The real Lord of the Flies

What a pleasant story to read! We’re all familiar with the entirely fictional story of Lord of the Flies, in which ship-wrecked boys revert to the natural savagery of all humans and set up a brutal regime and start oppressing and killing each other. It makes for a good story, I guess. Except that similar events happened for real in 1965, with a half-dozen 13-16 year old boys ‘borrowing’ a fishing boat, a storm disabling the boat, and then the boys were stranded on a rocky island in the Pacific for over a year. It all turned out differently.

Then, on the eighth day, they spied a miracle on the horizon. A small island, to be precise. Not a tropical paradise with waving palm trees and sandy beaches, but a hulking mass of rock, jutting up more than a thousand feet out of the ocean. These days, ‘Ata is considered uninhabitable. But “by the time we arrived,” Captain Warner wrote in his memoirs, “the boys had 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. Kolo fashioned a makeshift guitar from a piece of driftwood, half a coconut shell and six steel wires salvaged from their wrecked boat – an instrument Peter has kept all these years – and played it to help lift their spirits. And their spirits needed lifting. All summer long it hardly rained, driving the boys frantic with thirst. They tried constructing a raft in order to leave the island, but it fell apart in the crashing surf.

Worst of all, Stephen slipped one day, fell off a cliff and broke his leg. The other boys picked their way down after him and then helped him back up to the top. They set his leg using sticks and leaves. “Don’t worry,” Sione joked. “We’ll do your work, while you lie there like King Taufa‘ahau Tupou himself!”

They survived initially on fish, coconuts, tame birds (they drank the blood as well as eating the meat); seabird eggs were sucked dry. Later, when they got to the top of the island, they found an ancient volcanic crater, where people had lived a century before. There the boys discovered wild taro, bananas and chickens (which had been reproducing for the 100 years since the last Tongans had left).

I imagine it could have gone badly if there’d been even one psychopath in the group, but then there would have been a year of chaos and self-destruction instead, and the fishing boat that eventually rescued them would have found nothing but bones and maybe some starving kids. Instead, we see that natural selection favored the population that cooperated, shared labor, and protected the weak and injured.

It’s curious that this optimistic true story of survival fell into obscurity, while the more pessimistic, cynical, and fictional story by William Golding sold 10s of millions of copies.


  1. says

    You’re being harsh on Golding.

    Setting aside the context of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the Shoah and Korea, the book is about far more than the boys.

    At the start, the grown ups have learned nothing and set the world on fire again. The boys are all English public schoolboys, made in the image of their parents (apart from Piggy and Simon), educated to give the world more of the same and enjoying the privilege that Britain kicked back against in the election of 1945. Jack and his savages are from an elite school, where the importance of a boy comes from his role within the petty boundaries of the school and, presumably, gives him a sense of authority, confidence and entitlement in the adult world. (Hey, Boris Johnson, is that you?).

    The novel acknowledges Ballantyne’s Coral Island and other children’s books from the imperialist canon. The problem is, there are no natives and no workers on the island and the boys turn against each other. The elites look down on the ones taking care of food and shelter, and are prepared to destroy everyone and everything rather than lose their position.

    At the end of the book, the boys are rescued – by the same people with the same attitude from the same privileged background that are prepared to set the world on fire rather than lose their position.

    OK, it’s more Dostoyevksi than Tolstoy, but tell me it’s not as true today as it was then.

  2. anchor says

    The culture we call ‘civilized’ appears to prefer the story that maximizes profits at the box office. I think its just an excuse for bad (or lazy, or fashionable) story-telling.

  3. davidc1 says

    Yes well ,you have got to remember the kids in Golding novel were English public school kids ,eg private .
    Just imagine bojo ,cameron ,j reese -mogg ,george osborne ,and half a dozen other products of eton and oxbridge Universities stranded on a island in the middle of the Pacific ?

    Great Britain’s problems solved in one fell swoop.

