I was struck by an article by Rutger Brennan last week that I kept seeing commented on and recirculated. In it, Brennan challenges our assumptions about human nature through the lens of how we believe children would behave stranded on a desert island. He contrasts the well-known fictional story of Lord of the Flies, written by William Golding in 1951, with the lesser known reality of what happened when a group of boys was marooned in the South Pacific in the 1960s.
Golding depicts the descent of the boys into barbarism, revealing ‘the darkness of man’s heart.’ His novel has been a set text in British schools for years, studied in great detail by generations of us. I can remember the horror and disillusionment I felt reading it as a teenager, with teachers and study guides alike drawing parallels between the Nazi regime and other dark chapters of history. At the time, it seemed the only conclusion to draw was that this book offered an important lesson about human nature.
Brennan’s research into human nature caused him to want to question what happens in Golding’s novel and search for whether there might be any real-life examples of what would happen in reality. That was when he came across the story of the boys stranded on a rocky islet near Tonga. Given up for dead by their families, it wasn’t until 15 months later that they were discovered on their island, but their reality contrasts strongly what the captain found at the end of Golding’s novel. In the real life example, the boys had set up a small commune with a food garden, hollowed out tree trunks to store rainwater, created their own gymnasium with weights using what they could find on the island, and even constructed a makeshift badminton court. They had a permanent fire going, which they all played a role in maintaining.
It’s a very different picture from Golding’s and provides a stark reminder of how quickly we make assumptions, of the impact of fictional stories that are repeated over and over again so that we start to see them as truth, and our lack of curiosity to challenge so much of what we take for granted that is sorely lacking in evidence and substance. It’s also an important reminder that the books we study and the way we study them can restrict what we learn, unless we ensure we are challenging, questioning and looking for alternative perspectives.
When I was researching the all-pervasive nature of competition in schools, business, sport and our home lives, I was told repeatedly that ‘it’s simply human nature’, ‘that’s just how we are.’ Some made references to the animal kingdom, to the ‘dog eat dog’ that we live in, where the only option is to compete. But I wanted to dig deeper and see whether it really is the only and inevitable way of life. Even a quick glance at the work of ethologists and anthropologists led me to all sorts of examples and views that I had never encountered at school, university or since.
We have all seen pictures of lions eating their prey and of large fish gobbling up smaller ones, but this is really a small part of nature. Look up the term ‘mutualism’, and you’ll find beautiful examples of cooperative behaviour. Take the oxpecker birds, which land on rhinos or zebras and eat parasites that live on their skin, feeding themselves, and providing pest control for the larger animal. Or take baboons and gazelles which work together to sense danger, and chimpanzees which hunt cooperatively and share the spoils. When we learn exclusively about the cycle of life as a bloodthirsty business, it becomes a cycle we are quick to imitate, yet we overlook examples of behaviours in the animal kingdom which value relationships, show empathy, consolation and a sense of fairness. From chimpanzees to dolphins, there are animals which know how to repair conflict and reconcile differences through behaviours that would be superfluous if life were ruled by domination and competition.
Paleontologists have shown that there is no necessary relationship between natural selection and competitive struggle. Natural advantage comes less from struggle and more from better integration into the ecological situation, maintenance of a balance of nature, more efficient utilization of available food, better care of the young, elimination of intragroup discord and the exploitation of environmental possibilities that are not the objects of competition or are less effectively exploited by others.
If success in the natural world is defined by leaving offspring that survive, then there are as many ‘cooperative’ strategies, such as symbiosis and mutualism, as there are ‘competitive’ strategies, such as ‘survival of the fittest’, the one we usually hear most about and which fits neatly into our cultural ‘win-at-all-costs’ obsession. We even seem to have twisted what Darwin meant when he used the term ‘struggle for existence’ which we interpret to justify life as a win-lose battle, when in fact he himself explained that he was using the term in a ‘large and metaphorical sense, including dependence of one being upon another’ (The Origin of the Species).
We shouldn’t overlook the findings of multiple anthropologists that it’s cooperation, rather than brain size, the use of tools, or aggression, which defined the first humans. What sets us apart is our ability to cooperate in large numbers, communicate through sophisticated language and connect through expressing ideas and stories. As our means of communicating and thinking continually develop, so we have the potential to be continually developing our means of connecting and collaborating alongside (- unless we create structures and experiences that prevent that.)
That’s good news, considering that none of our complex social, economic or environmental challenges can be solved alone. It’s also good news when we think about how we might together create better ways to cope with the global pandemic that we are currently facing. But it’s not good news if we lose the opportunity to develop this side of ourselves, if we pretend that that’s not how we operate, and if we stay living in a fictional world, that holds us back from exploring what might be possible for us all. So let’s ditch the assumptions, challenge the fiction, and start to create a better collaborative reality.