What to read… if you’re losing faith in humanity

Can both fiction and non-fiction restore it?

Following the Las Vegas shootings, readers responded to our Twitter appeal with many varied suggestions. Here’s a selection, plus we asked a couple of people to expand on their reasons.

Claire (@WeeWitchy) suggests The Midnight Club by Chris Pike

The Midnight Club is a story of friendship, love and support. Five teenagers living in a hospice, all of whom are dying of various terminal illnesses, form a nightly storytelling club, and each night when the clock strikes 12 they ceremoniously gather to each tell a story they have created. Yes, most of the stories they tell are graphically horrifying, and terrifying sometimes, but the underlying emotion of the whole novel is that of sheer human determination to make the best of a hard situation. The book takes you through every emotion you could possibly feel, and you get deeply attached to each of the characters for different reasons. They go through denial, anger and they question life, the universe, God, and themselves, on a journey which is extremely personal to each of them, but also in sharing with each other their creative stories and friendships makes their journey more bearable.

The book reminds me that no matter what happens in this world, there are always people who will step up to make things a little easier, and sharing experiences with others makes you feel less alone. It helps me realise that even in this vast universe, there is always going to be someone out there you can connect with, who will understand, and that no matter how bad a situation is, when people team together, humanity will prevail.

- Claire McKenna is a psychology student with the Open University

Kate Johnstone
Any P.G. Wodehouse.

Andy Clarke @realdrewclarke  
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalinithi. Puts everything in perspective!

Sarah Rose Cavanagh
Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer

Ves Garcia @lovesaheart  
The Bible. It will surely keep you serene.

Nat The Psych-Guy
Anything by @matthaig1 or my chosen spirit mother, the late great Carrie Fisher

Andrew Kane
Spike Milligan, his nonsense is always a tonic and makes more sense than some of the nonsense in the media...

Lisa @ljtnorfolk   
Jonathan Livingston Seagull

Naomi Pierce @PrcNaomi   
Haruki Murakami – escapism

Kathy Trang @KathyTrang1
Hillman’s The Soul’s Code, or Jerome’s The Poet and the Poem.

Hannah Grant @hannahg50  
Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl

Marta Isibor @TaffiGB   
Escaping… Tolkien

Mirko Demasi @demasi_m
Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.

Kirsty Bennett
A Little Life – couldn’t be more humbling or eye opening!

ExecutiveHiddles @ExecHiddles  
Douglas Adams. Just be mindful of Marvin. He tends to drag the moment down.

Jane Street @JaneStClinPsy   
Rupi Kaur – simple, beautiful, powerful poems

Jason Pandya-Wood @jjwood01  
Anything by Julia Donaldson

Anne Currie @anne_e_currie
The Better Angels of Nature by Steven Pinker

Earlier this year I ran across the popular history book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. It suggests the human race kicked off with a spectacular opening act of fratricide. We killed off all our sibling species, including the Neanderthals. We then went on to finish off a swathe of the world’s animal life, enslave much of the rest and make some pretty poor choices for our own descendants. If you want to be cheered up, I’d probably recommend you don’t read Sapiens.

To feel at all positive about our species I needed evidence that we were evolving towards something a heck of a lot nicer. Fortunately, that’s exactly what the well-known psychologist, linguist and author Professor Steven Pinker asserts in his 2011 book The Better Angels of our Nature. He calls on copious historical data to argue that human violence has been declining for about 5000 years, ever since the first agricultural civilisations. Phew, the human race is improving! That cheered me up.

Pinker suggests several theories for why we might have become less violent. Effective government and laws. Cooperative trade. Reason-based education. Or (my favourite) a more prominent role for women in society. Although he points out the improvement remains unexplained and it could reverse, it was nevertheless a relief to find out we’d made progress at all.

Are Pinker and Harari fundamentally at odds? I don’t think so. Much of the destructive behaviour Harari identifies happened more than 5000 years ago at a time when Pinker concurs we were an unpleasant bunch. Both agree humans do radically change depending on our ambient culture. Pinker’s thesis is that the trend is towards ‘good’ (less casual violence between humans). Harari focuses on the more negative story that humans have become increasingly powerful and so we can now less afford to behave badly. Harari’s concern isn’t necessarily in conflict with Pinker’s view that we’re improving. The question is: Is that happening fast enough?

Interestingly, even the optimistic Pinker doesn’t attribute our better behaviour to intent. The changes that he speculates reduce violence weren’t intended for that purpose. First person novels probably do increase our empathy, but that isn’t generally why they are written. By eschewing nice intentions as the explanation for our improving behaviour, Pinker is in company with the moral philosopher Adam Smith. He stated it wasn’t by the goodwill of merchants or consumers that capitalism works, it just does. Not merely to keep us all fed but, according to Pinker, possibly to keep us from stabbing one another.  

Let’s get a different viewpoint from another good book – 2014’s The Great Escape by Nobel-winning economist Angus Deaton. It describes the ways that globally our lives have improved over the last two centuries: shrinking infant mortality, declining poverty and wider education. Like Smith, however, Deaton warns of the limitations of good intentions. Our charitable inclinations may be keeping some developing nations poor. Countries we are less sympathetic toward appear to benefit from our neglect by developing more effective governance – a likely prerequisite for Pinker’s gentler culture.

All four of these thinkers seem to agree that whatever might be making us ‘better’, it’s probably not deliberate intent. It’s not that we lack the desire to be charitable, it’s just that it’s often not an effective mechanism for improving humanity’s lot. So, if it’s not a conscious choice, why are we getting nicer?

Let’s segue to another positive book in a completely different field to see if it can cast any light. Soft-Wired by Dr Michael Merzenich is based on his early work on the cochlear implant – an astonishing tool that has restored hearing to many thousands. Merzenich presents evidence that the human brain can heavily re-wire itself throughout our lives. We can literally change our minds, and there’s no age when we lose the ability: 75-year-olds can still develop new neuron pathways and learn new languages or how to walk tightropes. In contrast to the prevailing view of just a generation ago, it appears our brains are phenomenally plastic organs. They reorganise themselves to match their culture and can incorporate external technologies like those clever cochlear implants.

So what are these books saying?

According to these authors humanity has been monumentally unpleasant to ourselves and other species, we now live a precarious existence – although our intentions may be good, the results are not always reliable. More optimistically, we are getting better and, no matter how nasty and brutish our genes might be, our brains can be different.

Coming back to Pinker, his evidence shows that despite our seemingly unsupportable numbers there’s a trend towards prosperity, empathy and non-violence. Our interconnected modern lives rely on large-scale cooperation – on our being extraordinarily pleasant to one another by historical standards. If we keep proliferating we’ll probably need to be even more cooperative to remain alive in the future. Being nicer may be the only viable destiny of humanity, whether we intend it or not, and neuroscientists reckon we have everything we need to achieve that fate. That restores my faith.

- Anne Currie works in technology and lives in London

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