Lord of the Flies was wrong about human nature

Most people have read this famous 1954 book by William Golding or have seen at least one of the 1963, 1973, or 1990 films based on it or have read about it. It is widely used as a text in US high schools. It tells a chilling story about how a group of British schoolboys marooned on a uninhabited island slowly degenerate into monsters, to the extent of torturing and killing. It is of course fiction but has been taken as a cautionary tale about the darkness of human nature and what we can become without the constraints of society, that often leads to an authoritarian view of what society needs to do to keep these terrible human impulses in check.

But it appears that what that story reveals is not about human nature but of Golding’s view of human nature.

Economist Rutger Bregman had also read the book as a young man and as a result had a cynical view of human nature too but on finding out that Golding had a dark view of life, wondered if that might have colored his perceptions. Bregman set to find if anything close to what happened in the book did so in real life and after much searching stumbled across a case that he describes in his book Humankind and in this article about six boys who in 1965 were marooned for 15 months on an island called ‘Ata in the Pacific near Tonga.. That story was very different. The boys, who attended a boarding school in Tonga and were bored and decided to escape from their school by stealing a boat and sailing away to Fiji that was 500 miles away or even further to New Zealand. It was an insane plan but those boys were, like adolescent boys everywhere, idiots and thought they could do it. They got shipwrecked in a violent storm but luckily managed to get to this island. But unlike Golding’s boys, these six worked together cooperatively and created a viable society before being discovered by an Australian Peter Warner who had been sailing by and noticed something odd.

Peering through his binoculars, [Warner] saw burned patches on the green cliffs. “In the tropics it’s unusual for fires to start spontaneously,” he told us, a half century later. Then he saw a boy. Naked. Hair down to his shoulders. This wild creature leaped from the cliffside and plunged into the water. Suddenly more boys followed, screaming at the top of their lungs. It didn’t take long for the first boy to reach the boat. “My name is Stephen,” he cried in perfect English. “There are six of us and we reckon we’ve been here 15 months.”

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 were finally rescued on Sunday 11 September 1966. The local physician later expressed astonishment at their muscled physiques and Stephen’s perfectly healed leg.

It is a fascinating story that you have to read for yourself. Incidentally one of the six boys that Bregman managed to speak to is called Mano and he gave an interview too.

We should not rely too much on anecdotes to infer deep truths about human nature but surely real life stories should have greater weight than fictional fantasies. I am not saying that Golding’s book should not be used as a text but I think teachers should also tell their students about this actual event so that they do not get an entirely warped view of human nature.

Some readers may recall that I have written about Bregman before. One occasion was at Davos where he called out the plutocrats there for their hypocrisy in spouting noble sentiments while avoiding paying their fair share of taxes. The other occasion was where he was kicked out of an interview by Tucker Carlson during one of Carlson’s nightly White Supremacist Hour of Power of Fox News when he said that Carlson is essentially a mouthpiece for the oligarchy, so you know that he is on the right side of history. Bregman wrote about the incident later.


  1. Dunc says

    He may have been wrong about human nature in general, but I suspect he was all too right about the nature of the people produced by the British public school system…

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    Lord of the Flies was based on (non-denominational) Christianism -- with such a counterfactual foundation in human psychology, how could it help but be wrong?

  3. Rob Grigjanis says

    I think teachers should also tell their students about this actual event so that they do not get an entirely warped view of human nature.

    The Tongan lads were friends off on a lark. The boys in the novel were a much larger group of differing ages, mostly strangers to each other, in a time of war. Presumably, they have already seen death and destruction (plane crash, the crew and possibly other students dead). Hardly comparable.

    I read the book at an age close to that of the older boys in the story, and I saw nothing warped about it. Nor, I think, did it shape my views on human nature. Angels and demons in all of us…

  4. jrkrideau says

    Minor quibble Mano. I think Bregman is a journalist/historian not an economist.

    I vaguely remember reading Lord of the Flies a few years ago (cough, cough) when i was a teenager but never took it all that seriously. Animal farm was far more believable.

  5. says

    Isn’t the argument that aristocracies are natural human social organizations? That doesn’t seem to hold up, since there are also other ways of organizing. Natural corporate capitalism, anyone? Corporate tribalism?

    There was that terribly badscience experiment done on kids in the 70’s -- when the kids evolved into tribal conflict. Reporting on that experiment generally deletes the involvement of the researchers in priming the conflict. Typical bogus social science, in other words -- and unethical to boot. I bet it would be easy to run the same experiment and maneuver the kids into forming altruistic groups. Pop psychology does a lot of damage when it is accepted as given in popular culture.

