AuthorHightower, Jim

Many of us have read William Golding's Lord of the Flies in high school-and it's still being taught. The 1954 novel depicts the gradual descent into barbaric darkness of a group of English schoolboys shipwrecked on a small, deserted island. It's portrayal of innate human depravity was hailed at the time for It's unblinking "realism." Only... it was total bullshit.

In his superb 2019 work, Humankind: A Hopeful History, Dutch historian Rutger Bregman documents that Golding had no knowledge of behavioral science and was hardly an impartial judge of children's propensities.

"I have always understood the Nazis," Golding once said, "because I am of that sort by nature." So he made up the story, and it wasn't about children's dark nature, but his own.

After learning about the man behind the tale, Bregman became curious about what would really happen if children were left alone on an island. He kept poking into everything from scientific studies to news reports, and-amazingly-finally unearthed an actual incident of shipwrecked children:

In 1965, six bored schoolboys from the Polynesian nation of Tonga-all between thirteen and sixteen years old-took a small fishing boat out on a lark, but they were caught in a sudden storm and blown far from home. Their boat's mast and rudder broke, and they drifted for days before washing up on a desolate rocky islet, where they were stranded for more than a year.

Fifty years later, the intrepid Bregman spent months tracing multiple dead ends before at last locating a few survivors. After traveling to Tonga to meet them and hear the true story, he learned that, far from devolving into barbarism, the inventive teenagers had set up a functioning democracy and communal economy.

They split chores into teams of two, built sleeping huts and a kitchen, tended a garden, stored rainwater, created a gymnasium, fashioned a badminton court. And whenever they started a fire, they took turns protecting it so it never died out.

One boy even constructed a rudimentary guitar to accompany the castaways' singing. Yes, they had occasional arguments, but the rule was that the quarrelers had to go to opposite ends of the island to cool down for a few hours before they were brought back to the group to apologize. "That's how we stayed friends," one former castaway told Bregman.

When rescued by a passing fishing crew after fifteen months on the island, the boys were extraordinarily healthy-physically, socially, and...

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