When a group of schoolboys were marooned on an island in 1965, it turned out very differently from William Goldings bestseller, writes Rutger Bregman
Interview: Our secret superpower is our ability to cooperate
For centuries western culture has been permeated by the idea that humans are selfish creatures. That cynical image of humanity has been proclaimed in films and novels, history books and scientific research. But in the last 20 years, something extraordinary has happened. Scientists from all over the world have switched to a more hopeful view of mankind. This development is still so young that researchers in different fields often dont even know about each other.
When I started writing a book about this more hopeful view, I knew there was one story I would have to address. It takes place on a deserted island somewhere in the Pacific. A plane has just gone down. The only survivors are some British schoolboys, who cant believe their good fortune. Nothing but beach, shells and water for miles. And better yet: no grownups.
On the very first day, the boys institute a democracy of sorts. One boy, Ralph, is elected to be the groups leader. Athletic, charismatic and handsome, his game plan is simple: 1) Have fun. 2) Survive. 3) Make smoke signals for passing ships. Number one is a success. The others? Not so much. The boys are more interested in feasting and frolicking than in tending the fire. Before long, they have begun painting their faces. Casting off their clothes. And they develop overpowering urges to pinch, to kick, to bite.
By the time a British naval officer comes ashore, the island is a smouldering wasteland. Three of the children are dead. I should have thought, the officer says, that a pack of British boys would have been able to put up a better show than that. At this, Ralph bursts into tears. Ralph wept for the end of innocence, we read, and for the darkness of mans heart.
Golding had a masterful ability to portray the darkest depths of mankind
This story never happened. An English schoolmaster, William Golding, made up this story in 1951 his novel Lord of the Flies would sell tens of millions of copies, be translated into more than 30 languages and hailed as one of the classics of the 20th century. In hindsight, the secret to the books success is clear. Golding had a masterful ability to portray the darkest depths of mankind. Of course, he had the zeitgeist of the 1960s on his side, when a new generation was questioning its parents about the atrocities of the second world war. Had Auschwitz been an anomaly, they wanted to know, or is there a Nazi hiding in each of us? Sign up for Bookmarks: discover new books in our weekly email Read more
I first read Lord of the Flies as a teenager. I remember feeling disillusioned afterwards, but not for a second did I think to doubt Goldings view of human nature. That didnt happen until years later when I began delving into the authors life. I learned what an unhappy individual he had been: an alcoholic, prone to depression; a man who beat his kids. I have always understood the Nazis, Golding confessed, because I am of that sort by nature. And it was partly out of that sad self-knowledge that he wrote Lord of the Flies.
I began to wonder: had anyone ever studied what real children would do if they found themselves alone on a deserted island? I wrote an article on the subject, in which I compared Lord of the Flies to modern scientific insights and concluded that, in all probability, kids would act very differently. Readers responded sceptically. All my examples concerned kids at home, at school, or at summer camp. Thus began my quest for a real-life Lord of the Flies. After trawling the web for a while, I came across an obscure blog that told an arresting story: One day, in 1977, six boys set out from Tonga on a fishing trip ... Caught in a huge storm, the boys were shipwrecked on a deserted island. What do they do, this little tribe? They made a pact never to quarrel.
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