Discover more from Understandably by Bill Murphy Jr.
It's like 'lord of the flies,' they said
What if everything we'd been told was wrong? Low power mode continues, but with a great story.
My fellow humans: We've been misled all these years! Allow me to explain.
It starts with a story. The year was 1965, and a half dozen boys at a boarding school in Polynesia got the bright idea to steal a small fishing boat and sail off to see the world—to Fiji, maybe even New Zealand.
Bad idea. Total disaster. Their sail was shredded, their rudder broke, and after 8 days adrift they landed on a tiny, uninhabited Tongan atoll called ‘Ata. They were marooned for 15 months, given up for lost. Their families held funerals.
What would you expect happened? Maybe they tore each other apart, fighting instead of cooperating—because at the core of humanity is a pit of despair that we can only truly experience when we're stripped bare enough to experience it.
No! No, that's not at all what happened!
That's instead what happened in the novel Lord of the Flies, a work of pure fiction, which has sold millions of copies and been included on middle school reading lists for decades.
The book is a metaphor even for people who haven’t read it: the idea that when structure and expectations break down, human beings will ultimately turn on each other.
Instead, the kids who lived through the real life Lord of the Flies scenario worked together.
They figured out how to get food and water. When one of them broke a leg, the others picked up the slack for him. They all survived. Eventually, they were rescued.
Look, this sounds like it would make an interesting movie. In fact, it was a movie, or at least a documentary 50 years ago in Australia. (With the harsh detail that after they were rescued, the teens were all imprisoned for having stolen the boat to begin with!)
But it was also more or less forgotten until a few years ago, when a Dutch author named Rutger Bregman dove into the history. He actually met one of the boys (now in his 70s) along with the Australian sailor who found them (now in his 90s), for his book, Humankind: a Hopeful History.
My Dutch is less than perfect, so I'm going mainly by Bregman's English-language articles in The Guardian for the facts. But, the whole thing goes to a stark dichotomy in how people see humanity at its core. Two options:
Either we’re inherently good, and when we’re put in extreme situations our nature is to cooperate, rebuild and thrive.
Or else, we're inherently selfish, and when you strip out security and comfort, our nature is to compete, and to fight, because it's truly everyone for himself or herself.
The debate seems especially relevant now, doesn’t it?
As for the novel, why write it like that, besides being a compelling story?
According to Bregman, it might be because the book’s author, William Golding, was an “unhappy individual,” who was “an alcoholic, prone to depression; a man who beat his kids,” and who once stated: “‘I have always understood the Nazis.’”
Look I report, you decide. But it's also worth noting that Lord of the Flies was itself a contrarian take on another work of fiction nearly a century earlier called The Coral Island: A Tale of the Pacific Ocean.
In that tale, three boys are marooned on an island—and while it's a bit more complicated, with all kinds of 19th century themes and morals—they ultimately wind up working together and surviving.
I'm not here to tell you that all human nature is good, per se.
But, our expectations are guided sometimes by our language, and our experience and our metaphors. And the good news is, this one we’ve all heard of might have been wrong from the start.
Thanks for reading. I’m back but still unpacking (literally) holiday travels, so low power mode continues for another day or two. (Long story short, in practical terms for most of us, that just means the “7 other things section” will be back soon.) Image credit: Google Maps. See you in the comments!