Peter Warner in 1968 with the real-life ‘Lord of The Flies’ boys
Rutger Bregman’s brilliant new book Humankind is an exposé on centuries of sociological thought which has put ‘veneer theory’ at the centre of explaining how we live in society, the ‘veneer’ being the carapace of civilization, without which we become our ‘true’ selves: anarchic, selfish, self-protecting savages. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1697) is known as the main proponent of this view. In Leviathan he wrote that without civilization - and more specifically authoritarian rule of some kind (it was written during the reign of Charles I after all) - there would be “no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death.” The life of man, he continued, would become “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. Bregman sets this against the directly opposing view in which man is good by nature and that civilization is, in actuality, our downfall. Its champion, Swiss-French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau 1712-78, argued that if we could only return to our former life as hunter-gatherers, without the trappings of property and government, we could reclaim a communal way of life where our innate goodness as human beings could flourish.
Literature is full of ‘veneer theory’. One book which has it as its central theme is William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. A group of English public schoolboys are marooned on a desert island and, without teachers or parents to control them, quickly descend into a nightmare of mayhem and death. Bregman tried to find a real-life example of this scenario to see if veneer theory can indeed predict how we behave in such situations. He found it in an obscure news story from 1965 about a group of boys who were marooned on Ata, a tiny island 800 miles from their home in Tonga in the South Pacific. The boys, aged between 13 and 16, had “borrowed” a 24ft longboat for a night of illicit fishing and fallen asleep. A squall blew up, their anchor line broke and they were carried out to the open sea. They drifted for eight days, surviving on raw fish and sharing a single bottle of drinking water. Eventually they sighted the twin 1,000ft peaks of Ata and scrambled ashore. They quickly established a kitchen garden, they hollowed out tree trunks to store rainwater, created a makeshift gymnasium, badminton court, farmed wild chickens, started a fire (yes, by rubbing two sticks together) and kept a permanent watch over it. They managed to heal one boy’s badly broken leg with an improvised splint and any quarrels were solved by sending the squabbling parties to opposite ends of the island until they had cooled off. In short, they did not descend into murder and chaos but were instead kind to one another, working together to ensure the survival of the whole group.
They were found by Australian sailor Peter Warner (who has just died aged 90 in a boating accident). Coming in close after spotting the fire he saw one of the boys swimming out to him through the surf shouting “We are six castaways, and we estimate that we have been here for 15 months!” Warner did not believe their tale but after making radio contact with Nuku’alofa, the Tongan capital, an emotional and tearful radio operator corroborated their story. “You found them!” came the crackling reply, “these boys have been given up for dead. Funerals have been held. If it’s them, this is a miracle.”
It is not surprising that we all too easily subscribe to veneer theory. Here in the West our Abrahamic religions have at their heart the idea that we are all essentially bad, in need of rescue and salvation from a higher power. Many Eastern religions, by contrast, have at their core the belief that we are essentially good and that when we err (as they do just as much) we are straying from our god-like nature.
Of course, humans are capable of great cruelty, murder, even genocide, but it is not hard-wired into us. The vast majority of people, for the vast majority of the time, are trying to get along with one another, striving to be kind, helpful and supportive of their fellow beings. Bregman’s Humankind has many examples of this behaviour and disproves one study after another that has tried to back up the Hobbesian notion that our natural tendency is towards selfishness and bigotry. It is very heart-warming to know this in the face of a constant media barrage that tries to convince us the opposite is true. According to Bregman the alternative evidence is there in abundance, it just doesn’t make for exciting news stories.