    PS ,i read somewhere what would have happened if it had been girls instead of boys?

  4. davidc1 says

    Bugger ,when i started my comment ,it was showing no comments ,now i see that S Von K beat me to it ,and wrote something much more betterer than what i was trying to say .

  5. dorght says

    Find “even one psychopath in the group”, elevate and reward them generously with money and adulation. Sounds like a concept for a reality TV series, think I’ll call it Survivor.

  6. says

    Nthing what was said up comments, Brit public school boys are explicitly trained to create the monsters that would do that, as that is the kind of folks that would run an empire, and are apparently trained in such a fashion to this day.

    They are as far from a behaviorally normal cohort of male H.sapiens subadults as you can get.

  7. hemidactylus says

    Cooperation is easier to maintain in a small cohesive group with a clear common stake. Everyone knows the others* and reputation and accountability are serious matters. Scale it up to a group greatly exceeding Dunbar’s number and accountability wanes and people can exploit the ignorance of others and cheat the system with impunity.

    There was some luck to the story. Perhaps nobody was fated with the name “Richard Parker“.

    – In the spirit of *Lost add a group of strangers (“Others”) into the equation. See intergroup dynamics surrounding membership and identity explored in Sherif’s “Robbers Cave” experiment.

  8. mnb0 says

    Such is the beauty of literature – the reader can conclude what he/she wants.

    “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.”
    Like patriots, nationalists, supremacists and other chauvinists continue to think that western culture is superior. They are equally wrong – Tongan culture is.
    Unlike my compatriot I wasn’t disillusioned after finishing the book. Fiction never has determined my views on humanity.
    Fun fact: Bregman’s father was a christian minister, ie calvinist. And the core tenet of Dutch calvinism is that mankind is incurably evil. That explains “not for a second did I think to doubt Golding’s view of human nature” – Bregman was raised with such a view. It’s amusing that he now has gone to the other extreme – overoptimism.

  9. sarah00 says

    I find it interesting that everyone’s focusing on the book rather than the real life story. I read the article this morning, before PZ made his post, and it brought me close to tears. It’s such an incredible story – these kids were gone for so long, their families and friends had given them up for dead yet not only were they alive they were fit and healthy! I’d have loved to hear more about how they survived on the island as the strength and ingenuity needed to keep going with no end in sight must have been immense, and I suspect being friends already helped. But just knowing that in the toughest of times they managed to keep going while retaining their empathy, compassion and sense of humour gave me some much-needed hope.

  10. sparks says

    If it bleeds, it leads.

    Such is the nature of human attention. I suppose there may be some survival value in this, but I don’t see it myself.

  11. hemidactylus says

    There is a bit of irony in how these highly cooperative kids began their ill-fated excursion. They did something very antisocial to an outgroup member they despised by helping themselves to the fisherman’s boat.

    From the story:
    “But this wasn’t the end of the boys’ little adventure, because, when they arrived back in Nuku‘alofa police boarded Peter’s boat, arrested the boys and threw them in jail. Mr Taniela Uhila, whose sailing boat the boys had “borrowed” 15 months earlier, was still furious, and he’d decided to press charges.”

  12. Rob Grigjanis says

    Me @11:

    Doubt they spent much time in jail.

    If I’d read the whole Guardian article, I’d have known that!

  13. unclefrogy says

    I would also like to know how the real survivors experience on the island influenced their lives after they were rescued.
    I also took the Lord of The Flies as a description of conventional society and found the comment of the naval officer made ironically funny and rather ignorant which I think was the point of the novel.
    uncle frogy

  14. evodevo says

    My take is, this is how “primitive” man survived to become as numerous as cockroaches on the earth…lol…Humans survived BECAUSE of their empathy, and cooperation enhanced survival in small groups. The Tongans live in a society that reflects that original ethos to some extent, whereas the British public school system has for hundreds of years turned out narcissistic sociopaths like the Current Occupant. Works for large populations where nobody is related, and the xenophobic element of human behavior is encouraged; if that had gained the upper hand genetically in the founding population, I doubt whether we would have lasted long enough to originate the genus Homo…

  15. Walter Solomon says

    dorght @ #6

    Find “even one psychopath in the group”, elevate and reward them generously with money and adulation. Sounds like a concept for a reality TV series, think I’ll call it Survivor.

