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Humankind book summary

Humankind book cover

This book is a great antidote to all the negative news and cynicism around the trajectory of the human race. Here are some key takeaways, split by chapter.


  • It had been assumed that the best way to break a country’s resilience and morale during times of war was to bomb them. Studies after WW2 however, showed that this had a contrary effects, where civilians reported better mental health, less alcoholism and few suicides. People longed for the solidarity of the Blitz.

Chapter 1: A new realism

  • The opposite of the placebo effect is the nocebo effect, whereby if you believe a substance will harm you, it becomes more likely that this will come to be. The news tends to promote ”negative feeling, learned helplessness, hostility towards others and stupefaction”. The negative bias and availability bias caused by the news can bring about the nocebo effect. This negativity as realism reporting has also proliferated in books.

Chapter 2: The real Lord of the Flies

  • There was a real life case of 6 boys being stranded on a deserted island called ‘Ata in 1966. What transpired was not something out of William Golding’s classic book, Lord of the Flies, but instead cooperation, friendship and a structured way of living.

Part 1: The natural state of being

  • There’s been a long standing philosophical question of whether humans tend to be inherently good or evil. Two famous thinkers on opposing sides are Thomas Hobbes (bad) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (good).
  • Hobbes believed the man needs to put “our sounds in the hands of a single absolute sovereign”, something which has been “repeated millions of times by directors and dictators, politicians and generals”.
  • Rousseau believed that civilisation is a mistake. "Agriculture, city, and state did not save us from chaos and anarchy, but subjugated and damned us. And the invention of the printing press made everything worse.”

Chapter 3: The rise of the Homo puppy

  • How did our Homo Sapiens ancestors outlive the Neanderthals despite them being the stronger and smarter species? One hypothesis is that Homo Sapiens evolved to look and be friendlier, resulting in increased cooperation.
  • A multi-decade research project carried out by Russian scientists Dmitry Belyayev and Lyudmila Trut showed that domesticating wild foxes over multiple generations resulted in physical changes that were caused by differences in hormone balance (lower levels of stress hormones and increased oxytocin and serotonin). The scientists believe that this might have happened over the course of human evolution as well.
  • Humans have evolved to display their emotions as a way of connecting to others. Facial features such as blushing, the whites around our pupils (allowing us to follow gaze) and expressive eye brows are examples of this. Despite Neanderthals having a bigger individual brain, compared to Homo Sapiens and their ability to connect to one another, they would’ve had a smaller collective brain.

Chapter 4: Colonel Marshall and the soldiers who did not shoot

  • Samuel Marshall, a historian and colonel reported that only 15-25% of soldiers reported firing their weapons during battle. There was later evidence that his numbers were not precise, but other studies have since found more evidence to support similar claims. The reason for these low numbers are because humans feel huge resistance to killing another person.
  • "After the Second World War historians started to interview veterans and it turned out over half of them never killed anyone".
  • "The Hollywood image has about as much to do with real violence as pornography has to do with actual sex. In reality, scientists say, violence is not contagious. It also doesn't last long, and it's not easy".

Chapter 5: The curse of civilisation

  • An American anthropologist studying meta studies concluded that nomadic hunter-gatherers were very concerned with equality. It was also common for women to have different sexual partners throughout their life, with children from different fathers.
  • Hunter-gatherers used to work only about 20 hours per week, leaving a lot more time to socialise. "Women especially paid a high price for settling in one location" since they were expected to move in with husbands who stayed in the family home to farm the inherited land. "Over the course of centuries marriageable daughters were reduced to marketable goods". This led to the obsession with female virginity as men wanted to be sure their partners were free of sexually transmitted diseases.
  • The emergence of land as something to be owned and farmed led to nomads settling in one place, leading to the rise of "civilisation". This led to a decline in health as humans now lived closer to their waste and their domesticated animals. STDs arose through the practice of bestiality.
  • The first states were built on slave labour. "What we now call 'milestones of civilisation' - the invention of money, writing, and law - were initially milestones of repression".

Chapter 7: In the basement of Stanford University

  • In 2001, a BBC TV show tried to recreate the Stanford Prison Experiment. "For television producers the experiment bared a painful truth: if you leave ordinary people alone, nothing happens. Or worse: they organise into a pacifist commune. Scientifically speaking, the experiment was a success".
  • The Stanford Prison Experiment has emerged as being faked, despite it being one of the most famous and widely cited psychology experiments.

