Are humans wired for conflict? Lord of the Flies vs. Charles Darwin
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The iconic novel “Lord of the Flies” paints a picture of human beings as naturally selfish and prone to conflict, but that is not the most accurate depiction of humanity, argues historian Rutger Bregman.
Bregman shares a true story from his research about a group of Tongan students who survived on an island together for 15 months in 1965, not through brutal alliances, but by working together and forming a functional community.
Darwin’s observation of domestication syndrome is apparent in humans, argues Bregman; our evolution into friendlier animals can be seen in our biological features and responses. Evolutionarily speaking, being “soft” is actually very smart, and we evolved to cooperate with one another for mutual gain.
Rutger Bregman is a historian and author. He has published five books on history, philosophy, and economics. His books Humankind (2020) and Utopia for Realists (2017) were both New York Times bestsellers and have been translated in more than 40 languages. Bregman has twice been nominated for the prestigious European Press Prize for his work at The Correspondent. He lives in Holland.
Rutger Bregman’s latest book Humankind: A Hopeful History https://amzn.to/2HVX4nV
RUTGER BREGMAN: One of the most famous examples of this theory that people are fundamentally selfish in literature is the book “Lord of the Flies” by William Golding. So many people have read it, right? Millions of kids around the globe were basically forced to read it in school. I read it when I was 16 years old, or 17, and I remember feeling quite depressed and cynical afterwards, and thinking, “Well, no more Harry Potter for me.” But it was while I was researching this book that I thought hmm, has it ever happened that real kids shipwrecked on a real island, and how would they behave if something like that would happen? And so I went on this journey that started on an obscure blog where someone wrote that this actually happened near Tonga in the ’60s. Tonga is an island group in the Pacific Ocean, and yeah, after a couple of months, I managed to track them down. So I found a guy named Peter Warner, who is an Australian captain, who was fishing the vicinity of an island called ‘Ata, a small island, basically a rock that sticks out of the ocean in 1966, when suddenly he heard screaming, and he was looking through his binoculars and he saw these six kids, long hair, pretty wild appearance. You know, what happens if you live on an island for a long time. Then these kids came and said, ‘You know what? We’re part of this school in Tonga, we’ve been living here for 15 months. Can you bring us home?’ Now, Peter didn’t believe it, so he called with the school and they said yeah, actually funerals have already been held. These are the real kids.
So I spoke to Peter, the captain, and he put me in contact with his best friend, Mano Totau, who’s one of the original “Lord of the Flies” kids. And so 50 years had passed since then, but they could still describe to me in vivid detail what happened and how these kids survived on this island for 15 months. Well, by working together, by cooperating. So they worked in teams of two. Two to be on the lookout, two to tend to the fire, two to tend to the garden. And yeah, sometimes they did end up in fights. So then one of the boys would go to one side of the island, the other would go to the other side of the island, would cool off a little bit, come back and say sorry. You know, that’s how they kept going for months. So it wasn’t easy, but they made it. And I think that can give us hope.
And the thing is if it would be a Hollywood story, a Hollywood movie, then people would say, well, this is very naive. That’s not how kids would behave. It’s very sentimental. But it’s the real “Lord of the Flies.” The real “Lord of the Flies” is a story of friendship, of hope, of working together. It’s pretty much the opposite of what we’ve always heard. Now, I’m not saying it’s a scientific experiment. It’s obviously just an anecdote, but we humans tend to become the stories that we tell ourselves. And for decades, we’ve been telling ourselves this pretty cynical story of kids turning on one another. And I mean, what are kids supposed to learn from that? It’s not a very happy message, is it? So I think that whenever any teacher says to the kids, well, you need to read…
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