Are humans wired for conflict? Lord of the Flies vs. Charles Darwin

We make school kids read "Lord of the Flies"—but it's only half the story.

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 "Lord of the Flies," then let's also tell them about the one time that we know of in all of world history where real kids shipwrecked on a real island, because that's a very different story.

I think that most people are in fact pretty decent, and there's very strong evidence for this. There was already Charles Darwin a long time ago in the 19th century. You know, the father of evolutionary theory, who noticed that domesticated species have certain things in common. You know? They talk about domestication syndrome. So what does that mean? Well, domesticated species have thinner bones, smaller brains, and they often have floppy ears, but most importantly, they just look a little bit childish. It's as if they never really grow up. We now also know which genes are associated with domestication. And then the interesting thing is if you indeed look at this list and if you then look at humans, then the evidence is pretty clear. We all are also domesticated. And we did this in a process that biologists call survival of the friendliest. So for a very long time, it was actually friendliness that helped you to survive. And now imagine living in the Ice Age, being a nomadic hunter gatherer, what did you need most? Well, you needed friends. You weren't going to survive without friends, because you know, there could be a tough day, you could get an injury or something like that, and then you really needed those friends. So friendliness was sort of an evolutionary advantage and evolutionary adaptation, and there was a very strong, strong pressure, a selection pressure, so that we became friendlier and friendlier and friendlier.

And you can even see this within our bodies. So if you compare bodies of humans from 50,000 years ago and 40 and 30 and 20 and 10,000 years ago, you just see that people look more puppyish than we used to. Right? So I call this homo puppy. We've evolved to become more puppyish. We just look friendlier. You know, we have these smaller skulls, for example, and we also developed the unique ability to blush. I think that's really striking and fascinating that we're one of the only species in the whole animal kingdom with the ability to blush. We involuntarily give away our feelings in order to establish trust. And we also have unique eyes. So this is what we call cooperative eyes. As you can see, I have white sclera, you know, the white around our irises. Now, that doesn't make you unique, all humans have that, but it makes us unique as a species because all other primates don't have it, you know? They have dark around their eyes. So that makes it very hard to track their gazes, to follow their gazes. It makes it harder to see what they're looking at. It's as if other primates are a little bit like poker players wearing shades, or mafiosi, you know, wearing shades. And we are just an open book for everyone. We just give away what we're looking at to each other. And again, that helps us to establish trust. I mean, think about what love and romance would be if we can't look at each other in the eye. And yeah. If you want the evidence that we have really evolved to cooperate as a species, just look in the mirror, and you'll see it staring right at you.

  • 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.


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