Script of an assembly delivered by Hermione Baines and David Alcock via voiceover Powerpoint to Bradford Grammar School pupils on Friday 15 January 2021. The slide set and notes are available upon request from @DavidAlcock1
Deep down, what is human nature? What are we really like underneath? Novelist William Golding explored this idea in his 1951 novel ‘The Lord of the Flies’. It tells the story of a group of well-brought up English schoolboys, shipwrecked on a deserted island. To start with, the boys organise themselves and try to have fun and wait for rescue. However, as the days go by, their rules break down. As fear takes over, they descend into appalling savagery and violence. We won’t spoil the ending for those of you have not yet read it, but lets just say it doesn’t end well – as this still from a film of the book suggests.
William Golding did not have a positive view of human nature – he said, ‘Even if we start with a clean slate, our nature compels us to make a muck of it’ and ‘Man produces evil as a bee produces honey’.
Golding’s view of human nature is widely held. The 17th Century philosopher Thomas Hobbes considered what humans were like before we created ‘society’ – he argued that in a ‘state of nature’ human beings are driven by fear – fear of the other – our lives would be a state of permanent war and conflict – deep down, this is what we are.
As a historian, it’s easy to find examples of humans being driven by fear, greed, and hatred to do terrible things to each other; it sometimes doesn’t seem to take much to turn apparently civilised human beings into aggressive, cruel creatures. Is this what humans, deep down, are like?
This is the uninhabited island of ‘Ata. It is 100 nautical miles from the main island of Tonga, which is itself 2000 nautical miles east of the Australian mainland. What does it have to do with Golding – or indeed Hobbes?
Well, in 1966, Peter Warner, an Australian man in his 20s, sailed his boat to the island, which had been deserted for over a hundred years. But he saw fire – a sign of life – and when he drew closer he found six boys. These six boys told him that they had ‘borrowed’ a boat from the main island of Tonga, they’d got caught in a storm, and eventually landed on Ata, fifteen months previously. The boys were taken back to the mainland, where their families had given them up for dead.
Six boys, on an island – a recipe for disaster, right? Rivalries, fighting, bullying? No. Quite the opposite.
The boys – seen here in a reunion photo with Captain Warner a few years after the incident – had actually set up a small commune with food garden, hollowed-out tree trunks to store rainwater, a gymnasium with curious weights, a badminton court, chicken pens and a permanent fire, all from handiwork, an old knife blade and much determination.
While the boys in Lord of the Flies come to blows over the fire, those in this real-life version tended their flame so it never went out, for more than a year.
The kids agreed to work in teams of two, drawing up a strict roster for garden, kitchen and guard duty. Sometimes they quarrelled, but whenever that happened they solved it by imposing a time-out. Their days began and ended with song and prayer.
Captain Warner wrote in his memoir: “Life has taught me a great deal, including the lesson that you should always look for what is good and positive in people.”
One example doesn’t prove much. But it got Dutch author Rutger Bregman thinking: was Golding’s book symptomatic of a negative view of human nature which doesn’t really reflect how most humans actually behave?
The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued that in a state of nature, we are naturally cooperative beings: our essence is to work together. But Bregman argues that Rousseau’s message has been overwhelmed by a more cynical image of humanity, which has been proclaimed in films and novels, history books and scientific research – and perhaps even in education?
Bregman argues that this distrust has been driven by individualism, an increasingly overdramatic media, and politicians keen to get the support of voters who are scared of ‘other people’ (does this remind you of a certain US president?).
Bregman has a hopeful message – he thinks we think ourselves worse than we really are, and this is what causes the problems because we assume that people are bad, when the vast majority of people are in essence good at heart – he asks us to take a positive view of the world.
We have been thinking that recent events – particularly the way people have coped with the pandemic – support this hopeful view of humankind. Despite some people behaving selfishly with no regard for the welfare of their fellow human beings, behavioural scientists suggest that the vast majority of people have been cooperating for the greater good, wanting to help each other and sticking to the rules, even when they could get away with breaking them.
As Bregman says, We live on a planet where people are deeply inclined to be good to one another. Do good in broad daylight, and don’t be ashamed of your generosity. Its time for a positive view of humankind’.
[Inspired? Read about Hopeful Education – whose mission is to encourage young people to ‘evaluate progress, believe in humanity, and create a better world’ – in this post, and follow @HopefulEd on Twitter.]
Humankind by Rutger Bregman (2020) is published by Bloomsbury.