Old book was wrong

The nature of human beings, fiction that might have misled, and 7 other things worth your time.

Good news: We've been misled all these years!

Background: The year was 1965, and a half dozen boys at a strict boarding school in Polynesia grew tired of things being so authoritarian. They got the bright idea to steal a small fishing boat and sail to Fiji, maybe even New Zealand.

Bad idea. Total disaster. Their sail was shredded, their rudder broke, and after eight days adrift they landed on a tiny, uninhabited Tongan atoll called Ata. They were marooned for fifteen months, given up for lost. Their families held funerals.

As you’d expect, they descended into darkness. 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.

It's entered into our discourse as a metaphor: the idea that when structure and expectations break down, human beings will ultimately turn on each other.

Want to know what really happened to the kids who lived through the real life Lord of the Flies scenario? The ones who really spent 15 months on that island?

They 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.

But it was also more or less forgotten until recently, 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 new book, Humankind: a Hopeful History.

My Dutch is less than perfect, so I'm going mainly by Bregman's recent 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 is especially relevant now because—well, security and comfort have been stripped away for so many of us. And when we see some of the more violent, angry and chaotic reactions lately, there's a tinge of resignation.

People are falling apart, they say: it's like Lord of the Flies out there.

I'm pretty sure I've used the literary metaphor myself. Only the boys on Ata responded exactly the opposite way.

Why even write the novel 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 nothing 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.

Heck, I'm Exhibit A. You should have seen me at the supermarket this weekend, when the guy in front of me let his mask fall under his nose and got too close to my young daughter.

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.

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