Chapter 8: Stanley Milgram and the Shock Machine

  • Participants followed through with experiment instructors because they felt they were doing good for science. "Evil is not on the surface...It must invariably masquerade as good".

Chapter 9: The death of Catherine Susan Genovese

  • "It wasn't the ordinary New Yorkers that failed that night, it was the authorities".
  • "Indeed, Kitty's murderer was caught with the help of two bystanders".
  • The real story of Kitty Genovese teaches us: "One: how twisted our image of mankind is, and how sensationalist journalists play into that. And two: how we can count on each other precisely in case of emergency".

Chapter 10: How empathy blinds

  • "A simple explanation for the superhuman achievements of the German army: Kameradschaft. Friendship...Camaraderie is the weapon that wins wars".
  • Oxytocin both helps increase our love for those around us, but also makes us distrust others who are not like us.
  • Young children, and even babies seem to have an in-built bias to gravitate towards those most similar to them.

Chapter 11: How power corrupts

  • "These feelings of insecurity are convenient to those in power. After all, people who doubt themselves are unlikely to rebel." Nocebo effect also comes into play: "if you treat others as if they are stupid, they will feel stupid, after which leaders can tell themselves that the populace is too stupid to make decisions".
  • "With the rise of the earliest settlements and the growth of inequality, tribal chiefs and kings had to explain why they had more privileges than their subjects". "We can summarise the history of civilisation as a history of the powerful continually finding new reasons for their privileges".
  • "...the threat of violence is still present. Everywhere". "The fiction of money is enforced with violence".

Chapter 13: The power of intrinsic motivation

  • "If you treat your employees as though they are responsible and trustworthy, they will be".
  • "Skill and competency become the most important values, rather than returns and productivity".

Chapter 14: Homo Ludens

  • "So maybe we have to ask ourselves an even bigger question: what is the purpose of our education? Are we not focussing too much on the importance of high grades and a well-paid job?".
  • "Psychologist Brian Sutton-Smith once wrote 'the opposite of play isn't work, the opposite of play is depression'".

Chapter 18: When the soldiers left the trenches

  • "German papers wrote that the enemy wouldn't even celebrate Christmas, the French and English were much too wicked and godless." "...the further you got from the front, the greater the hatred".
  • "If it had been up to many of the soldiers themselves, the war would have ended at Christmas 1914."
  • "When we dig ourselves into our own trenches, we lose sight of reality. We become convinced that a small, rancorous minority represents the rest of humanity."
  • "When you give away the best things in life, you just get more in return: trust, friendship, peace".


  • "For a long time we have assumed that man is selfish, a beast, or worse." "This view of humankind, and this reading of our history, turns out to be completely unrealistic." "After all, as soon as we believe that people are decent, everything changes. We can completely change our schools and prisons, our judiciary system and our democracy. And we ourselves can also lead a different life".
  • 10 rules for life:
    1. When in doubt, assume the best
    2. Think in win-win scenarios. "In the best deals both sides win".
    3. Improve the world, ask a question. Don't assume your first impression of others is right.
    4. Temper your empathy, train your compassion. Meditate.
    5. Try to understand the other, even if you can't understand. "Understanding someone on a rational level is a skill. It's a muscle you can train".
    6. Love thy neighbour, like others love theirs. "Humans are limited beings. We care more about people who look like us...But who lets themselves be lead by compassion realises that the stranger is not that different from us."
    7. Avoid the news. And social media. It feeds our negative bias.
    8. Come out for doing the right thing. "Kindness is contagious as the plague. Or actually it's more contagious, because it can infect people who are watching from a distance".
    9. Don't punch Nazis. Reach out beyond your close circle and bridge the divide. "...cynicism is another word for laziness." "If you believe that most people are wicked, you don't have to worry about injustice".
    10. Be realistic. "If I have wanted to achieve anything with this book then it is to change the meaning of the word realism. Does it not tell us a lot that in our language realist has become synonymous with cynic?" "In reality it is the cynic who is estranged from the world." "So be realistic. Come out of the closet. Give in to your nature and give your trust. Do not be ashamed of your generosity and do the right thing in full daylight. Maybe at first you will be described as foolish and naïve. But remember today's naïveté could be tomorrows common sense. It is time for a new view of humanity. It is time for a new realism".

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