    I’d rather call it the American Electoral Process.

  16. hillaryrettig says

    Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in Dark Times makes a similar point. Among other things, she analyzes the news coverage post Hurricane Katrina which focused relentlessly on lootings and shootings, whereas there were relatively few such incidents and most people tried hard to help others. (Also, obviously, a racist component to a lot of the coverage.)

    If it leads, it bleeds, as others have pointed out. Also, simplistic, stereotypical violent narratives are probably easier to craft than ones that take a nuanced look at human nature.

    Also, as long as corporations control the media, they will favor narratives that support and sustain capitalistic fatalism. (Including the dissolution of natural human ties and community.)

    For those who are interested, Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons, which most of us probably learned as gospel in college, has been similarly debunked. See:

    Anyhow, I pre-ordered Bregman’s book.

  17. chrislawson says


    I don’t think PZ was being harsh to Golding. His point was more about how Golding’s book has been elevated to the highest tier of the Western canon (it is one of the most common books on school syllabi, a sign that Western educators almost everywhere think it is important for students to read it) while a real-life story that happened 10 years after the novel was published has been completely ignored until now.

    And while you’re absolutely right that Golding was criticising Ballantyne’s naive colonialism, it’s still true that the book argues (I think unintended by G) that the young survivors need their colonialist culture to behave decently. And Golding himself came to hate the book. Partly he was miffed his later, better novels were largely ignored, but I think it’s also true that he came to see that his takedown of Ballantyne was as problematic in its way as Ballantyne itself. He called it “crude”. Almost everyone who reads it comes away with the message that humans are basically evil when isolated from authority figures to keep them in line.

  18. says

    What, no comments noting the parallel between Golding’s book being more popular than the reality and Ayn Rand’s books being more popular than the reality? If Atlas Shrugged were true, you’d have the Koch brothers, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk all living self-sufficiently in some amazing virus-free settlement in the middle of nowhere while the rest of us cowered in fear of infection. Instead, as soon as the epidemic started, it turned out that the world really needs all those people who make minimum wage, but pretty much everything that every rich person does can be suspended indefinitely without harm.

  19. John Morales says

    Vicar, I don’t see any such parallel, nor do I think anyone imagines Ayn’s book was other than a fable.

    Instead, as soon as the epidemic started, it turned out that the world really needs all those people who make minimum wage, but pretty much everything that every rich person does can be suspended indefinitely without harm.

    Sure, but mostly “all those people who make minimum wage” really need to work, unlike the rich. The reason those jobs are minimum wage is that if someone doesn’t do it, someone else will. They’re fungible.

    (Or: they’re mostly not doing them out of virtue, but out of necessity)

  20. Paul K says

    As a kid, I saw the 1963 film version of ‘Lord of the Flies’ on an afternoon TV show (Mel’s Matinee!) when I was sick from school one day. It scared the hell out of me, and I thought it was ridiculous. Maybe that’s because at the time, I had seven brothers and one sister, living in a home with dysfunctional, abusive parents. We kids fought, but also were there to help each other in the chaos.

    Years later, I read the book, and still hated it. I didn’t get the subtext that others above have pointed out, about these being imperial elitist kids, and a reflection of the world they represented. The thing is, I don’t think that most people who read the book do, either, especially decades after it was written. They see it as a portrayal of humans as they are.

    My son had to read it a few years ago, in middle school. I was glad that he hated it, too. And there was no discussion of it as allegory, as far as I recall. They read it because they always had. I think the main reason they read it, and this came up, is because it has teens as its characters. My wife and I reached out to the teacher (she’s a librarian, and I’m on the school board), asking that they consider dropping it. We pointed out that there’s not a girl in sight in the book, so how much worse for them must this be?

