That’s the problem, definitions. Ask ten people what evil is and you’ll get twenty definitions.

    • Lol. So true. It seems that evil is a term people use for what they detest. For every man there is his evil…

  12. Humans are inherently selfish. And inherently empathetic.
    That can be good or evil.

    We are social animals.
    Cooperation and mutually beneficial relationships have proven to serve our selfish needs.

    Empathy can be used to manipulate or bully people or it can be used to help people

    As you said, We inherently feel threatened by those different from us.
    But its environmental and future factors that teach us what ‘different’ is.

    It’s up to us as a society to cultivate cooperation and benevolence in each other

  13. Humans are not evil by nature, but we all have a need to survive. To survive in today’s capitalistic society, being selfish improves your chance for survival. Power has diminished among the general population because political leaders, managers and CEOs keep taking that power away. It gives them a better chance for survival and a sustainable future for themselves. Our system forces people to be selfish (what comes off as evil) to move up in the world. It’s not that everyone wants you to do worse, they just want to survive too.

  14. I’ve got 65 years of experience that says, “YES!” And it’s time we left this beautiful planet so it can heal.

  15. “evil” isnt a real thing. Humans, like all life forms, just respond to our environment.

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