The Power Of Being Human
Aided by Rutger Bregman’s book Humankind. A Hopeful History, let us pursue our thought experiment: what if we were good after all? One of the most attractive arguments of this book is the alternative reading it offers with regards to Darwin’s principle of natural selection based on competition and on the survival of the fittest. Bregman finds that there is enough scientific evidence to talk instead of the “survival of the friendliest” (63).
With the support of a variety of results from fascinating experiments comparing baby chimpanzee, orangutans and human toddlers and then on a variety of Siberian foxes, Bregman argues that, where the other human species disappeared, homo sapiens survived not because it was stronger or had a greater brain (the Neanderthals’ brain was much bigger). Homo sapiens survived and eventually gained its present prominence thanks to its sociability, its ability to cooperate, and its friendliness. And friendliness had a combined effect: physically it induced a weaker, more vulnerable and “puppy-like” appearance – one would say that homo sapiens evolved to become more endearing, just as this happens with our domesticated animals (an important part of Bregman’s argument). Intellectually, it made homo sapiens smarter – “intelligence -he argues- was a by-product of friendliness” (67). In the end, if homo sapiens survived the harsh climatic conditions of the last ice age when the other human species became extinct, it was thanks to the extraordinary ability it had developed to cooperate (71).
This might look like a big leap, but I cannot help finding an analogy between this argument and an episode of the life of the 4th century monk St Pachomius, who is considered the founder of monastic life in common (before him most monks would, like St Antony the Great, live as hermits). Forcibly conscripted into military service and kept in a prison, he was struck by groups of Christians who visited the miserable recruits, comforted them, and brought them food. We are told by his biographer that “when young Pachomius saw them, he asked the people who were with him, ‘Why are these people so good to us when they do not know us?’ They answered, ‘They are Christians, and they treat us with love for the sake of the God of heaven.’”
This anecdote captures one of the reasons of the astonishing pace with which Christianity supplanted paganism in the Ancient world. Just as homo sapiens exemplifies the survival of the friendliest, so Christianity epitomizes the irresistible gravitational pull of communities based not only on mutual cooperation or tribal solidarity but on genuine caring for every human being. Indeed, Jesus declared to his disciples that the mark at which they would be recognized as his disciples was not going to be the soundness of their doctrine, the effectiveness of their institutions nor the cleverness of their leaders. On the contrary, he said to them: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13.35).
As we have seen, Scripture implies that we are not evil by nature but that, sadly, we have developed the ability to harden our hearts. This happens not only individually, but also institutionally. Many established forms of Christianity have ended up putting their trust in the social, political and economic power they have accumulated over centuries. Paradoxically, they have become examples of the survival of the strongest, not only whenever they indulged in forced mass conversions (which we might say is a phenomenon of the past), but when still today they wage cultural wars, try to impose their views through aggressive political lobbying, and fall the pray of some of the worst pathologies of corporate behaviour by covering up their abuses. Unsurprisingly, this has led to a loss of their credibility.
If Bregman’s proposal is right, deep down human beings are wired to rely and thrive not through competition, but through cooperation. If there is a language that human beings instantly recognize, it is the language of caring for each other, of solidarity, and of friendliness.
Christianity is much more than these characteristics, many would argue, and I agree. But without caring, solidarity and friendliness there is no Christianity at all. We should rejoice in the fact that this aspect of our faith chimes with a virtue that, interestingly, we call “humanity”. Many times I have visited communities so intent on trumpeting their Christian credentials that they forgot how to be human. And many times I found exceptional levels of humanity in people and groups who claimed to have no faith. Surely this should give us cause for some thought.