The idea that children are savages and would murder one another without the civilising hand of their elders is a convenient story we have told each other down the years. It justifies Victorian parenting, makes us feel morally superior to the next generation and excuses us of beastly acts committed in our youth on the grounds that we were just “following our nature”.
A textbook for this anti-child propaganda is Lord of the Flies, William Golding’s hugely influential horror novel featuring a group of English schoolboys marooned on a tropical island.
Just what would happen in real life if children had to start a society from scratch is not the sort of thing you can test with science – at least not ethically. But Rutger Bregman, historian and author of a new book titled Humankind, believes the evidence is encouraging. He has, admittedly, just one example but – unlike Piggy and his peers – Sione, Stephen, Kolo, David, Luke and Mano are real people.
The kids had set up a duty roster on landing, created a time-out rule to quell arguments, and started and ended each day with a prayer
As pupils in June 1965 at a Catholic boarding school in the Tongan capital, Nuku‘alofa, the six – oldest age 16 and youngest 13 – set out on an adventure. They “borrowed” a boat with a plan to escape to Fiji, 800km away, or maybe even New Zealand – three times as far – but the boat drifted for eight days in the Pacific and end up at the remote, uninhabited island of ‘Ata.
Bregman tracked down Peter Warner, the sea captain who first reached them 15 months after their disappearance, to describe the scene. 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”, Warner wrote in his memoirs.
The kids had set up a duty roster on landing, created a time-out rule to quell arguments, and started and ended each day with a prayer. "No blood. No war, no spectacle whatsoever," Bregman tells The Irish Times.
“This something that people who make reality TV found out 20 or 30 years ago. If you put people on an island, or in a golden cage, or in a villa somewhere remotely, whatever, and you just let them do what they want, nothing happens. They just drink tea, they have nice and reasonable conversations, they have a good time – so it’s terrible for TV. It’s terrible for ratings.
“So what you’ve gotta do is make sure they get drunk, you’ve gotta deceive them, you’ve gotta lie to them, you’ve gotta set them up against each other, and maybe something small happens and you can take that out of context.
“It’s a really hard job to make good reality television because what normally happens is really kind of boring.”
We can only speculate what the six boys on the Pacific island would have done if they had run out of food – but I would not draw any conclusions from it on the essence of human nature
To bolster the case that children are naturally good, Bregman cites research showing a sense of fairness and equity develops in children as young as three. Kids tend to share without instruction, repeated studies have found.
Just what is established by the Tonga Six case is debatable, however. On reading about Bregman's book, University College Cork philosopher Vittorio Bufacchi cited a less cheering example – that of three men who, when shipwrecked in 1884, decided to kill and eat their fourth crew member, a 17-year-old cabin boy.
"We can only speculate what the six boys on the island in the Pacific Ocean would have done if they had run out of food – but whatever it is, I would certainly not draw any conclusions from it in terms of the essence of human nature," says Bufacchi in an article on the academic forum The Conversation.
While acknowledging the limitation of his research, Bregman believes it is legitimate to accentuate the positive as part of a rebalancing exercise. Golding’s novel is portrayed as part of a tradition that carries on in hate media today – the gaslighting of people to make us to think the worst of each other.
“But what if it also works the other way around?” writes Bregman. “What if propaganda not only sows discord, but can also bring people back together?”
Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman is published by Bloomsbury