    I think it’s just a terrible story to subject middle school kids to, especially if its history is not taught. ‘Yup, kids, get ready. This is what humans are.’ Even if you’re pessimistic about humanity as a whole, what’s the point of going on at all if you think this is appropriate guidance for kids? My son’s class even watched the terrible 1990 re-make of the film. Yuck.

  21. says

    This novel is often misread. It’s not appropriate for middle school, not because it’s too harsh for kiddies but because it will go over their heads and simply be treated as a parable of inherent evil.

    As somebody above said, the backdrop is critical–the plane was ‘shot down in flames’ at the start of the Big One. (it’s in the same vein as ‘On the Beach’.)

    The most striking characters in the novel are usually overlooked: Ralph and Jack are just products of their English Public School environment (transplanted to a Pacific colony, presumably). Piggy too is the universal outcast; none of them are especially interesting. In teaching the novel I always steered my students (NOT middle schoolers–seniors, usually) toward Simon and Roger. I think Golding develops those characters differently, and I think they show much greater insight by the writer.

  22. says

    @22 It probably gets included in reading lists because people assume (possibly correctly, as I’ve always steered clear of it) that it’s a promotion of the Social Darwinism so favored by conservatives and %1ers.

    If your keen on removing books from the lists, can you add “Catcher in the Rye” to your hit list? I read it once in high school and I still vividly remember reading it – in the same way Conan the Barbarian remembered his village being destroyed.

  23. says

    24 (a) RE: Catcher, who knew that turning a privileged, willfully ignorant delinquent who views all the consequences of his behavior as a personal insult and blames everyone else for his own failures into a cultural icon could have turned out so badly?

  24. Paul K says

    Thanks, Susan, for steering me clear of Catcher. I’ve never read it, but never wanted to, either. Folks I’ve known who praised it were not people I look to for reading advice. You confirm my suspicions.

  25. Rob Grigjanis says

    I read Lord of the Flies about age 11, and saw the movie a year or two later. I thought it a quite powerful reminder of how thin the veneer of “civilization” is. And I didn’t need a teacher to tell me that Ralph, Piggy and Simon were the better angels of our nature (except when the first two got caught up in the killing of Simon). I also remember my utter loathing for Jack and his cronies.

    Of course, that was many years ago. No idea how it would read to me now.

  26. lymie says

    God I hated that book, and we had to write essays about it. Does anyone know the name of the story with girls instead?

    Anthropologists know that a human group is cooperative when they find leg bones with healed breaks.

  27. chrislawson says

    Just saw a neat French-Canadian movie called Decline (original title Jusqu’au Declin, that is, “up until the decline”) about a survivalist training camp that descends into chaos after an accidental death. The reason for the collapse of trust, as the movie makes clear, is that a small number of the survivalists are antisocial wannabe warriors looking for reasons to go full Mad Max.

    I wouldn’t call it a great movie, mind you. But at least it had that nice plot-of-inevitability once the accident happens.

  28. daverytier says

    I imagine it could have gone badly if there’d been even one psychopath in the group

    Yep. That’s the problem. Not likely to be among 6 best friends who know each other since early childhood.
    Any group of a few dozen or more non-self-selected individuals ? There will most likely be a couple of psychopaths, narcissists, authoritarians, and it will go downhill pretty quickly.
    So, using those 6 boys as an counter-example just doesn’t work. It’s a different situation.

  29. publicola says

    As I learned when studying Game Theory in high school, a cooperative strategy is always the best choice. Unfortunately, the larger the group, the harder it is to maintain such a strategy; the more people you have, the more likely to include those who would try to game the system for their own gain.

  30. John Morales says


    As I learned when studying Game Theory in high school, a cooperative strategy is always the best choice.

    For the group as a whole, not for the individual.

    (That’s why tit-for-tat strategies exist)