  6. Rob Grigjanis says

    Marcus @5:

    I bet it would be easy to run the same experiment and maneuver the kids into forming altruistic groups.

    Probably, yes.

    Something I’ve heard a lot about Lord of the Flies is that it presents a fundamentally dark view of human nature. I think it’s much more multifaceted. If it’s fundamentally dark, why are Ralph and Piggy even there? Within the story, there is nothing inevitable or built-in about Jack winning, but sometimes darkness does win. Who could possibly disagree with that these days?

  7. says

    @Rob Grigjanis: I agree. I read the book as a story about the importance of picking non-sociopathic leaders. Sociopaths are able to be so appealing because they ignore reality; it gives them a natural advantage.

  8. Rob Grigjanis says

    Marcus @7: I remember thinking, as a lad, that Ralph should just kill Jack. Things seemed so much simpler then…

  9. says

    Nietzsche nailed that. The sociopaths depend on non-sociopaths’ reluctance to use sociopathic methods. Otherwise civilization is a game of “king of the hill” with clubs and spears.

  10. mnb0 says

    Rutger Bregman is a historian indeed who started his career as a journalist at


    I’ve read parts of his latest book Humankind : a new history of human nature (De meeste mensen deugen) and thought it a total bore. Then again already about 40 years ago I realized that Lord of the Flies is a very good book, but tells us nothing about human nature. Humanoids have been roaming the Earth for 100 000s years. Had they been like Goulding’s schoolbook they would have gone extinct a long time ago.
    Homo Sapiens has become so successfull (in evolutionary terms) exactly because he/she is both competitive and cooperative.

  11. Rob Grigjanis says

    mnb0 @10:

    Had they been like Goulding’s [it’s Golding] schoolbook they would have gone extinct a long time ago.

    Yes, but humanoids were roaming in groups led by adults. I suggest you look at some studies on what happens when groups of adolescent males of various species are left to their own devices, unsupervised. Dolphins and elephants, in particular. It’s not pretty.

  12. chigau (違う) says

    I read the book when I was about the same age as the boys.
    It fueled my growing suspicion that boys are really stupid.

  13. bmiller says

    Rob: Of course, there seem to be a lot of “adults” who are mentally eternally 13 years old? I challenge you to assign adulthood to the “Shaman” from June 6…or his Glorious Leader for that matter. 🙂

  14. Rob Grigjanis says

    bmiller @13: Hunter-gatherer groups led by such ‘adults’ wouldn’t survive for very long. Groups with such people in them wouldn’t tolerate them for very long.

  15. Matthew Currie says

    Although I realize Lord of the Flies was written as a kind of counter-argument to The Coral Island and other adventure stories, and that in many cases it misrepresents human nature, I always read in it also a commentary on the corrupting influence of the society the kids come from. While we may question just how intentional all the elements of Golding’s story are, I think it’s no accident that this is a conspicuously British, Anglican, group, and that Jack comes into it with hierarchical authority granted before the event. He is, in his own way, acting out not only the vagaries of human nature, but of the social system he comes from, except in a more dramatic and down-to-earth way.

  16. friedfish2718 says

    Mr Singham, you are a bit late on the story of the Tongan kids.
    At least another blogger at freethoughtblogs.com touched on the story.
    A relevant point omitted purposefully by the blogger: the kids started everyday by a prayer session. The HORROR!!! Prayers to the non-existent god??? OH NOOO!!!
    At least you mentioned -- in passing -- that prayer (christian prayer, not pagan prayer) played a role; of course you think guitar playing is more important than prayer.
    The island of Ata was previously inhabited (why did the island become deserted?), leaving behind chickens and banana trees. Thus the kids were fortunately marooned on Ata.
    The various acitivities are related to european culture (weights, badmington court), the prayer sessions are related to european culture (christianity).
    Slavery and cannibalism were common in precolonial south pacific. The “Lord of the Flies” scenario is probable in precolonial south pacific.
    Humanity has good and evil attributes. Cultures are different, not equivalent. Some cultures do a better job nurturing/developing the good attributes.
    In the 1800’s europeans tried to colonize un-inhabitated south-pacific islands; some of these settlements went extinct. Did the “Lord of the Flies” scenario occurred in these extinctions? Maybe. Maybe not.
    Proper education presents tales of good along with tales of evil.

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